I pastor a church in a town that doesn’t have a Starbucks. If you’re looking for a snack or coffee, you could stop at our family-owned bakery, but one of the locals may actually try to strike up a conversation. It may cause anxiety if you’re used to being just a name on a cup. But this aversion to being known reveals the need and promise of real places—whether local bakeries or the local church.
Starbucks didn’t set out to provide an anonymous experience. Its “third place” philosophy sought to create the go-to place away from home or work “where everyone is welcome [to] gather, as a community, to share great coffee and deepen human connection.” Such third places have existed for generations in local cafés, hair salons, and community centers.
The only way for Starbucks to expand the concept to its 30,000 stores across the world was to emphasize a consistent and repeatable atmosphere and quality. Whether you’re in London or Singapore or Dallas, you’ll find the same emerald sheen, the same seasonal aromas, the same customer experience. But are these carbon-copy third places able to deepen human connection?
Retailers like Starbucks have tapped into a deeper societal shift. We’ve grown to love non-places—airports, shopping malls, and chain restaurants that often lack true human connection and have no unique history, no quirky design, no familiar faces. We are users of these places, autonomous and separate from them. We can step in and out without anyone noticing. The digital world has taken this to an extreme with virtual non-places like social media and gaming networks, where we can live a kind of disembodied existence.
Radical Individualist’s Safe Space
Our attraction to non-places comes from a cultural identity crisis. We’ve been taught to look within ourselves for meaning, to define our own reality. Non-places are the best habitat for this kind of self-expression because they exert minimal social or moral force on our identity. By contrast, real places impose history, values, and obligations that shape our identity and behavior. So we’ve learned to avoid real places because they violate our radical individualism.
We’ve grown to love non-places—airports, shopping malls, and chain restaurants that lack true human connection.
We are also attracted to non-places because of the pain of past relational sin. So many of us have been hurt by relationships, experienced strife within our family, or been burned by a church. Non-places allow us to avoid future emotional risk by attempting to control our social environment. The irony is that the non-places to which we flee only alienate us further from the relationships and institutions that are so crucial to forming our identity and giving us meaning and fulfillment.
The Church as Non-Place
This choice between place and non-place confronts us in our approach to the local church. The same forces that attract us to chain retailers give us comfort in a church setting where we can be just another smiling face with no obligations. And it’s tempting for churches to play to this consumer demand, providing Christian non-places that are less like a family meal and more like a Starbucks.
The same forces that attract us to chain retailers give us comfort in a church setting where we can be just another smiling face with no obligations.
For decades, many churches have catered to individualism, enabling us to be users with minimal relational investment. The severity of this sickness was further exposed when COVID-19 forced us into our homes and onto our screens. Suddenly, for many of us, our true attitude toward church was revealed: missing a Sunday was no worse than missing an episode of our favorite show. We could tune in on our own terms, or tune out altogether. Indeed, once online “church” became an option, one-third of practicing Christians stopped participating altogether.
The Church as Place
As we emerge from COVID-19, we must be reminded of the beauty of belonging to a real place in the church, the bride of Christ, where the manifold wisdom of God is embodied in unique ways through unique people in unique contexts (Eph. 3:10).
I pastor a small church that I would call an old-fashioned place. We’ve embraced the constraints and demands of living in God’s household together (Eph. 2:19). There is family history, quirky people, unique traditions, and often inconvenient obligations. But there is richness and depth. We really know and care about each other. You can feel it when you walk in the room on a Sunday morning.
Find a church where you can press into the richness and inconvenience of real relationships. We must not settle for a Starbucks experience in church.
If you’ve bought into the individualist trap or if you have deep relational wounds, I want to invite you to belong to a real place. Find a church where you can press into the richness and inconvenience of real relationships. Yes, being known by real people is hard. But we must not settle for a Starbucks experience in church.
As we step out of the non-places of our world and join a family of believers, embracing all the joys and challenges along the way, the local church can be a real place we encounter the living Christ (Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12; Eph. 1:23; Col. 1:18). We are not autonomous individuals, to the praise of his glorious grace.
The Gospel Coalition