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  • Writer's pictureRyan Panzer

Design Thinking and Church Community: Step One - Empathize!

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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