On the second Saturday of each month, the South Acton Congregational Church opens its doors to the community so people can listen to a concert, watch a magician, or hear stories from a horse whisperer.
The new Second Saturdays entertainment and educational series is not about religion or drawing new people into the congregation, said the Rev. Katrina Wuensch, the church’s pastor. Instead, it’s about using the building on School Street as a “third place’’ outside of work and home where people can get together in a social setting.
“These are not religious programs and we’re not trying to recruit people,’’ Wuensch said. “It’s part of our mission to help people form connections. It’s to provide face-to-face interaction. For me, human, face-to-face interaction is sacred.’’
In the sprawling suburbs, places to gather can often be hard to find, said Wuensch, who lives in Harvard.
“Where can you go to sit in the evening? Aside from a few bars, I don’t know where that’s happening,’’ she said. “It feels like there is a lack of places for that connection.’’
The next event will be held at 7 p.m. March 8 and will feature Ainslie Sheridan, a lifelong horsewoman, animal photographer, and author. Sheridan will share stories about the horses she has trained and rehabilitated through the use of “natural horsemanship,” a way of working with horses popularized in the movie “The Horse Whisperer.’’ The admission cost is $9, $16 per family, with a portion of the proceeds going toward a mule and donkey rescue organization in New Hampshire.
The church started the new series in November after a member came across an article about the role churches can play in being a third place, a term popularized by Florida author and sociologist Ray Oldenburg in his 1989 book, “The Great Good Place.’’
Oldenburg believes that people need a third place to thrive outside family and their work lives. He cites coffee shops, hair salons, and bookstores as examples of third places in a community.
“The first place is the home and second place is work and we’re really restricted in how we can behave,’’ Oldenburg said in a telephone interview. “We have roles to play in both places. To develop as a human being, you have to develop vertically, people above you and below you.’’
Oldenburg said his book was prompted by the reaction of a friend from Norway who was taken aback by life in a typical American subdivision.
“My friend said, ‘You have to get into a car for everything,’ and it’s true,’’ Oldenburg said. “I looked down the empty streets and thought, ‘What is this?’ I just couldn’t believe it.’’
Oldenburg said since he wrote the book nearly 25 years ago, many churches, libraries, and YMCAs have stepped up to serve as third places around the nation. Some businesses, such as Starbucks, have even promoted themselves as third places.
Oldenburg said the need for a community gathering place continues to be important, especially today as people rely on technology to stay connected.
“Some say you can have a virtual third place, but virtual is something like another thing,’’ he said. “Sitting at a computer in a darkened room is not being with the guys and girls face to face.’’
But finding time and a place for that face-to-face contact can be difficult, especially in the suburbs, said George Clark, a member of the church who first suggested the idea of its serving as a third place.
“I think there are a lot of ways to feel alienated in a suburban community,’’ said Clark, who lives in Stow. “Maybe you’re working hard for the kids so they can have these great experiences, and then you start to feel alienated because you have a long commute and no way to meet people except at school. Or maybe you came from another town, or are older or a soldier coming home from Afghanistan. Everyone kind of struggles with that.’’
The idea gained traction among church members who brainstormed ways they could fill that void at a time when families are spread thin between work and school commitments.
Member Gary Lacroix, who lives in Littleton, said the events have been family-friendly with a mix of church members and nonmembers.
Lacroix said the biggest challenge is getting the word out and letting the community know about the events.
In April, the church will host a lecture on Revolutionary War soldiers from Lincoln, and in May, there will be a Mother’s Day Story Slam where the audience will be able to share an experience about their mom or one they’ve had as a mom.
After each event, participants are encouraged to linger and chat over refreshments, Wuensch said.
“This idea of a third place is a little over 20 years old, but my own personal feeling is as we get busier and more fragmented and connected electronically, there is a lack of true connection,’’ she said. “Posting on Facebook doesn’t cut it. We need to be together.’’