Digital Parish: Season one wrap up

Community, not content, is the key. Host Ryan Dunn reviews his biggest revelations from season one of Pastoring in the Digital Parish.

It's been an exciting and fun experience in putting this podcast together. Now that we've learned from so many informative instructors, what will we do next? In this season one finale, Ryan Dunn shares the implications for his work with Rethink Church

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In this session of Pastoring in the Digital Parish, we’re wrapping up the first semester of our classes.
We’ve had 11 sessions of this digital ministry master class.
It’s finals time.
So consider this session the prep class for the final.
Don’t get too worked up over the final. It just consists of one question… and that will be issued at the end of this session.
My name is Ryan Dunn.
It’s been my sincere pleasure to take this ride through digital ministry over the past several months.
I’ve had fun.
Seriously, it’s a blast getting to talk shop with these thought leaders.
And to challenge one another to think outside the box a little bit.
One of the exciting developments over the past year plus has been the embracing of a sense of innovation--and whimsy with that.
I get a sense that within the church we’re learning to laugh with some of our mistakes. 
We’ve embraced an ability to say “that didn’t go perfectly… but we tried. Now what can we do better?”
That’s fun.
More importantly than just having fun, though, I’ve learned a ton. 
All of it is going to be practical in my own practice of digital ministry through the Rethink Church brand.
In this episode, I’m going to lay out my own key takeaways and the implications those takeaways have for ministry.
I think by doing that you’ll be able to glean some solid takeaways for your own ministry as well.
Of course, as you do hear something that seems relevant for your context, I encourage you to go back and listen to the whole episode on that topic. 
I’m going to try and reference back as much as possible so you know just where to go to get the information you want.
If you have follow up questions, I really encourage you to drop into the Pastoring in the Digital Parish Facebook group and ask away. 
Many of the presenters are part of that group--as well as a bunch of experienced, nice practitioners who probably have some great perspective and experience to offer as well.
So consider yourself invited to the group.
OK. So a year ago… in the midst of all that was 2020… many of us got into some form digital ministry.
We may have entered the digi-min realm as a form of a stop-gap.
Because we couldn’t meet with people. 
The only thing we could do was touch base in a socially distanced manner… and that meant trying to do ministry through digital means.
We might have viewed digital ministry as a stopgap.
It was a way to tread water, so to speak, until things went back to “normal”
But the pandemic has accelerated a trend that was already underway in our culture.
As we talked with James Kang back in the session about digital-first ministry, we were introduced to ideas about digital-first culture.
For many people, digital interactions are not stop gaps.
They are not substitutions for something real.
Instead, digital interactions and the relationships they facilitate are real.
These relationships come to full fruition in digital space.
That seems strange to some of us, no doubt.
But it’s increasingly normal to large portion of our culture--including people engaged in your ministries.
That means that there are people in your congregation who--even if you’ve gone back to meeting in person--still prefer to engage digitally.
And you can bet that if you’re not offering it, then they’re going some place else in digital space to scratch that digital engagement itch.
They are a digital-first or digital native culture.
I’ve heard several accounts from church leaders who admitted their small group ministry engagements have grown over the period of social distancing.
That’s not a stop-gap.
That’s not just staying afloat.
That’s growth and it’s worth pursuing.
Consider this…
A father has been interested in joining a weeknight journaling group.
But between getting home from his place of work.
Trying to carve family time by sharing a meal together with the family.
And then heading back out to go to the church facility for the journaling group… that feels like too high a barrier of entry to him to really pursue.
But, for the past several months he’s been logging in to the virtual journaling meet-ups and participating.
Now, you may not have the exact scenario I described… but I’ll bet you can think of a similar one.
Digital presence increases the accessibility of our ministries.
Of course, that feels like it’s not a fully engaging scenario for some of us.
We want to incarnate with each other.
We want to be physically present with one another.
Incarnation was an ever-present in a lot of our conversations this past season.
We feel a bit removed when we’re not physically together.
Wil Ranney helped us see that many of the connections that we look for IRL (in real life) are still present in digital space--at least, the important functions of friendship are still there.
We’re still able to offer support to one another.
We’re still able to express empathy and sympathy.
We’re still able to advocate for one another.
It’s just different.
And Wil made some great points about incarnation and God’s ability to really incarnate where God will.
It’s a bit surprising that God would incarnate in human form.
But here we are, Christians, worshipping a God who occupied a strange and surprising space in order to reach us.
That probably doesn’t put the whole “is digital as good as in-person gathering” debate to bed.
Instead, I hope it acts as an invitation to keep engaging in digital and not simply dropping it when we feel like we can return to “normal”.
Somebody is going to keep looking to engage digitally, and many ministries are going to keep offering digital options.
And an increasing number are going to platform themselves primarily in digital space, without a primary for in-person gathering.
We met a few of those who are connecting primarily through digital means without much regard for in-person relationship.
Dana Malstaff of Boss Moms… Nathan Webb of Checkpoint Church… Shannon Karafanda of Holy Mischief Makers… they all lead communities that just connect in digital means.
Their digital space is the primary destination for their constituents. 
So Pastor Nate of Checkpoint isn’t evangelising on Twitch so that he can bring people into his sanctuary on Sunday morning.
Checkpoint Church doesn’t have a sanctuary.
They are an all-digital community.
So they engage in community forming and discipleship online.
Now, I’m Methodist… and that means that I have a view of discipleship that is something lived and practiced over being something learned.
I see the Wesleyan model of discipleship as putting people in touch with disciples of Jesus and inviting them to do what disciples do.
Discipleship is learned in action. That was kind of the point of the Methods of Methodism.
You know, do this, and you’ll be on a discipleship journey.
So today, the conveners of digital community--people like Dana, Shannon and Nathan--have figured out something when it comes to engaging people in a digital space that a lot of us in ministry have been a bit slow to learn.
In fact, this may be the most a-ha like revelation FOR ME from this first season of the podcast:
See, I have been engaged in a form of digital ministry that is very much about information.
And there’s a strong chance that your church might have been engaging in this kind of digital ministry, too.
In the information-focused model of digital ministry, we devote most of our efforts to communicating information.
We’re the big believers of the old adage that content is key.
We want to get eyeballs on the stuff we post online.
So if you cruise through our aggregated social media streams, you see a lot of links to our web pages or blogs.
You might see quite a few videos--most of which involve a presentation of some kind--
Something like a Sunday sermon.
Or an announcement.
Maybe a theological explanation of something...
You’ll see information about events that we have coming up.
So the who/what/where/when/how of our back-to-school kick-off party.
Does this stuff sound familiar?
If this kind of content dominates your social media feed, you’ve joined me hosting an information-focused ministry.
That is not the kind of ministry that translates well in digital space.
It’s too limited.
It means that only real interactions that happen are between the institution and singular persons.
It’s tough to facilitate community connection that way.
Instead, the alternative resembles a bit more of Wesleyan model of discipleship.
It encourages peer-to-peer interaction.
People like Nathan, Dana and Shannon see themselves as facilitators for people engaging with one another--not just for engaging with their ministry or business.
That revelation came as a big challenge to me…
How do I facilitate ways in which people digitally interact with eah other?
When we figure that out, that’s when community and discipleship happens.
I’m going to give a glimpse behind the curtain…
Let’s take a look at how this revelation could affect the ministry of Rethink Church.
Now, we need to note that Rethink Church is unique.
It’s a brand we utilize at United Methodist Communications in order to connect with people who aren’t fully engaged in church and then invite them into participation in a local congregation.
So our goal is not to make members of Rethink Church.
Our goal is to make members of other churches.
That being said, our model for interaction for a long time has been on getting people to interact with our content.
We write a lot of web articles articulating Methodist thought, practice and belief.
We produce short teaching videos.
We drop a lot of quotes on our social media streams.
And we provide spiritual practices for individuals to begin to employ.
All this is informative content.
It has some use, but it’s not totally useful in getting people to interact with one another.
So our content gets a lot of views, but it doesn’t get a ton of interaction.
Does that make sense?
So when people do interact with our content, they’re interfacing with the brand, and not the people around the brand.
Nor are they interacting with other members of the community.
I think our practitioners of digital discipleship have figured out that content is not in fact key. Community is key.
Now, this does not mean that content, like videos, blogs and memes doesn’t have any place.
Content does have place.
When Jim Keats was teaching us about content that engages, he referred to our content as a campfire--it’s a place or event that invites people to gather and converse.
That’s a shift in how we think about content.
Because a piece of content that acts as a campfire might not be about information. It’s about igniting conversation and community.
So for Rethink Church, one of our initial shifts is going to have to address the kind of content we’re creating: are we creating content that inspires one person to talk to another?
Shannon Karafanda of Holy Mischief Makers has found a way to produce content that inspires interaction in the form of user-generated content. 
Shannon gives a weekly challenge to create holy mischief… good trouble, if you will… 
Community members then interact with each other around the content.
In the same way, Dana Malstaff of Boss Mom generates user-engaging content simply by inviting her community to ask and answer each other’s questions.
That sounds so simple, right?
It also sounds scary.
Because it involves us loosening the control we maintain over community’s a little bit.
So for more information on how she navigates those sometimes tricky waters, I invite you to listen to the session with Dana Malstaff.
Now, we were reminded again and again that the medium is often the message.
And our conveners of digital community have figured that out as well.
Of all the people we heard from through the course of this season, none of them bragged about their Twitter game.
A platform like Twitter wasn’t relevant to them pertaining to the idea of digital community.
That’s because a platform like Twitter is a broadcast platform.
It’s meant for one person to reach many, without inviting a ton of response.
Instead, we found our digital community conveners talking a lot about Facebook groups, Discord, and a little bit of TikTok and Instagram.
These are platforms based on peer-to-peer interaction. The medium communicates the message that they want people talking to each other.
Facebook Groups is probably the most readily accessible for most of us.
And Facebook has very publicly embraced the idea that they want people interacting with people.
If you remember a couple years ago they made well-publicized changes to their algorithm that changed the way users were presented content.
Branded institutions like Rethink Church were devalued in the algorithm while your friends and family were boosted in the algorithm.
The real result was that Rethink Church’s reach dropped on average to 1/10 of its previous level.
Meaning that a post that used to get 30,000 views not got 3,000.
The point was that Facebook wanted people to spend more time on the platform… and people did that when they engaged with each other… not when they clicked a link to look at
As a result, Facebook pages started to take a backseat to Facebook groups.
Because groups were the places in which people primarily engaged with one another.
If the medium is the message, a Facebook Page says “I want to tell you something.” A group says “I want to know you.”
So the invitation for Rethink Church is to re-engage in a Facebook group, so that we may know the people who are tasked with reaching with the Good News.
And then, there’s a whole new platform called Discord.
We heard all about Discord through Discord (and Jesus) evangelist Nathan Webb.
Discord brands itself as the easiest way to talk over voice, video and text.
It is a platform built to host conversations--much the same way that chat rooms were built for conversations back in the 1990’s. 
Again, if the medium is the message, what does a presence on Discord say about your ministry?
I’ll leave that there.
There’s something curious going on with TikTok, as well.
TikTok has interesting Duet features where users riff on, respond to, or sometimes mock other peoples posts. 
In a lot of Duet posts, one responder offers and answer to a direct question from another poster.
It’s not quite community inspiring… but it is interaction and invites users to be a part of a movement.
So the implications for Rethink Church, as you might very well have figured, include building Facebook groups, Discord and a TikTok presence.
These are platforms where our adapted content will, hopefully, foster some community engagement amidst our users.
Want to join in?
Any good movement needs its brand advocates.
I’d love to share the experience with you! Links will be posted in the show notes as they become available.
That restates the key point of this episode in a way. 
When it comes to digital ministry, content doesn’t mean much outside of community.
Content is not key. Community is the key.
So here’s the challenge I’ve really derived from season one:
It’s not about how I get eyeballs on what I create.
It’s about how we get people talking to each other.
That’s a paradigm shift in my context.
Is it a shift in yours?
Tell us about it in the Pastoring in the Digital Parish Facebook group (ha! See what I did there?!)
Also, tell us how your final exam goes.
Are you ready for the one, single, final exam question?
It’s simply a pass/fail question. Either you move on it, or you don’t.
And of course there’s no actual credit for this.
But there is the pending success of your digital ministry endeavor.
ANYWAYS… here’s the question:
Now what? 
Given what you’ve learned in this season of Pastoring in the Digital Parish, what are YOU going to do? What’s next for you?
What’s next for the Pastoring in the Digital Parish podcast?
We’re taking 6 weeks to get season 2 together. 
Meaning that season 2 will start dropping in September of 2021.
Look for it on as well as your podcast listening platform.
If you want to touch base with me, Ryan Dunn--the producer of this podcast, send an email to [email protected] You can also find more points of connection at
Big thanks to United Methodist Communications for sponsoring this podcast. 
If you’d like to offer some thanks, you can do so by hitting subscribe to this podcast, then dropping a positive rating or review on your podcast listening platform.
Thanks again! My name is Ryan Dunn, and I’ll talk with you soon.


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.