Dave Odom: Design comes to church

A design team brainstorms together.

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In a time when congregations are customizing or developing their own events and services, all church leaders are designers. The design process centers around questions about audience and needs, writes the executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

“What are we going to study next?” In listening as two church Bible study teachers worried about what would engage their group, I longed for the “good old days” when our denomination laid out lesson plans, provided all the materials and offered training. If our denomination tried to do that now, these teachers would be suspicious.

What has changed?

In the program era, national denominational offices designed most events and services for congregations. Through publishing houses, the denomination supplied all the materials. Regional denominational groups furnished training for teachers. The system required a stable world with a homogeneous audience. For those who inhabited such a world, the system worked pretty well.

With such stability gone, and amid a growing hope for honoring diverse voices, events and services are now almost always designed at the local level. This is one of several factors that have dramatically increased the workload for pastors and church staff. Publishing houses still produce materials, but now church leaders sift through the materials to choose specifically what series to teach. Nearly everyone feels responsible to customize what they purchase. Even then, it is difficult to satisfy the needs of each group in a church. Larger congregations often embark on writing their own materials.

The signs of this “age of design” are everywhere. Each smartphone user designs her phone’s functionality and look by installing apps, customizing alerts and selecting backgrounds. The more a user invests in creating her own design, the more valuable the device will be.

Good designers focus first on those who will be served. Who are they? What do they say they need? How will they be engaged? The design process begins with identifying the audience, asking good questions and listening carefully to the answers.

Designers use what they learn from this initial step to inform the development of the design idea, as well as the means for measuring its effectiveness. And they continue to ask questions: What impact are we trying to achieve? How does that impact relate to the needs the audience has identified?

After these two steps, designers begin brainstorming all the possible ways forward. They create and test prototypes. They refine the ideas that show promise and test again.

My colleague Gretchen Ziegenhals describes this process as one of deep hospitality that reflects the core of what the church is about, pointing to Genesis 18, where Abraham and Sarah receive three visitors to their tents in the oaks of Mamre.

How does this work step by step?

For those like me who long for practical guidance to walk through the mystery of design, IDEO’s human-centered design process, which typically is applied to developing products, is instructive. For a broader range of design challenges, the Google Ventures sprint process -- explored in “Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days” -- is a good resource. The process begins with information sharing, understanding the challenge and setting a goal for the week, and then unfolds from that foundation.

When reviewing the literature, you will likely find that you already know something about many of the steps that are wrapped into design process. We all do some of this work every day, although many of us may use different language for it.

The most important insight I have gleaned from working with design thinking experts is that it is crucial to learn from the audience. It would be much easier to start with our own agenda -- what we want to do or what we want to say -- but design thinking requires an empathetic connection to the audience.

Christian leaders are prepared to engage in such deep listening through the practice of theological reflection. We listen for God’s intentions for creation though Scripture reading and prayer, learning to see God as both the author and the audience of our work.

Design requires leaning into conversations, being curious about what is happening, listening carefully to stories, and reflecting thoughtfully and theologically on the hopes and fears expressed. If the ideas that are generated in a design process are grounded in a love of God and neighbor, the result will be the types of services we long to share.