Grace & Gigabytes Blog

Perspectives on leadership, learning, and technology for a time of rapid change

  • Ryan Panzer

Updated: Feb 12

Church leaders: I want you to think back to the seven days between Sunday, March 8th and Sunday, March 15th, 2020. In just seven days, you led a transition from fully in-person worship, complete with Holy Communion, choirs, and packed pews, to fully online worship with Zoom, YouTube, or Facebook.

When we think about the ongoing changes in this time of digital distribution, we would do well not just to focus on the technologies we have adopted, but the transformative steps we have taken as leaders. In those same seven days, you started the transition from a leadership model centered around in-person staff collaboration to a practice of distributed, digital-first Christian leadership. The office will no longer be the locus of church leadership. Offline decision making will no longer be commonplace.

A distributed, digital-first model of Christian leadership is here to stay, even after we arrive at an eventual new normal. Such a model aligns well to the cultural expectations of the digital age, and therefore, rises to meet the challenges of contemporary Christian leadership.

Fundamentally, a distributed and digital-first model is more inclusive. Digital distribution opens the doors to more than staff and church insiders because it facilitates contribution without unrealistic commitments of time, energy, and motivation. It’s far easier to hold a Zoom meeting that is representative of the diversity within a community than it is to invite these diverse perspectives to sit in synchronous, face-to-face meetings during the workday. When decision-making processes are not exclusively vested in staff meetings behind closed doors, we have a natural opportunity to include more voices, perspectives, and ideas. As Christian leaders strive to increase the diversity within their congregations and ministries, distributed decision-making practices send a clear message: that your expertise is needed, that your opinions are valid, that your ideas are celebrated.

A distributed and digital-first model is also inherently more collaborative. Most church offices, with their locked exterior entries, closed interior doors, and staff gate-keepers are not suitable for empathizing, ideating, and brainstorming. But digital technology is defined by a commitment to collaboration: the ability to draw more contributors into a project, the ease of requesting feedback, the seamless ability to get things done asynchronously. Cloud-based technologies like Google Docs and Slack naturally nudge us to listen, share, and decide together, while communication tools like YouTube and Vimeo encourage the communal practice of creativity.

In early March, we didn’t know that this time of digital distribution would permanently alter Christian leadership. Now we know that the momentum towards the shared leadership model is unstoppable. Digital and distributed is here to stay, even in the church. Let us be grateful for this ongoing leadership transformation.

Ryan Panzer is the author of “Grace and Gigabytes: Being Church in a Tech-Shaped Culture,” a book that explores how our digital culture continues to reshape the practices of Christian leadership. Join us December 1st for a free conference on how this time of digital distribution is permanently remaking the practice of Christian leadership!

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This post is the sixth and final post in a series on building Digital Church Community with Design Thinking, a series responding to the challenges of building Christian community in a pandemic. Be sure to check out the intro, as well as our guide to Empathizing, Defining, Ideating, and Prototyping!

As we continue through our process of re-inventing church community through design thinking, we make a decisive pivot from the theoretical to the concrete. In the "Testing" phase of design thinking, we test and measure the effectiveness of our prototypes.

According to, step five of design thinking puts our prototype into a pilot test:

Evaluators rigorously test the prototypes. Although this is the final phase, design thinking is iterative: Teams often use the results to redefine one or more further problems. So, you can return to previous stages to make further iterations, alterations and refinements...
Once we start our test, it's all downhill from here.

With enough intentionality, our prototypes should lend themselves to an easy testing format. If we created visual storyboards, we should have a clear idea of who will be involved with the test, what the test might look like, and how success might appear. But to run an effective test, it's helpful to clarify a few parameters:

First, what is the medium of the test? In this time of social distancing, we are likely executing our test virtually. We need to ensure all parties have access to the right tools, at the right level of permissions. What software do we need? How do we ensure everyone involved in running the test has administrative access to these tools? How do we ensure everyone participating in the test has end-user access?

Second, how do we get the word out? We can't run a test if nobody shows up (though nobody showing up might indicate that we need to go back to the Ideate phase!). If we're testing something new with virtual worship, we need to make sure to communicate the change ahead of time, describing any new expectations for involvement. Simplicity is key. If someone needs to click a link to participate in the test, make sure that the link is easy to access, that it is communicated through multiple channels.

Third, what are we going to measure? Testing is not a subjective process. It involves the rigorous collection of data. Before the test starts, we need to understand what we will measure, and how we will find the metrics. Are we testing page views or web interactions? Participation or attendance? With YouTube views or Google Analytics? Be specific about the numbers you will collect, how you will collect them, and over what duration.

Finally, how long do we allow the test to run? This is typically the most ambiguous question related to design thinking and church community. Do we run a test for one Sunday, or do we run it for a month? Do we run it for one worship service, or for our entire church community? To determine these answers, it's helpful to consider what constitutes a valid test - not a rejection/acceptance of our design, but enough data to reevaluate our problem statement and begin the design thinking process anew.

To that extent, we should run our test for as long as it takes to initiate a new round of design thinking, to truly make our process iterative. In most situations, this means allowing a test to run for a month or more, so that it runs through a full communications cycle in the life of the congregation, so that it engages all regular worship attendees. With four weeks or more of data, we can gather enough perspectives so as to begin a new phase of empathizing and defining.

Iteration is always the key to testing, testing is never about reaching a finish line. Design thinking, particularly in the context of building Christian community, is never about delivering a finished product or a silver-bullet solution.

A wise pastor recently shared with me how the use of the word "solution" can be problematic in the church. We're not in the business of solutions. We're seeking to live more fully into our new normal, harnessing the gifts that God has given to us and to our community so that we can bring God's healing and redeeming word to a hurting world. In the context of building Christian community, a test can never "fail" if it leads us to further conversation and discovery, if it helps us to move more decisively into this new normal.

So when is your test done? It's done when you're ready to start over, taking all that you have learned, and committing once again to the work of empathy and listening. It's done when you acknowledge that our designs our never complete, that our community is always changing, that our call as the church is ever-evolving. As church leaders, we design. The spirit dances. And on we go.


@ryanpanzer is the author of Grace and Gigabytes, now available wherever books are sold.

Updated: Nov 2, 2020

This post is the fifth in a six-part series on building Digital Church Community with Design Thinking, a series responding to the challenges of building Christian community in a pandemic. Be sure to check out the intro, as well as our guide to Empathizing, Defining, and Ideating!

As we continue through our process of re-inventing church community through design thinking, we turn the corner from thinking to doing. In the "Prototyping" phase of design thinking, we seek to create usable versions of our top ideas to put into a pilot test.

According to, step four of design thinking is the step we start to create solutions:

This [prototyping] is an experimental phase. The aim is to identify the best possible solution for each problem found. Your team should produce some inexpensive, scaled-down versions of the product (or specific features found within the product) to investigate the ideas you’ve generated. This could involve simply paper prototyping.
With prototyping, the way forward becomes immediately clear

But how do we know which of our brainstormed ideas deserve an "inexpensive, scaled-down" prototype?

Start by consolidating ideas. See which topics from the ideation phase are duplicates, or which ideas could be logically combined. If we merge the ideas where there is overlap, we will find that most of the heavy-lifting of prioritization happens automatically. Once your group has "de-duplicated" the list, you'll have to make some tough calls on which thoughts to advance.

Some groups simply vote on the ideas they would most like to prototype (see the Nominal Group Technique for more on effective voting processes). If everyone on the team is given one vote, several ideas usually emerge as consensus favorites. The challenge with voting is that it is subject to diluted results. If one idea gets 2 votes and 30 others get 1 vote, is it really the front-runner? To avoid complicating design thinking with the complexities of an electoral college-like system, you might prioritize with two questions:

  • Which idea is the easiest to implement?

  • Which idea will have the greatest impact?

If we prototype based on simplicity, while also prototyping based on impact, we are likely to balance the critical factors of feasibility and effectiveness. We may even find that the ideas with the greatest impact are also the ideas that are easiest to implement! These two questions should lead us into the development of no more than two prototypes for our design thinking test.

But what does prototyping actually look like, in the context of building Christian community? It's a valid question since we're likely designing a process or set of communal actions, rather than a tangible product.

The key to our prototype is that we should be able to use it in our pilot testing. So what we're seeking with our prototype are the parameters that will guide our test. While we can document these ideas in a word doc, outlining the who, what, when, where, and how of our prototype, many innovators will find it more enlightening to create a prototype in the format of a storyboard.

By actually drawing visual representations of our prototype, we can imagine creative ideas that the written word may not facilitate. We can imagine how our ideas will pull our community together, as we remember that this process focuses on real human beings, not textual abstractions! And we can imagine the best-case scenario for our ideas, appreciating how our community will benefit once our vision is realized.

Shelve any concerns about a lack of artistic aptitude. Ignore any preconceived notions of what a storyboard must look like. We're church leaders, not animators for Pixar or The Simpsons. Stick-figures are just fine. Clip art and stock images from Google search are completely adequate. And we don't need expensive software. There are countless free storyboarding apps on the web. I simply use Canva or Google Slides. The tools are unimportant. This is not a high-tech, visually appealing process. It is a collaborative, imaginative process, one that requires creativity, not artistic skill.

The final output of the prototyping phase is a storyboard that guides us through the implementation of our ideas, illustrating a successful outcome of the pilot test.

Having created our prototypes in response to our ideation lists, we now must seek to put our ideas into a pilot test. We look towards testing, the final phase of design thinking, and the subject of our next post.


@ryanpanzer is the author of Grace and Gigabytes, now available for pre-order wherever books are sold.

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Leadership developer for digital culture. Author of "Grace and Gigabytes," now available wherever books are sold.

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