Building Vibrant Community Connections in Digital and Physical Spaces

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How can your congregation connect with new people in both physical and digital spaces? Lewis Center Director F. Douglas Powe Jr. interviews Jordana Wright on strategies for transforming congregations into vibrant community hubs.

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Douglas Powe: Before we delve too deeply into our subject, can you share a little bit about yourself and how you became interested in missional innovation.

Jordana Wright: I am the founder and managing director of Activate Space, a social enterprise that helps congregations excel as community hubs. We make use of a lot of tech tools, platforms, apps, and other modern approaches to communication. While this is seen as quite innovative within the church world, I never really sought to be an innovator or to work in ministry innovation. I sought to serve in the ways I felt uniquely gifted to serve and bring my unique perspective to my work in the church. And it turns out that those unique gifts were absent in many of the churches I’d worked with. It was seen as innovation and I was seen as innovative, but I didn’t set out to be. So, I became a ministry innovator accidentally, I guess.

I work primarily with congregations of the United Church of Canada. And I think many of the challenges that we’re facing will sound quite familiar to all of you south of our border. Congregations are shrinking and they’re aging, and many of the traditional sources of sustainability, such as tithes and offerings, are no longer enough to support the increasingly complex needs of modern ministry and the large properties and buildings that many churches have been bequeathed. As their congregations shrink and shrink, they have to figure out how to make budgets balance. These are things that seem to be happening worldwide these days. Congregations are looking for something different and something new. They are looking for new people to join them on this journey as they cast a bold vision to try to combat some of the challenges they’re facing these days.

Douglas Powe: Are your congregations having a similar problem reaching younger people?

Jordana Wright: Yes. It’s a very similar situation. I am considered a young person within the church. I don’t feel like a young person, but anyone who is in their 30s and younger is considered a young person in the church, whereas in the world, someone 20 or younger is considered a young person. The average ages of the folks that I collaborate with are 60, 70, 80, some even 90. Within my tech and innovation circles, the average age is like 20- or 30-year-old kids straight out of college. And I’m collaborating with these 60-, 70-, 80-year-old folks who are on board for the innovation, who can keep up with a lot of the new technologies. There are, of course, people who are set in their ways within some of these communities, but there’s also a ton of the more senior folks who are open to innovation. So, I try not to focus so much on age when I’m putting initiatives together. But it is very noticeable. The average age of folks is quite up there.

Douglas Powe: Can you share some of the work you’re doing with congregations helping them reach out to new people?

Jordana Wright: So many ways! But I’ll speak to one of my favorite projects, physical community hub building projects. I help churches with buildings under stress or buildings that are underutilized bring new and diverse folks from their surrounding communities to their doorsteps, to join them in visioning around how they might share sacred and communal space together and how they might create this vibrant sustainable community hub.

So, for example, with one church, I came up a dinner concept. There were about 20 neighborhoods surrounding the church. They wanted to find a way to get to know their neighbors. So, I created a dinner concept where I brought to the table people from the church and from all the 20 surrounding neighborhoods. I started by finding out who were the key movers and shakers in each of those 20 neighborhoods. I approached those key people and explained that we are trying to build something new, a vibrant community hub right here in this area. And they were so enthusiastic about it. They were so excited in ways that church folks don’t often think young people would be. I don’t know if I made the opportunity sound particularly interesting or exciting, but there was so much excitement around it.

I asked each of those 20 people from the neighborhoods surrounding that church, “Could you invite five more people who you want to get to know a little bit better from your neighborhood to a beautiful dinner at a beautiful rooftop garden that is right next to the church?” I didn’t require that they come into worship or sit in pews. We were meeting on neutral ground. It was our opportunity to get to know those 20 people. They had the opportunity to pick out five people within their neighborhood they wanted to get to know, and they picked heads of just amazing impactful social organizations and arts groups and local musicians. This huge community dinner was the opportunity to start a conversation with the neighborhood. It was an opportunity for the church to get to know folks in their surrounding community and share what they’re about and for folks in the community to get to know the church.

This is innovative in the sense that it was fun. It became this whole big community thing. Everyone in the area was trying to help us make sure that we had all our neighborhoods covered. It was a fun social media experiment, a fun scavenger hunt to find all the people and bring them to a beautiful, secluded rooftop dinner. This exciting dinner was the starting point of their relationship around building the hub. We could have just had a meeting where I brought them all to a meeting room and said, “Please come and sit. We will talk and we will run the numbers and I’ll show you the space.” But we didn’t do that.

You have to find these little ways to make things feel special, to make people feel seen, to identify them as core people within the neighborhood. There has to be joy. There has to be playfulness. There has to be fun. There has to be an aspect of service and a mutually beneficial project on the table to bring all kinds of new people, especially young people. They like to see authenticity and meaningfulness. They have to know their participation will have an impact.

Douglas Powe: How did you identify those 20 key individuals? And how did you approach them?

Jordana Wright: A ton of research and a ton of experience doing this work of community building. In the major cities like Toronto, for example, I make sure to keep tabs on that sort of thing. But if you’re starting from scratch, it starts with listening. It starts with reaching out broadly and speaking to everyone. And I tried to make it special and exciting. Again, I’m all about making people feel included, part of something special, part of a bold story. I printed out little golden tickets, Willy Wonka style, and I went personally to each of those community leaders and presented them with a golden ticket.

I also explained the concept to them, that we have all these unique facilities we’re trying to make more available to the communities we serve. For example, I explained to the community of emerging musicians that performance venues are closing left and right and they’re very expensive, but we have beautiful sanctuary performance spaces that we would like to make more available to the local music community. And that is something very tangible, something that makes sense for them. It wasn’t just “This is what we’re doing. Join us in this.” A lot of the musicians didn’t realize that church spaces could be available in that way, especially sanctuaries. And it was so interesting to explain to them that sanctuaries are designed architecturally for music and have naturally good acoustics because music and song are a powerful form of prayer and petition to God. “These spaces are made to be filled with what you are uniquely gifted in doing and what you offer.”

There always has to be a very real, tangible value that you’re providing others. Sometimes we don’t think about what we’re willing to give or give up or how we’re willing to join alongside others. Instead of just asking others to come to you and sit in your pews, it often starts with thinking through what you want out of a new relationship and how you can contribute to that relationship in very real ways. What are the impacts you are offering the community?

Douglas Powe: That’s important because it often seems we want new people for the benefit of what we’re trying to do. “We just want you to come to help us pay the bills.” But instead, you said to the community, “We want to be beneficial to you, so work with us and help us think about how we can make that happen.” Let’s shift the focus to virtual spaces. How are you helping churches rethink how they reach new people in virtual space?

Jordana Wright: The pandemic was a huge time of pivoting for me personally and for many churches. My work had been for so long just about gathering large numbers of people in physical space, bringing them to the doorsteps of these churches to try to create these vibrant community hubs. At a time where I couldn’t fill spaces with people, I had to take a moment and really think, “What next? What does it look like to build community at a time when you can’t gather?”

I got to work developing platforms and tools and opportunities that would allow people to engage with meaningful online experiences outside of gathering in physical space. Often people think digital ministry is just someone filming the worship service and streaming it to Facebook or people sitting in a Zoom room and watching it. But the online experiences I’ve created are a bit more active, and they extend beyond Sunday. They’ve also been hybrid in nature, bringing together the physical and the digital world.

One of my favorite online community building initiatives is a national walking challenge I developed for the United Church of Canada. I designed an experience where folks were encouraged to connect with one another online through a shared app that challenged each of them to walk every day. They were encouraged to get out in their own neighborhood, walk around the block, and get some fresh air. And those who weren’t mobile or able to get out were encouraged to open up the blinds, get some sun and fresh air on their face, and just get moving. It was a great opportunity to get people who were feeling down and isolated out of their houses. As they walked their communities, people who felt like they had no one to talk to were connecting through the app with people they had never thought to connect with before. They were talking with people in the church and other provinces. They were sharing what their days look like.

We had all kinds of special amazing prizes and big challenges. For example, we had the challenge of walking across all of Canada during Lent. Our collective steps together had to match the distance across Canada. Everyone was in it and motivated, incentivized and working together, talking with people and sharing their lives.

It’s about digital church and digital community building, but it’s not just livestreaming worship. It’s a form of fellowship. It’s a form of being together that is hybrid in nature, and it’s beyond Sunday. Sunday is so important. Worship is so important. But I think when we’re designing these digital opportunities and digital ministry, we need to think more broadly. My online ministry is about doing everyday life together. So, yes, worship. Yes, livestreaming. Yes, Zoom. But also, how can we use digital tools to do everyday life together?

Douglas Powe: Were people from outside of the church invited to walk and participate?

Jordana Wright: I’m so glad you asked because that was the biggest part. So many people were interested because it was so different and unusual — a group walking across Canada with people from different provinces. There were a ton of young people and people who weren’t members of the church saying, “Yeah, I want to get involved in this. This is so interesting.” Even the Moderator of the United Church, the most senior elected official within the United Church of Canada, got in on the walking challenge. People from coast to coast were participating. A ton of people who had nothing to do with the church stumbled across the walking challenge, and they were like, “This is incredible. Please do this again. This got me up and it got me going at a time when I was down. I was able to find community. I was able to meet people.” Especially in the pandemic when a lot of people were feeling so disconnected, this just filled an important need.

Everyone can participate. The bar of entry is so low. You’ve just got to move a little. You don’t have to trek down to a church building and sit in pews. You just get moving and talk with people on the app. That’s the entry point to start the relationship — with no expectations, no motives. It’s just a natural, meaningful way to bring people together in community with one another, whether they’re part of the church or not. And many were not part of the church. At first, some didn’t understand that it was a United Church of Canada initiative. For whatever reason, I guess they missed that part. But they were just so surprised that church folk did this sort of thing together, and they were just so excited to be involved. A lot of folks approached me about getting involved in helping to coordinate these initiatives. I don’t know if I just make the church and the work I do sound particularly exciting, but a ton of people who work in tech and the medical field and across so many different professions have asked “How can I get involved in the church? How can I do this work, too?”

Douglas Powe: Do you have other thoughts or ideas for church that are doing more hybrid ministry in this time?

Jordana Wright: I think before jumping into hybrid or online ministry, it’s important to do a bit of visioning with your church and figure out what you’re trying to achieve. To help folks with this visioning, I’ve developed a “coffee hour ministry development card set,” a fun card game that I use to take churches through the process of figuring out, “Where are we? What do we need to do online? What do we need to do to attract new and different people? And what does that look like?”

Although I always recommend starting with a visioning or strategic planning process, it’s important to not get caught up in thought experiments. There has to be action. You have to get moving. Zoom and livestreaming worship can be part of the overall strategy, but you need to think about building out a broader ministry, a broader set of online experiences. How can you greet and receive these people online as you would receive someone who walked through the front door of your church? How can you engage with them throughout the week and not just on Sundays? What are special opportunities to do that? You have to really sit down and cast a bold vision and not just assume these things will happen spontaneously.

Online is real ministry. It should be taken as that. It should be staffed like that. You shouldn’t be afraid to bring in expertise where needed. There are very real skill sets that go into crafting these sorts of virtual experiences and these kinds of opportunities.

Douglas Powe: Have you worked with smaller congregations? And how do you help them, given that the resources are more limited in smaller congregations?

Jordana Wright: Well, one of the key things for a smaller congregation is to make use of tools that amplify your message and your work to make a larger impact. I developed the Activate Space platform with a lot of larger churches. And these projects can be quite costly. But now the platform exists, and you can just log on to it. With just a click of a button, you and people within your neighborhood can get involved. And there are younger, innovative people, just like me, in your own local neighborhood who are looking for organizations exactly like your church to work with, so you have to be able to put yourself out there.

You have to find those tools and opportunities that give you leverage and amplify your impact. Make sure that you’re not trying to do it all on your own. Rely on experts when you can because they will make every dollar count. I know it’s hard when you have a small budget to look towards other people with this sort of work. But it ends up saving you money because you avoid reinventing the wheel and running in circles trying to figure out what works best. If someone has a model that works, snag them up and have them be a part of your initiative. Find a way to get them on staff or as a consultant. Doing these projects requires a very particular skill set. It’s not just employing someone’s teenage nephew who’s good at TikToc and Instagram. For me, it took a decade to develop this skill set. I’ve seen the ups and downs. And I know the things that work best.

Find the people in your own context who have the expertise. They will make your dollar stretch. Secondly, of course, find the platforms and tools that just exponentially increase your efforts and your impact. These are things that don’t cost very much that we all can do, even smaller churches in rural settings or remote settings that may have a smaller budget.


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About Author

Jordana Wright

Jordana Wright is the founder and managing director of Activate Space, a social enterprise that helps congregations excel as community hubs.

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is the author of The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020), available at Cokesbury and Amazon. He is also co-author with Jasmine Smothers of Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations (Abingdon Press, 2015), available at Cokesbury and Amazon. His previous books include New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations; Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith; and Transforming Community: The Wesleyan Way to Missional Congregations.


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