From the Field

Where They Know Your Name: How Christian Businesses Can Create a “Third Place”

From the Field

Where They Know Your Name: How Christian Businesses Can Create a “Third Place”

By December 7, 2015November 9th, 2022No Comments

Any Business for Transformation enterprise can and should, in theory, create unique opportunities for mission and for holistic ministry. In many B4T efforts, for example, opportunities exist for relational ministry to employees and coworkers, and intentionally ethical and sustainable Christian business models can work enormous good in their communities economically.

In South Asia, one such business’ primary purpose is to provide jobs to women trapped in the sex trade and bring them holistic freedom: physically, spiritually, and financially. We call it the Freedom Bakery. And so far, with God’s grace, the cafe has been able to give jobs, hope, dignity, and opportunity to seven women coming out of one of the worst red-light districts in Asia.

And in the course of our journey, some collateral blessings have emerged as well.

Beyond our expectations and intentions, the Freedom Bakery has become a hub for the community to gather over good coffee and stimulating conversations, a refuge for local charity workers and ex-pats and a place where the love of Jesus can be expressed.

One of the unique aspects of running a cafe or coffee shop as a Business for Transformation, or Business as Mission, enterprise is that it can create a “Third Place” –a space geared towards promoting community, connection, creativity, and conversation. The term “Third Place” (or “third space”) was coined by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg, who writes, “Third places are informal gathering places in which people gather between home and work.” (Home is the first place, work is the second).

Oldenburg goes on to argue that these “third places” are central to developing a vibrant community. They can function as a home away from home, a place where the atmosphere is relaxed, and a place that is not just a store or a restaurant, but a space that has a heart and a character all its own.

I am sure that you can think of your own third places: that neighborhood coffee shop where you find yourself getting lost in conversations that just don’t seem to happen anywhere else, that used bookstore where you bond over some classic, frayed book with a total stranger.

For me, it was an old neighborhood pub tucked away in the basement of a nearly unmarked building at the foot of Lookout Mountain. When I lived in Chattanooga, TN, I would grab a stool there and enjoy hearing people talk about how their week had gone, what books they were reading, and God and music and life and struggles and dreams.

This place brewed all their own beer in the back, and the barroom was a mangle of beat-up tables and chairs, chalkboards listing the latest experiments on tap, a dartboard, and piano at one end of the room. It was the kind of place where the words and laughter flowed faster than the drinks and everybody knew your name. It was a third space.

Oldenberg goes on to write:

In cities blessed with their own characteristic form of these Great Good Places, the stranger feels at home—nay, is at home—whereas in cities without them, even the native does not feel at home. Where urban growth proceeds with no indigenous version of a public gathering place proliferated along the way and integral in the lives of the people, the promise of the city is denied.

Without such places, the urban area fails to nourish the kinds of relationships and the diversity of human contact that are the essence of the city. Deprived of these settings, people remain lonely within their crowds.

As Christians, we would hope that our primary Third Space is church. But in some cultures dominated by other religions, such as South Asia, a lot of good can come out of less threatening third spaces as well–like that bar in Chattanooga, or like the Freedom Bakery.

Last week, a well-to-do gentleman sat in the café for a number of hours, working his way contentedly through cappuccinos and cinnamon rolls and salad, thumbing through a novel, and chatting with other customers. At one point he came up to me and Tim*, our executive director, to “give some feedback.”

“This is the kind of place the city needs,” he said. “I’ve been trying to explain this to other cafe owners for years, but no one gets it. They fill the walls with flat-screen TVs blasting music videos. They make places where you can’t relax. But this is a place where people can come together and sit and talk and enjoy each other.”

The Freedom Bakery is now a Third Place that nourishes community, relationship, and human contact in a place fraught with alienation and division.

Part of this happens through intentional engagement and crafting an environment geared towards connection–in the middle of a stressful, chaotic, crowded city where it can be so easy for an individual to become lost in the crowd, there is a place where people can come to rest, to relax, to know and be known, and to connect in conversation with other individuals.

In an urban wasteland where searching for beauty is a day-to-day trial, we can provide a space for music, art, and for poetry. There’s something very biblical, very right, about that.

There is something beautiful about people sharing a meal together. There is a deep peace in the calm of a good cup of coffee. There is a bit more than usual of the “now” in our experience of the “now but not yet” Kingdom of God, the Kingdom that is surely coming and is here, but not yet in full.

We experience a taste of the Kingdom now in a place that aims to reconnect people—recreating broken bonds of community, challenging broken cultures with soft-spoken truth, extending the hand of hospitality, and celebrating the joys of art and creation that points back to the Creator.

And if we Christians are to craft ourselves to reflect the image of Christ, perhaps we also are to craft our coffee shops to reflect the image of the Kingdom—hoping that those with whom we share a cup of coffee and a smile and a few words will catch a glimpse of that reflection.




If you want to combine your business skills and your heart for missions, we want to talk to you! Learn about Business-for-Transformation where you can turn your business idea into a vetted business plan.

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This individual is a missionary, pastor, or ministry leader who has chosen to keep their identity anonymous in order to protect their own safety and the safety of those they serve. At Serge, we have many workers serving in closed-access countries around the world and we prioritize this security, which is essential for the success of their mission.