The House Church: A “Third Place”?

Communication Overload

Hall distinguishes between high and low context communication.  He writes,

A high-context (HC) communication or message is one in which most of the information is either in the physical context or internalized in the person, while very little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message.  A low-context (LC) communication is just the opposite; i.e., the mass of the information is vested in the explicit code.  (91; cf. 101)

Hall (Ibid.) admits no culture exists exclusively at one end of the scale but some cultures tend to be higher and others tend to be lower on the scale.  Americans are at the low end of the scale, says Hall, but are considerably above the German-Swiss in the amount of contexting needed in everyday life.[1]

High context communications act as a unifying, cohesive force, are long-lived and slow to change because they are rooted in the past (Ibid. 93, 101).  Low context communications do not unify but can be changed easily and rapidly.  When a society becomes weighted towards low context communication it finds itself more unstable and obsolescent.  The rapid rate of change may become impossible to handle and the result is information overload.  Hall writes,

As things become more complex, as they inevitably must with fast-evolving, low-context systems, it eventually becomes necessary to turn life and institutions around and move toward the greater stability of the high-context part of the scale as a way of dealing with information overload. (Ibid. 103)

Hall’s assertion suggests that as low context communication societies, such as Canada and the United States, experience information overload, many of their citizens might seek out institutions and organizations that provide stability, such as, high context communication churches.[2]

The Need for a Third Place

Oldenburg argues people of most cultures have a need for third places (i.e. informal meeting places, such as cafes, coffee shops, community centers, beauty parlors, general stores, bars) in society.   According to Oldenburg (Ibid. 22-42) third places satisfy a variety of human needs.  Third places:

1.  Provide a neutral environment where people can meet to converse and reduce their guests to a condition of social equality.

2.  Provide an environment where people can go at any time with the assurance acquaintances will be there.

3.  Provide an environment conducive to conversation which is a major vehicle for the display and appreciation of human personality and individuality.

4.  Stand ready to serve people’s needs for sociability and relaxation in the intervals before, between, and after their mandatory appearances elsewhere.

5.  Provide an environment determined most of all by its clientele and is marked by a playful mood, which contrasts with their more serious involvement in other spheres.  The activity that goes on in third places is largely unplanned, unscheduled, unorganized, and unstructured.

6.  Provide a setting remarkably similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends.

Using a scheme developed by David Seamon for private residences, Oldenburg (38-41) applies it to third places.  Such as a home, a third place:

a. Roots people.  It provides a physical center around which people organize their comings and goings.

b. Is appropriated by people; that is, they acquire a sense of possession and control over a setting that need not entail actual ownership.  They feel like a part of the group that makes the place what it is.

c. Regenerates or restores people.

d. Creates a feeling of being at ease or the “freedom to be.”

e. Conveys warmth.  Warmth emerges out of friendliness, support, and mutual concern.  It radiates from the combination of cheerfulness and companionship.  This warmth is intimately connected to the warmth of a room or other space.  If the room communicates “coldness,” the people will more likely reflect that “coldness” in their interrelationships.

Oldenburg laments that urban developers no longer plan neighborhoods with third places in mind.  The modern retail establishments, restaurants, and public office buildings are hostile to the loitering and lounging that are a part of informal public life.  Oldenburg observes that modern American cities are deluged with nonplaces (Ibid. 205).  He writes,

In real places the human being is a person. He or she is an individual, unique and possessing a character.  In nonplaces, the individuality disappears.  In nonplaces, character is irrelevant and one is only the customer or shopper, client or patient, a body to be seated, an address to be billed, a car to be parked.  In nonplaces one cannot be an individual or become one, for one’s individuality is not only irrelevant, it also gets in the way.  Toby’s Diner was a place.  The Wonder Whopper, which stands there now, is a nonplace. (Ibid. 205)[3]

Bibby (1987:209, 266) observes that in this society of nonplaces the foremost source of enjoyment for Canadians is relational — family and friendships.  Some find those relationships in their home, at the coffee shop, tavern and so on.  One wonders if the house church might not serve the function of a third place for some Canadians who are searching for meaningful relationships.

Note:  On most Mondays, I am posting portions of my doctoral dissertation which I wrote in 1995 and 1996.  Much of the material is still relevant for the missio Dei today.  The focus of my dissertation was the house church and its relevance for starting churches in the Greater Toronto Area.  The subject of the house church is presented from a theological, exegetical, historical, missiological and social science perspective.  Unfortunately, I am not able to provide complete footnotes which means you will need to do a little work to hunt down the sources.  Of course, if you contact me, I can provide you with the information.


[1]China is on the high context end of the scale.  Hall (91) notes the Chinese language is rooted in Chinese context.  In other words, to be literate in Chinese one must know Chinese history because the 214 radicals are rooted in Chinese history and to be spoken properly the person must know the four tonal sounds.

[2]Hall (101) claims church architecture (one might add the liturgy as well) is an example of high context communication.  It was “firmly rooted in the past and was the material focus for preserving religious beliefs and ideas.” (Ibid. 101)  Hall wonders if it is possible to develop strategies for balancing two apparently contradictory needs: the need to adapt and change (by moving in the low context direction) and the need for stability (high context).  Hall states “history is replete with examples of nations and institutions that failed to adapt by holding on to high-context modes too long.”  (Ibid. 101)

[3]Oldenburg writes,

The modern urban environment accommodates people as players of unifunctional roles.  It reduces people to clients, customers, workers, and commuters, allowing them little opportunity to be human beings.  It constricts and constrains. (207)

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