Grace & Gigabytes Blog

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

This post is the fourth 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 guides to Step One and Step Two!

As we continue through our process of re-inventing church community through design thinking, we transition from listening to and defining problems to identifying bold new solutions. In the "Ideate" phase of design thinking, we seek to generate many ideas by throwing out the constraints and limitations that might inhibit our creativity.

According to, step three of design thinking involves with "challenging assumptions and creating ideas":

Now, you’re ready to generate ideas. The solid background of knowledge from the first two phases means you can start to “think outside the box”, look for alternative ways to view the problem and identify innovative solutions to the problem statement you’ve created. Brainstorming is particularly useful here.

There are many ways to brainstorm. In the context of church leadership, there are three considerations that are especially important to consider.

First, every church leader can likely attest to how quickly some are at pointing out limitations! "We can't do this, we don't have the resource, we can't do that, we don't have the budget, we can't try it, it's in conflict with our mission" - sound familiar?

I've never understood how an institution supposedly anchored in God's abundance can be so adept at pointing out resource constraints! Don't let the limitations get in the way of your brainstorm. During the "Ideate" phase of design thinking, resource constraints are officially off the table. Remind your group of this. Out of the box solutions require out of the box thinking. But we can't think outside the box if a pile of limitations is weighing down the metaphorical lid. The goal of ideation is to generate as many ideas as possible. Quantity here matters far more than feasibility. Rest assured, we'll have plenty of time to revisit constraints during the next phase of the process.

Second, many church leaders have seen conversations de-railed by ideas flying in from "left-field." Talking about the mission? Let's go on a budget tangent. Discussing the Bible? Let's digress into church politics. Running through the council agenda? Let's throw out a few "bonus" topics for discussion. The key to an effective brainstorm is not just to generate many ideas, but to generate ideas that align to our problem statement and research question.

For this reason, I recommend using mind-mapping techniques and mind-mapping tools to keep your ideation structured! My favorite mind-mapping software is Coggle. It's cloud-based, it's interactive, it's free (up to a certain number of mind-maps). Put your problem statement in the middle of the mind-map, and let the ideas branch out quickly and abundantly!

Basic mind-map created on Coggle, a free Ideation tool

Finally, to keep your group brainstorm positive, remember to keep your own thoughts and opinions positive as well. As a Christian education mentor once encouraged me to do, affirm every thoughtful idea! Affirming thoughtful ideas is about more than positivity and exuberance. It is about refereeing the conversation, defending thoughtful ideas from put-downs and fending off "analysis paralysis." As the convener of the brainstorm, your role is to celebrate ideas - and to convince others on the team to do the same.

Having created an extensive list of new ideas in response to our problem statements, we now must seek to prioritize, and ultimately, to protoype. We pick up our proverbial pruning sheers to trim our list of ideas into a workable action plan. We look towards prototyping, the subject of our next post.


@ryanpanzer is the author of Grace and Gigabytes.

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

This post is the third 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. Click here for the intro post, and here for thoughts on starting design thinking with empathy!

All church leaders want to build "community." If we weren't invested in community-building, we wouldn't have gone into such a difficult line of work! The key challenge in community-building isn't a challenge of motivation or volition. It's a challenge of specificity.

When we set out to build "community," we don't actually know what we're looking to build. So we set out to extract the concrete from an abstract, which is to say, we set out to take specific actions based on a concept that is vague at best.

During my time working at Pine Lake Camp in Waupaca, WI, I recall seeing a poster on the staff office wall promising "1,0001 ways to build an intentional community." While I enjoyed reading through the ideas, the very fact that one could place 1,001 ideas on such a poster attests to the fact that "community" is an important yet highly ambiguous concept for today's Christian public leader.

What exactly is community? What is community within a virtual Christian setting? And why is a particular expression of community meaningful within a given ministry context? These are the questions that the church leader sets out to answer in "Define," the second step of the design thinking process.

According to, step two of design thinking begins when we realize that:

It’s time to accumulate the information gathered during the Empathize stage. You then analyze your observations and synthesize them to define the core problems you and your team have identified. These definitions are called problem statements.

So while our intentions to build community, and specifically build virtual community are high-minded and idealistic, we do not begin with the question of "how do I build community?" As designers, such a question wouldn't generate ideas with adequate specificity and feasibility. Instead, we must begin with a problem, the problem that was discovered while Empathizing.

The problem we define in this step is never a lack of "community." The problem we must define is situated in the observations of our context, and framed as a question worthy of further design efforts. To truly design a collaborative solution, we must start with a problem that was collaboratively defined. We, therefore, define this problem by carefully analyzing the data from the "Empathize" phase of design thinking. When we listened to our community, what did they say? What themes emerged multiple times?

Analyzing this data and synthesizing it into design thinking, we will arrive at two outputs from the "Define" phase:

  • A problem statement derived from the Empathize process, explaining what a church needs and wants from its "community"

  • A research question that will inspire us as a design thinking group to solve the problem.

Let me provide an example of a hypothetical problem statement that may be relevant to some church leaders, circa October 2020:

"Disconnected from in-person worship, our congregation dearly misses the grace-filled experience of a Sunday morning sanctuary, where they could unplug from the problems of their day-to-day."

This problem statement, likely derived from a congregation struggling to navigate the turbulent conditions of a simultaneous pandemic and an election season, is helpful in that it allows us to craft our research question:

How can our church create moments to come together and unplug during this tumultuous season, so that we can collectively experience moments of grace?

Having defined the problem we seek to solve through design thinking, and framed the problem in the form of a question, we can turn our attention to a powerful brainstorm: the Ideation phase of design thinking, the subject of our next post.


@ryanpanzer is the author of Grace and Gigabytes.

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

This post is the second in a six-part series on building Digital Church Community with Design Thinking, a series inspired by the COVID-19 and the challenges of building Christian community in a pandemic. Click here for the intro post!

One does not simply build a church community online. Or at least, a church leader cannot build community online without discerning what a context imagines "community" to be!

The internet is over-saturated with tools that promise to create some semblance of community. From Facebook groups to Slack accounts, Google+ circles (when they actually existed) to Netflix Watch Parties, digital tech companies recognize that we all need community.

In response to this business opportunity, these companies design tools which lure us with the promise of community with just one click. The result is one of the most pervasive myths of digital technology: if we create this page or start this group, if we ask this question or post this poll, surely some semblance of a community will appear!

Indeed, tech companies and the tools they provide implicitly promote the idea that community comes from tactics. They tacitly advertise the idea that the source of all community is the technology itself.

This assumption is part of the reason why it is so challenging to build church community in digital contexts. So many well-intentioned church leaders begin with the Facebook page or the Instagram feed, without completing the necessary groundwork. Too many church leaders click before they connect, and launch before they listen.

To create church community in this time of physical distancing and forced distribution, we ought to use design thinking to craft specific community-building moments that resonate within our context.

And to start that process, we need to empathize.

To quote IDEO’s Human-Centred Design Toolkit, empathizing means developing a “deep understanding of the problems and realities of the people you are designing for."

Before we build any groups, pages, or posts, before we start new accounts or purchase new technologies, we need a clear understanding of the problems and realities within our church context. More specific to community-building, we need a clear understanding of the problems and realities of finding connection during these difficult, distributed times.

"Empathy helps us gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of people's emotional and physical needs, and the way they see, understand, and interact with the world around them.", "What is Empathy, Exactly?"

Church leaders have long been adept at empathizing and listening. Of the many organizations I've been part of, churches seem to be the most consistent in offering "listening posts," "sounding boards," and other formal listening structures, particularly during times of leadership transition. With COVID-19 upending all of our routines, we in the church should think of this time as a profound leadership transition, one that requires dedicated investment in listening to our communities.

But we're not listening for the sake of listening, and we're not putting out a proverbial suggestion box for ideas on how to build community. In the context of community building, we're engaging the "empathize" phase of Design Thinking to listen for responses to two questions in particular:

Six months into the pandemic, what are you missing most about your church community?
How can your church community support you as you navigate these uncertain times?

We can design community from the (virtual) ground-up when we listen widely for the answers to these two questions. Whether by survey or by 1:1 on Zoom, whether by socially-distanced conversation or a masked-up meeting, whether by Doodle Poll or Facebook discussion, we ought to be asking these two questions, right here, right now.

Listen to responses to these questions. Empathize with those who provide the responses. Thank them for sharing. Document their thoughts. Then find some more community members to ask, find some more perspectives to engage, find some more voices to include.

After we have intentionally listened and listened some more, we can advance to the next stage of design thinking, the subsequent milestone on our journey to reinvent church community during COVID: that of Defining the Problem. It is to this step that we will turn in the next post within this series.


@ryanpanzer is the author of Grace and Gigabytes.

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

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