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  • Writer's pictureRyan Panzer

Design Thinking and Church Community: Step Two - Define!

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.

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