Digital Parish: Living the word in digital space (training session)

We’re going to work on adapting our world-changing message regarding God’s grace for a digital-first culture. Let's explore living the good word in digital space.

This episode itself is an adaptation. It's repurposed content from a training Ryan Dunn did. It answers questions about how we repurpose content for sharing across multiple platforms and how we position our own digital representations as ambassadors for our ministries.

The Episode

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Show Notes

During the training, Ryan referenced this video from Checkpoint Church and Nathan Webb.


He also shared this video from Pastor Sara of Vineyard United Methodist Church in Minnesota:


Which could inspire a repurposed posts like this:

Am I doing what God wants me to be doing?

Finally, referenced some podcast stats from a podcast he worked on. This is the image of the stats he referenced:

Targeted daily engagement results for a podcast

This is Pastoring in the Digital Parish. My name is Ryan Dunn.

It’s a season for adaptability, isn’t it? You know, statements like that are likely always true. Or, in the least, maybe they SHOULD always be true.

Right now, one of the ways people in ministry are called towards adaptability is in the ways in which we engage with other people. But you probably know this, that’s why you’re here, listening to this podcast. You’re adapting to our new digital-first culture and are looking for community and resources for the practice of ministry amidst this culture. Well, that’s what this podcast is meant to supply.

So, in this episode, we’re going to work on adapting our world-changing message regarding God’s grace for a digital-first culture. We’re going to work on living the good word in digital space.

This episode itself is an adaptation. And the way it’s an adaptation might serve some purpose itself. You see, I schedule a majority of the season in advance, mostly recording episodes several weeks out. But due to some scheduling hiccups and my own time off, I’ve hit a bit of a scheduling desert and didn’t have an interview lined up for this week’s episode. But I’ve still got plenty of content to give you.

So I’ve taken some of the content and repurposed it. In fact, that’s one of the principles we’re exploring in this session. The recording I’m about to present was originally for a training session I presented. If you’re listening to this on audio, you’ll catch a couple references to visual cues. I don’t think you miss anything by not seeing them. BUT, the full video presentation is going up on AND the videos I play in this presentation will also be linked through the show notes.

So this is my presentation on Living the Word in Digital Space.


Our Methodist tradition came about because John Wesley and companions focused on a ministry of presence. In their time, they took to open air preaching and meeting together in spaces outside of the church building in order to bring and breathe the Good News into spaces where people were present.
- In this session, we’re going to work on claiming that for the 21st century.

- Focusing on how we can present and breath the Good News of God’s love into digital spaces like Facebook so that the world may know and be transformed by God’s grace.

My name is Ryan Dunn.

  • I serve as the Minister of Online Engagement for Rethink Church…
  • Which is actually a brand presence of United Methodist Communications
  • Rethink Church is the portal through which we attempt to communicate with seekers
  • Seekers, in this case, are individuals who are curious about faith but not engaged in a church.
  • So my job is to get people who don’t care about church to care about church.
  • I’m pretty sure the best way to do this is to share stories of transformation – so I specialize in figuring out digital ways to share stories of the church bringing people together and changing peoples lives… it’s really fun, challenging and hopeful work.
  • Because I get to talk about the best of what the church does.
  • I’m going to encourage you to think about utilizing your influence digitally to share those stories. We’re going to move from be information specialists to story tellers in digital space.
  • Fr Greg Boyle said “It’s not surprising that God’s greatest wish for us is our greatest wish, too—that we become one.
  • That wish is expressed in the church, isn’t it?
  • So my job is to share the hopeful stories of the church helping people become one.
  • A little more about me: I’m an ordained deacon in the North Carolina Conference. I now serve on extension at UMCOM in Nashville TN.
  • Prior to this gig, I was in youth and young adult ministry for 15 years… which is like 30 years in other jobs… because youth ministers age like dogs.
  • Prior to that I worked in digital marketing for United Airlines and in radio production.
  • In my current role at UMCOM, I oversee the Rethink Church social media accounts, I troll the internet for the sake of Christ, I write for, I produce a couple podcasts.
  • And I produce social media videos.

The pandemic of 2020-21(?) heightened an awareness to the trend that the content many of us create for religious communities no longer seems to have the impact it once did. Pre-pandemic, most ministries enjoyed a well-established platform—in our case that platform was often the pulpit or Sunday morning worship. So each week we created a valuable piece of content and happily delivered that content to our target audience, who sat in the pews before us.

But now our audience is no longer in the pews. The Barna group found that even when COVID-related restrictions end, only 41% of church-engaged Gen Z members plan on returning to regular attendance of in-person worship. Only 42% of millennials say they prefer in-person worship. It’s important to note that these stats only reflect those who already claim to be part of our churches--they don’t touch on people who are not currently engaged in faith communities. People--especially younger people—seek to engage in faith communities in ways outside of in-person worship.

It’s becoming less and less likely we’ll see as many people return to the pews as we were accustomed to seeing pre-pandemic. The younger, digitally-native generations already had a built-in resistance to our standardized form of content delivery (the pulpit) and are now finding the world bending to their preferred modes of consumption. They’re multimedia consumers who find value in snippets of information. Our content delivery method of speaking from a podium for 20 minutes (or more) feels foreign to them.

In our world today, we are discovering new ways to be present with one another. In younger generations, virtual and digital presence counts as actual presence. Relationships are formed in digital space. I have a 13-year old son who counts other teens, who he’s only met through online games, as friends. That’s foreign to me (a 45-year old). But it’s native to him. He experiences real presence in digital space.

Our call in this new world revolves around making our world-rocking message present in digital spaces. In the Christian tradition, we believe the message is most effectively delivered when it puts on flesh. That sounds counter to presenting a message in digital space. But in a world where the boundaries between digital and corporeal are blurred, we are invited to consider how we begin to digitally embody the word. How does our digital presence embody God’s world-changing message?

That’s a big invitation for those of us in ministry. We know where the people are. The invitation is for us to consider how we are utilizing these digital spaces to connect with people and share our world-rocking messages with them. Have we made the digital space our third space?

In order to meet people online, we probably need to understand why people engage in digital spaces.

  • For the most part, we don’t get online for the most altruistic reasons. Actually, when we get online it is most often to indulge some pretty selfish desires.
  • Generally, we’re dive into social media or web surfing because we
  • A) want to learn something either about or for ourselves.
  • Or B) we want someone else to know something about us.

I’m not different

  • If you were to troll my social media feeds you’d see I’m pretty into sharing things about myself.
  • The music I’m listening to… how my pets spend the day… my grocery list (not sure what I was up there…)… or even that my teenager thinks I’m the world’s best dad… which you can bet I’m pretty darn proud of.
  • Fellow UM social media trainer Dan Wunderlich told me that when it comes to online content, we are really attracted to stuff that makes us out to be the hero.
  • OR, in the least, sends us on the hero’s path.
  • So I don’t mind reading an online article that isn’t about me… so long as I perceive that the information it’s providing me is sending me down the hero’s path.
  • On some level, there’s some kind of selfish ambition within that holds an assumption that consuming online media is going to make me the hero.
  • They used to say you could tell what’s important to a person by what they had hanging on their walls. Do you think that is true for you? If someone walked through your home today could they tell what you value or what your interests are?
  • If we carried that idea over to our social media walls, we’d likely see that a LOT of us value ourselves. That’s not universally true… it’s only MOSTLY true.

Now we can use this idea as a jumping off point for how we engage in digital ministry.

  • We know that people are looking to learn something about or for themselves.
  • We also know that they are accustomed to seeing everybody else sharing something of themselves.
  • When you combine those factors, we see that many people are turning to social media and digital platforms just to reinforce that they are not alone in the world.
  • This presents the second thing people are looking for online: to connect with real people.
  • So, we’ve seen that online users want to engage with content that tells them about themselves.
  • And they want to connect with other human beings.
  • That can be a challenge for those of us who are communicating on behalf of institutions.
  • For me, that’s the Rethink Church brand.
  • For you, it’s likely your church or ministry.
  • The challenge then moves us to question how we are conveying the information we hope to communicate through the digital reflections of real people.
  • To me, this drives us towards some traditional practices that we know as Christians.
  • One is to share testimony as much as possible—and, in this case, I don’t necessarily mean constantly sharing a come to Jesus moment and a call for repentance… although there are def times to do that… instead, in this case, I mean offering a platform for stories of impact. Allow people to share their stories… because, again, we’re jumping online in order to be reassured that we aren’t alone.

The other traditional practice is a lot like stained glass windows.

  • Before everyone could read, stained glass helped portray the stories of the faith.
  • Even now, churches that utilize stained glass windows use them to convey what’s important to their community, don’t they?
  • The stained glass windows portray important events in our faith tradition
  • Knowing this crowd, I’ll bet you can look at this window and, without any context, tell the class the who and what of this particular scene.
  • Many of us have windows just like this at our church facilities.
  • They used to say you could tell what’s important to a person by what they had hanging on their walls. Do you think that is true for you? If someone walked through your home today could they tell what you value or what your interests are? How about your church?
  • Today we call our Facebook representations “profiles” instead of “walls”. But people still view our profiles much like they view the walls in our homes or the windows in our church buildings--they’re checking them out to see what’s important to us.
  • So we’re going to use these digital spaces to communicate our shared-community values.
  • And, as much as possible, we want to share real stories of our people enacting or talking about those values.
  • What we’re doing, then, is creating a brand for our faith community.
  • In the marketing world, we use the term “branding” as a way of referring to our values, vision and perception.
  • Branding sounds corporate and market-y, but it’s simply a way to focus our messages. We want to stay on brand… which is just a short-cut way of saying that we want to make sure our messages and content reflect the values and mission of our ministries.

Let’s get practical. What does this content actually look like?

  • The short answer is this: it can look like nearly anything so long as it meets a few criteria:
  • First, that it’s on brand.
  • Second that it provides access to a human being
  • Thirdly, that it speaks to your audience.
  • For this third criteria, it’s really helpful to have a target audience in mind.
  • Know who  you’re posting for.
  • In the publishing world, they say that a book that’s for everyone isn’t for anybody.
  • Online content works the same way.
  • I generally build archetypes for who each piece of content is for.
  • I several built. I’ve given them each names.
  • There’s Justin and Angela and Caleb and Pablo.
  • They’re all based on real people who I’ve interacted with.
  • So for your purposes, it probably makes sense to build your archetypes on actual people in your ministry or congregation.
  • So one archetype might be Michael, who was the first person to register when you started going back to in-person worship.
  • Another might Lucy, who attends about once a quarter. She’s regularly part of the quilting group. But otherwise tends to stay at the margins.
  • What can you post for her.
  • The archetypes are helpful because they help define content.
  • They can also make sure you’re presenting a broad range of content.
  • So I might look at our recent posts at Rethink Church, and realize that I haven’t done anything that is for Justin for a quite a while. I might want to address that.
  • I’m going to a play of a video post from my friend Nathan Webb… listen for how he addresses the criteria. [Plays video]
  • The criteria were met pretty clearly, weren’t they.
  • He was clear about the community values
  • He was human
  • And he def has a specific audience
  • The other things I love about this video… besides the cool little graphic thing at the beginning, it’s a low-tech video.
  • It’s possible he just set up his phone and recorded that thing.
  • There aren’t slick edits. He did some jump editing there. So maybe he messed up while speaking… it happens… he just cut it out without concern for transition—that’s pretty acceptable now.
  • Now, not all of our content is going to be some kind of explainer video like this.
  • It might not even be a video.
  • I just liked how clearly this met the criteria for a piece of content that connects.

When we’re talking about content… we’re not always talking about videos or blog posts that need to be generated from scratch.

  • Churches are already content machines.
  • You have content being generated in your community every week, if not every day.
  • For another good content example, I’ll offer this video…
  • [Play vid]
  • This is obviously an excerpt from the Sunday sermon
  • Not the whole, thing, just part.
  • It let’s people see a church leader—in this case, Pastor Sara at Vineyard UMC.
  • I would say she’s speaking to a specific audience… in this case, committed followers who are struggling with purpose.
  • Which is totally on brand for a church, right? We’re pushing and people along on their discipleship journeys.
  • This segment speaks to that.
  • And the Sunday sermon can be a treasure trove of content.
  • So you get a video segment like this…[plays video]
  • Then you can pull out a quote and it’s more content.
  • Do you make sermon transcripts available online?
  • That might be a good idea… Just for accessibility purposes
  • OR, if you make audio recordings of sermons available
  • You can tease those on social media…
  • Now believe it or not, the content generation may actually be the easy part.
  • Sure, it will take a little while to get rolling. But once you find a rhythm, it will come rather easily… especially if you really mine the Sunday sermon for content.
  • The toughest part, at least for me, is actually getting the content in front of people.
  • A platform like Facebook is not set up for institutional entities, like our churches, to reach a lot of people without us investing advertising dollars.
  • So you can create a really awesome piece of content—like Pastor Nate or Pastor Sara—and then only 5 people see it.
  • The problem isn’t necessarily the content.
  • The problem might be that the system is made to prioritize your entity.
  • Facebook particularly wants people interacting with people.
  • So that is what we must lean into…
  • I once attended an evangelism training where the leadership encouraged the participants to assign themselves “fishing ponds”. The “ponds” were spaces where we could offer presence. For me, the pond became a local coffee shop and bakery. It was my third space (my home and my office being my primary spaces). I got to know the staff there. I had a number of impromptu conversations with people there. I met friends of friends there. I spent so much time there that one church member said “if I didn’t know better, I’d say we’re paying you to drink coffee here all day.” He was kind of right. I purposefully inserted myself into that coffee shop for the purpose of meeting new people and sharing a message of kindness and hope with them. I was there to be a ministerial presence.


  • I couldn’t go to the coffee shop today. Even if I could, people wouldn’t have the same openness to stopping and engaging me in conversation. I hope that time returns--but it will take a while before we’re all comfortable doing that.


  • However, people are hanging out in digital spaces more than ever. They are more ready to engage in conversation in those spaces more than ever before. They are connecting with real people through those spaces more than ever before. And it seems that many are going to continue using virtual means to form connections.
  • So here’s what hanging out at a fishing pond looks like today:
  • I joined 25 FB groups around various topics related to my areas of interest… things like parenting, dad’s groups, I’m really interested in podcasting so I joined a number of those groups.
  • And everyday I spend 15-30 minutes interacting in those groups.
  • And here’s the key with those groups… I don’t post any links in those groups—it’s not not like I’m dropping in just to say “Hey, I posted this article on… here‘s a link.
  • Instead, I’m interacting as everyone else does, offering insight where appropriate and support wherever possible.
  • And then, on my personal profile, I make sure that my bio is up to date with relevant links and that I’m sharing posts or links from my, Rethink Church, or whatever other entity I’m
  • The bottom line is this… your church’s Facebook page may have 1000 followers.
  • And you can post a killer post with all the right keywords and meeting the right criteria.
  • 10 people are going to see it.
  • If you turn around and re-post that post on your personal account, another 10 people are going to see it.
  • If you drop a nice response in a Facebook group and people start looking at your profile… 20 more people are going to see it…
  • Do you see the exponential possibilities there?
  • This represents downloads on a podcast I work on.
  • You can see most days downloads hovered just above zero, despite my daily posts to my branded social media pages.
  • Then at the end of Feb, I started doing the daily social engagements.
  • And look what happened.
  • This would actually look like a huge rise but that one big spike at March 10 threw the whole thing.
  • And I wish I knew specifically what I did to drive all that traffic on March 10… because then I would do it again… and again, and again…
  • That single day aside, the reach of the content for this period tripled from beginning to end… which is pretty good.

We are an incarnational people.

  • To us, presence matters.
  • That God became present in human history through the person of Jesus represents the biggest event in history.
  • Our calling is to live that presence of love ourselves.
  • We live that by walking into a room and offering the love of Christ.
  • The pandemic has challenged the way in which we practice presence with one another.
  • We’re not lost, though. We’re not without hope.
  • I believe we’re at a point when we’re being challenged to get creative about how we practice presence.
  • So with that, I’m not sure there’s a wrong a way to be doing any of this.
  • I think anytime we can show up in a digital space—spaces that often feel negative for many—anytime we can show up there and offer light and love, then we’re doing something positive.
  • So I’ll close with this thought from the Gospel of Chocolate…
  • In case it’s tough to read, that says “Your vibe attracts your tribe.”
  • That’s particularly true in the digital world.
  • Through out a positive, grace-filled vibe, and you’ll find a tribe that is mostly positive and grace-filled in return.


OK, obviously we’re not having a Q&A session here. BUT, the conversation does continue in our Pastoring in the Digital Parish Facebook group. That is linked on the show notes page… and also we’ll have the full video presentation and links to the referenced videos there, as well.

I’m Ryan Dunn. We’ll be back with a new episode next week. We’ve got episodes coming up on moving people from viewers to members, practices of rest and renewal, and best practices for pastoral branding.

Thanks, again, for all the support and resourcing supplied by United Methodist Communications. 




On this episode

Ryan Dunn, co-host and producer of the Compass Podcast

Our proctor/host is the Rev. Ryan Dunn, a Minister of Online Engagement for United Methodist Communications. Ryan manages the digital brand presence of Rethink Church, co-hosts and produces the Compass Podcast, manages his personal brand, and obsesses with finding ways to offer new expression of grace.