What Every Church Leader Should Know about Building Digital Community
Updated: Sep 30
This is the first post of a new series on using Design Thinking to build virtual church community. Click here for our second post, which details how to start the Design Thinking process!
“Worship attendance is fine, but it doesn’t feel like a community anymore.”
It’s a quote I continue to hear from church leaders navigating our new normal. Perhaps you’ve said something similar at one time or another. Sure, members are tuning in to watch live-streamed or recorded worship. Maybe your finances are even secure thanks to members stepping up their generosity in recent months.
But still, something’s missing. We miss that sense of community our church enjoyed prior to March 2020. We lament that it’s just not the same, we acknowledge that an entirely virtual church is often a poor substitute for the face to face community that brings so many of us to church in the first place.
It’s hard to build a digital church community in “normal” circumstances, let alone during a pandemic where many of our families are juggling working demanding jobs from home while homeschooling their kids. But as church leaders, we are nevertheless called to build community, even when such a task seems unachievable.
While tactics for building a digital church community will vary from one congregation to another, community building in these uncertain times begins with a clear awareness of the challenges and opportunities involved with building up our now-distributed communities.
With an understanding of why it’s so difficult to build this digital community and why it’s so important to do so, we can begin to find the small acts of community building that will bring us together in profound and powerful ways.
The challenges are often self-evident. Our communities are busier than they’ve ever been. Parents are trying to teach and motivate their students, who are often reluctant to learn virtually (four in ten students didn’t complete any virtual homework last spring).
They’re also burnt-out in digital connection. Zoom fatigue is very real. Google searches for the query “Zoom fatigue” increased 1,000% between April and May 2020. Some have even suggested that online calls lead to unhealthily low levels of respiration - we don’t breathe as we should while online. This observation, described as “Zoom Apnea,” may explain why distributed, virtual work is so exhausting. Those who are working from home have little energy for additional digital engagement after the workday ends, and hardly any appetite for more video calls. And of course, an election is taking place. 55% of Americans are currently “worn out” by political posts on social media, while 70% find online politics discussions “exhausting." So many of our assumptions on digital church community intersect with social media, yet social media has its own set of problems.
But just as there are many challenges, there are even greater opportunities. If we find a way to create a sense of virtual community within our church, we can provide a moment of Sabbath rest, where we can all pause together, breathe together, pray together. If we find a way to connect our flock during this time of social distancing, our church can provide a concrete taste of grace and forgiveness, often lacking in social media environments. Perhaps most importantly, if we find a way to create a digital community in these divided times, we can inspire hope in the promise that God is greater than any pandemic, that Christ is our salvation, and that these challenging times will end.
So how do we realize these opportunities? How do we build a digital community that promotes a sense of rest, connection, and hope? We begin with the acknowledgment that community building is highly contextual. What works for one congregation will not work for the church across the street. We also start with the tacknowledgmenthat not all digital community is synchronous. In an environment of Zoom fatigue, we need not log on together to find meaningful connection.
From this starting line, we must apply the design thinking process to craft meaningful community moments that resonate within our context.
What is design thinking? According to Interaction-Design.org,
"Design Thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding. At the same time, Design Thinking provides a solution-based approach to solving problems. It is a way of thinking and working as well as a collection of hands-on methods."
Design thinking can build community in these challenging times because it facilitates the identification of alternative strategies and solutions. As a process, it moves us well-beyond the proverbial box, revealing the best ideas for our ministry context.
In upcoming blog posts, we'll explore design thinking and what it means for the church. We'll dive into each specific step in the design thining process (from empathizing to testing and everywhere in between), and offer suggestions for using digital tools to support collaborative brainstorming. Many, if not all church leaders, have lamented the breakdown of community during the COVID-19 pandemic. It's time to start rebuilding. Let the designing begin!
@ryanpanzer is the author of Grace and Gigabytes.