I could feel the spirit in the place when I walked in. It was present in a sense of welcome, anticipation, and an undercurrent of enthusiasm. It was a feeling not all that common in mainline American churches before the Sunday service. Usually, there's an air of polite and dutiful solemnity, as if people dressed up for a wedding or funeral have gathered to endure a spiritual version of a minor dental procedure. They believe, or hope, that they will be better off for having done it.

But on this Sunday at the Arlington Street Church in downtown Boston, the buzz of quiet, eager conversation and greetings seemed to promise a livelier experience. My impression seemed to jibe with what the minister, the Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie, told me later: "It's a very caring congregation; when you come in you get hit with a love wave."

A smiling, attractive young woman with highlighted blond hair, Ms. Harvie came to the pulpit to welcome people informally and speak to them of her vision for what the church might be at its best. She had come across the work of Ray Oldenburg, a sociologist known as "the Einstein of place," who coined the term "the third place." She explained that in his theory, the first place is home. The second place is work. And the third place, where your community thrives, is called "the great good place."

Oldenburg wasn't primarily thinking of churches, as one can see from the title of his book: "The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community." But why couldn't a church be the "great good place" in the America of the new millennium? Particularly in light of Oldenburg's description of this third place as "a radically different kind of setting from a home," but one that is "remarkably similar to a home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends."

The kind of comfort and support we find at home is created by the attitude and actions of the mother and/or father, the "head of the household," and I think the same is true of many institutions and groups. Just as the character of a football team is shaped by the coach, so the spirit of a church is, in large part, a reflection of the minister.

Kim Harvie has the gift of preaching, convincing you through her enthusiasm that you are personally welcome and through her eloquence that her message is worth your attention. Like most churches of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Arlington Street is humanist rather than Christian in orientation. Ms. Harvie didn't mention God or Jesus in her sermon, yet I felt in her message a sense of what I would describe as "the Holy Spirit," a feeling of being touched in my heart as well as my mind, of being connected to the larger dimension of life beyond the ego.

A friend who attends her church told me how Ms. Harvie once put the spirit of her message into action in a Sunday sermon. She asked those who had more money than they needed for themselves to put a larger donation in the collection plate that day; she then invited those who were genuinely in need to take something out of the collection plate as it passed by. My friend put in more than she usually did and noticed that a woman sitting next to her who seemed in need took a $20 bill from the plate as it was passed down the pew. The following week, Harvie announced that the previous week's collection was the largest the church had received during her ministry. I would guess that the people who gave extra that day got more in return than those who took from the plate, and that both went away with the sense of being part of a true community, a home away from home; a great good place.

Harvie said in the sermon that I heard, "There is a Spanish word, querencia, that translates, roughly, as 'heart's home.' The Hopi have a similar word--tuwanasaaapi. Literally, it means "center of the universe." But it is used to describe what the Shakers called our 'place just right. . .the valley of love and delight'--the third place. Here in Boston, I call our third place Arlington Street Church, a gathering place away from home and away from work where we come to meet friends, mingle with strangers, grow our souls, and make our special gifts to the world."

Like most thriving contemporary churches, Arlington Street offers a full array of services and opportunities to serve, from social outreach to pastoral counseling and choir practice. But I think what makes it special is the minister. Ms. Harvie makes herself even more available than most senior ministers, holding a weekly tea open to all for informal conversation, teaching classes that explore spiritual disciplines, leading a weekly Zen meditation session, all in addition to the customary ministerial duties of presiding at weddings and funerals, visiting the sick, and meeting the expectations of parishioners who share the widespread assumption that clergy (unlike psychiatrists and doctors) have a professional obligation to be on call 24 hours a day.