“Building Vibrant Community Connections in Digital and Physical Spaces” featuring Jordana Wright

Leading Ideas Talks
“Building Vibrant Community Connections in Digital and Physical Spaces” featuring Jordana Wright

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Podcast Episode 98

How can your congregation connect with new people in both physical and digital spaces? Jordana Wright shares creative strategies for transforming congregations into vibrant community hubs.

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How can your congregation connect with new people in both physical and digital spaces? In this episode Jordana Wright shares creative strategies for transforming congregations into vibrant community hubs.

Douglas Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Douglas Powe, the director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is Jordana Wright, Managing Director of Activate Space, and our focus for this podcast is missional innovation. Jordana, welcome to the podcast. I’m excited to talk to you and get an opportunity to learn more about the work you’re doing.

Jordana Wright: I’m so glad to be here as a guest and talking about my absolute favorite subject, so thank you for having me.

Douglas Powe: Well, I’m glad it’s your favorite subject. But before we delve too deep into your favorite subject, can you just share a little bit about yourself and how you really became interested in missional innovation.

Jordana Wright: My name is Jordana Wright, and I am the founder and managing director of Activate Space, which is a social enterprise that helps congregations excel as community hubs. In doing that, I utilize a lot of tech tools and platforms and apps and modern communication approaches. It is viewed as quite innovative within the church world, but I never really sought to be an innovator or to work in ministry innovation. I sought to serve in the ways that I felt I was uniquely gifted to serve. I sought to bring my unique perspective to the work that I had been doing in the church. And it turns out that those unique gifts and that unique perspective were lacking or 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, imagine my surprise when what came inherent to me and the skills and gifts that I felt that I brought to the table were seen as something that just did not quite exist in the way that it should in the church. So, I became this ministry innovator accidentally, I guess.

Douglas Powe: I like it! An accidental ministry innovator. Your context — most of our listeners don’t know this, but your context is actually north of us in Canada. Can you share a little bit about the challenges some of the congregations are facing in Canada? These will sound very familiar to many of our listeners, but I still think it’s important to contextualize where you’re doing your work.

Jordana Wright: I work primarily with congregations of the United Church of Canada. And I think many of the challenges that we’re facing, as you said, 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. They’re no longer enough to support these 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, but they’ve created a gap where there are these congregations who are looking for something different and something new and looking for new people to join them on this journey as they cast a bold vision to try to combat some of the challenges that they’re facing these days.

Douglas Powe: And just stay with that for a second. Are you having a similar problem, particularly with reaching younger people, that we will find for many congregations south of you, where the congregations are, we’ll say, maturing? I won’t say getting old, but I will say they’re maturing.

Jordana Wright: Yeah, it’s a very similar situation. I mean 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. In the world, if you’re like 20 or younger, you’re a young person. The average ages of the folks that I work with and that I collaborate with and that I lead initiatives for are 60, 70, 80, some even 90. And this is an interesting point that perhaps we might circle back to later in the discussion. In a lot of the innovative ministries that I lead, some of my collaborators are quite senior. And within my tech circles and innovation circles, the average ages of the folks that are involved in their ventures are 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 like on board for the innovation, who can keep up with a lot of the new technologies and things that are coming out. There are, of course, people who are set in their ways within some of these communities, but there’s also a ton of folks who are more senior right now in the church who are open to innovation. So, I try not to focus so much on the age of the folks when I’m putting initiatives together. But it is very noticeable. The average age of folks is quite up there. And there is this need or this desire to connect with more young people, and I think we’re hitting a particularly challenging point in time right now. Coming off the backs of the pandemic, everyone’s really feeling this lack or this need for fresh eyes, a new vision, young folks. This is something that a lot of congregations are talking about right now.

Douglas Powe: I do want to say that I’m not going to be completely insulted that, when you talked about yourself being older, you used the word thirty. I’m not going to take that personally that you made that statement. But as we continue to think about this, can you share then some of the work you’re doing with the congregations, helping them to reach out to new people? Because obviously what’s happening is they’re sort of becoming internally focused and they’ve lost I will say the desire to reach out in the community and to connect with new people. What are some of the ways that you’re helping them to think about this differently?

Jordana Wright: So many ways! But I’ll speak to one of my absolute favorite projects, and those are physical community hub building projects where I helped churches with buildings under stress or buildings that are underutilized. I help them bring all kinds of new and diverse folks and 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 with this dinner concept where there were about 20 neighborhoods surrounding the church. They wanted to find a new way to reach out to young folks in the neighborhood. They wanted to find out a way to get them to know their neighbors, so I created a dinner concept where I brought everyone to the table from the church and everyone from all those 20 neighborhoods surrounding the church.

I started out with finding out who was the key mover and shaker in each of those 20 neighborhoods. I approached that person and I 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 about it 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 had each of those 20 people from each of the neighborhoods surrounding that church that wanted to get to know its neighbors a little better. I asked that person, “Could you invite five more people who you want to get to know a little bit better from your neighborhood to this beautiful dinner that is right next to the church on this beautiful rooftop garden?” I didn’t require that they came into worship or sat in pews. It was kind of like on a neutral ground that we would all be meeting. And it was our opportunity to get to know those 20 people, and then it was that person’s opportunity to also pick out five people within their neighborhood who they would want to get to know. And they picked heads of just amazing impactful social organizations and arts groups and local musicians and so many people within the neighborhood. We had I guess about six people from each of the 20 neighborhoods come to dinner. We had a huge community dinner, and it 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, like “Let’s try to figure out how we can get everyone from all of these neighborhoods covered.” And it became this whole big community thing where everyone in the neighborhood and 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. It was a fun scavenger hunt to find all the people and to bring them to a beautiful, secluded rooftop dinner. And it was just about making things fun, making things exciting, and starting a conversation — the church and the folks from all these organizations. That was the starting point of their relationship around building the hub, this exciting dinner. 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, by identifying them as core people within the neighborhood. And that’s what I did with the church trying to bring people to the table. There has to be joy. There has to be playfulness. There has to be fun. There has to be an aspect of service and kind of a mutually beneficial project on the table to bring all kinds of new people, especially young people. That’s one of the core things that they like to see, just authenticity and meaningfulness. And they have to know that there’s an impact that will be made from their participation.

Douglas Powe: I want to tease out a couple of things you said. And the first is one that I get hit with all the time when I do workshops or presentations. How do you actually identify those 20 individuals? And then how did you actually approach those 20 individuals? How do we get started? So, you knew you wanted to start with the 20. But how did you identify them? And then you talked a little bit about it, but what was the approach to actually say, “Hey, we’re trying to do something here. Are you willing to come aboard?”

Jordana Wright: A ton of research. A ton of just experience doing this work of community building. I had a good sense of who does what in each neighborhood of the major cities, in Toronto, and 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 because there are people that if they had to identify 20 people, they would just identify 20 of their best friends. They would be afraid to approach someone that they had never spoken to before. And that’s what this required. So, I tried to make it special and exciting. Again, I’m all about making people feel included and making them feel like they’re a part of something special and a part of a bold story. I printed out these little golden tickets, Willy Wonka style, and I went to each of those community leaders and presented them with a physical golden ticket. I explained to them what the concept was. I explained to them that we have all these unique facilities that we’re trying to make available more broadly to a lot of the communities that they serve.

For example, the community of emerging musicians, who were quite well known — I explained to them the fact that performance venues are closing left and right and they’re very expensive. “We have these beautiful sanctuary performance spaces that we would like to make more available to you and the local music community.” And that is something very tangible, something that makes sense for them to participate in. It’s not just we’re going to talk about it. “This is what we’re doing. Join us in this. This is going to happen. We’re going to do this.” And a lot of people didn’t realize, 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 made for music. A lot of the spaces just architecturally have natural acoustics, and music and song are a powerful form of prayer and petition to God. “These spaces are made for music and to be filled with what it is that you are uniquely gifted in doing and what it is that you offer.”

There always has to be a very real, tangible value that you’re providing others. Sometimes we can ask without thinking about what it is that we’re willing to give or give up or how we’re willing to join alongside others. I think that it often starts with this process of thinking through what it is that you want out of a new relationship and how you’re able to contribute in a very real way and not just ask of others, ask others to come to you and sit in your pews. What is it that you’re offering the community in terms of your impact?

Douglas Powe: And I think that’s important because often in congregations we come across like “We just want you to come to help us pay the bills.” Or we are trying to get you here to benefit what we’re trying to do. But the approach that you took with the community is, “We want to be beneficial to you, so work with us and help us think about how we can make that happen.” And I absolutely love the golden tickets. That was a really creative touch.

Jordana Wright: It was very dramatic and very hard to say no to.

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Explore strategies your congregation can use to reach beyond its walls with worship, community events, ministries, and service. The Taking Church to the Community Tool Kit features engaging videos and presentations and is designed for both self-study and for use with groups in your church. Learn more and watch introductory videos now.

Douglas Powe: I want to continue to talk about space, but I want to move into the virtual space. Because you talk about physical space and how you helped to reach out to new people. Because of the pandemic of course and even before the pandemic, we probably should have been thinking about this. Now virtual space is so critically important, so how are you helping people to rethink virtual space and reach new people using 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, at a time where churches couldn’t fill spaces with people, we had to take a moment and really think, “What next? We need to continue to do the work. This is the work that we do in terms of how we serve. What will that look like at a time where we can’t gather?”

What does it look like to build community at a time when you can’t gather? And, for me, 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. And when I say online experiences and I speak of digital ministry, oftentimes people envision, “Okay. Digital ministry. That is just services going on and someone is filming it and streaming it to Facebook. Or service is going on and we’re all sitting in a Zoom room and kind of just watching it.” But the online experiences that I’ve created have been a little bit more active than that, and they’ve been beyond Sunday. And they’ve also been hybrid in nature, so they brought together the physical and the digital world.

I’ll give you an example of one of my favorite online initiatives, my favorite online experiences that were really about community building, bringing folks together in the church. That is a national walking challenge that I did for the United Church of Canada and all the community members that I’d worked with over the years and new folks, as well. Essentially what I did was I designed an experience where folks were encouraged to connect with one another online through a shared app and at the same time we would be challenging each other to walk every day. And we’d have prizes, and every day it was a different sort of challenge. We’re encouraged to get out in our own respective contexts in our own neighborhood and walk around the block and get some fresh air. If we weren’t mobile or able to get out, open up the blinds and get some sun on your face, some fresh air, and just get moving. And then, at the same time, make sure that you’re connecting with people on the app.

That is digital in nature. 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. And that was just such a great opportunity to get people out of the house, people who were feeling down and isolated and like they had no one to talk to. These were folks who were talking with people in the church and other provinces through the app. They were sharing what their days look like. As they walked their communities, they were connecting with people they had never thought to connect before. And at the same time, because it’s me and I like to have special things, we had all kinds of special amazing prizes. And the challenges were big. We had the challenge, for example, 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 and incentivized and working together and talking with people and sharing their lives with people.

My online ministry is so much 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? That’s what I’m all about in terms of these online experiences.

Douglas Powe: In the example you just gave, certainly it sounds like they were connecting with others throughout Canada who were in the church. But were they also inviting people outside of the church to walk and participate (which of course would really help them to connect with people who were out in the community)?

Jordana Wright: I’m so glad you mentioned that because I forgot to make that point. That was the biggest part. There were so many people that were so interested in it because it was so different or unusual. You as a group are walking across Canada with people from different provinces? And there were a ton of people who weren’t members of the church. There were a ton of young people that were like, “Yeah, I want to get involved in this. This is so interesting.” Even the Moderator of the United Church was a part of the walking challenge, the most senior elected official within the United Church of Canada. He got in on the walking challenge. And everyone from coast to coast was just 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 at a time in the pandemic when a lot of people were feeling so disconnected and we’re all trying to figure out and find meaning without a sense of community that is physical in nature. This just filled an important need at the time, and it’s something that, again, everyone can participate in. Like the bar of entry is so low. You just got to move a little. Like you don’t have to trek all the way down to a church building and sit in pews. You just got to get moving or you just have to talk with people on the app. That’s the entry point to start the relationship — with no expectations, no motives.

It’s just trying to find a way to bring people together naturally and meaningfully to be in community with one another, whether they’re a part of the church or not. And many were not a part of the church. “We were just so surprised that these were the sorts of things that church folk did together.” First, when they saw that it was a United Church walking challenge, they didn’t understand that it was a church, for whatever reason. I guess they missed that part. But they were just so excited to be involved. And then, as they found out about who many of the members and the challenges were, a lot of folks approached me about getting involved in helping to coordinate these initiatives. Often people think young people aren’t interested in being a part of the church. I don’t know if I just make the church and the work that I do sound particularly exciting — I need to be like an unofficial recruiter for the United Church — but a ton of people who work in tech, in the medical field, and across so many different fields have approached me and see my work and have asked “How can I get involved in the church? How can I do this work, too?” And they just don’t know what that would look like for them and if there’s a place for their gifts within the church at all.

Douglas Powe: I’m talking to Jordana Wright who is a missional innovator, particularly in the context of Canada. And I want to just ask if you have any other thoughts or ideas for people as we enter into this space where more and more individuals are going to be doing hybrid ministry. I really appreciate the integration of thinking about digital beyond Zoom and streaming artists. Are there other thoughts that you would like to share?

Jordana Wright: Yes. One of the things that I think is so important is, before you jump into hybrid ministry or before you jump into thinking about what you’re going to do online, really do a bit of a visioning process with your church and figure out what you’re trying to achieve through this online ministry. Online is real ministry. It is in and of itself a ministry, and 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.

One of the things that I developed in the midst of all this to help folks vision is this coffee hour ministry development card set. I used to do these strategic planning meetings of all the churches that I had worked with, and there’s an increasing need for it. I developed this fun card game that I can take churches through the process of figuring out, “Okay. Where are we? What do we need to do online? What do we need to do to attract new and different people? What does that look like?”

I always recommend starting with a visioning process, a strategic planning process. But don’t get so caught up in thought experiments and visioning. There has to be action behind that, and you have to get moving. But instead of just going to Zoom or going to livestreaming worship, which again can be part of the overall strategy, think about it as a broader ministry that you’re building out, a broader set of experiences that you’re building out online. How can you greet and receive these people online as you would receive someone who walked through the front door of your church? These are all kinds of things that you have to think about. How can you engage with them throughout the week and not just on Sundays? What does that look like? What are special opportunities to do that? These are things you have to be mindful of, and these are things that you have to really sit down and cast a bold vision around and not just let happen as they happen. You have to really think about this in a very thoughtful way.

Douglas Powe: Thank you. As we get ready to come to a close, I know a particular challenge for many congregations is size. When people think particularly about physical space, but also virtual space, they start thinking we need lots of people to make things happen. But the reality is most congregations are smaller in size. 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, when you’re a smaller congregation, you have to be able to make use of tools that amplify your message or amplify your work to make a larger impact. So, these can be things like online platforms, like the Activate Space platform that I developed with a lot of larger churches who have hired me to do this work. These projects can be quite costly. But now there are platforms that exist like the Activate Space platform that I built that you can just log on to. You and people within your neighborhood can just with a click of a button get involved in your church. And these are young people, innovative people, just like me, except in your own local neighborhood who are looking for organizations to work with exactly like your church, so you have to be able to put yourself out there.

You have to find those tools and those opportunities that give you leverage in the sense of amplifying your impact, making sure that you’re not trying to do it all on your own, and relying on experts when you can because experts will make every dollar count. I know it’s hard when you have a small budget to look towards other people who have an expertise in this sort of work. But when you take that step, it actually ends up saving you money because they make every dollar count instead of you running in circles trying to figure out what works best and reinventing the wheel. 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. Don’t be afraid to rely on outside expertise because this is a very particular set of skills around doing these projects. And that’s not just employing someone’s teenage nephew who good at TikToc and online digital stuff and Instagram. This is a very real skill set that for me involves like a decade of expertise, and for a lot of people. I’ve seen the ups and downs, and I know the things that work best, so find those 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. Those are the two main things that I always advise for churches that have a smaller budget or sometimes in rural settings or remote settings where they have a smaller congregation. These are the things that we can all do and that don’t cost very much.

Douglas Powe: Well, thank you. I really appreciate your insights and your wisdom. It’s been great having this conversation with you.

Jordana Wright: It’s been so great speaking with you. And, I have to add, this is one of my favorite podcasts. When I told some of my colleagues in ministry that I’d be on it, they were quite excited. So, you do have a very large and thriving Canadian audience as well.

Douglas Powe: Well, good. And now they’re going to get to hear you, and yes.

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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 also co-editor with Jessica Anschutz of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024) and coauthor with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation (Fortress, 2022). His previous books include The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020); Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations; 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.