What user experience design says to ecclesiology

April 18, 2011

church / design / theology

One of the things I love most about theology is ecclesiology, the study of the church and how it lives with God in the world. I first remember becoming passionate about it when I took a class in Pastoral Theology, which I think was misnamed; as the class was very much structured around what the church is, what it does in the world, and how we think about those things. I had long wanted to rethink the church, but that class in 2003(?) gave me ways to think about it that I’d never had, and I’m deeply grateful.

Likewise, one of the things I love most about being a designer is user experience. It gradually came into my life, initially through A List Apart, and then through UX Week three years ago. But since then, it has increasingly become a passion of mine to create designs (as a visual designer and a developer) that improve the lives of real people, as this is what it means to me. UX Week, as well as other conferences, books, in-person conversations, and countless bloggers and Twitter folks have given me ways to think about that and practice it in what I hope are significant ways. I’m deeply grateful.

The other day, I was sitting with dear people at our faith community exploring the next stages of our own place. We were dealing with some complex data, and needed to start to figure out what the voice of God and our community was inside that data. In doing this, we had some seminarians, an accounting-type, a city planner, and me, and I felt this was a beautiful mixture.

As I looked at the things before us, it felt like user experience design had a great deal of things to say to us, and that the disciplines that we practice as designers could, along with the other disciplines, help us as a faith community to ask the right questions and create the right structures from our data. We then hoped to present these things to our community, and ask them to seek the voice of God for themselves and our community to see where it would lead.

I still think this, and I think we were able to get to the right places, but I wasn’t able to articulate what I wanted to bring from user experience design into our conversation. Realizing that, especially in light of my own feeling that one of the places that inspires my life is the intersection of design and faith, made me want to think about how to articulate it.1

People at the heart

At the core of user experience are the users who experience the design. This is exemplified in visual design, product design, content strategy, (even sometimes in programming) and all the other areas where folks work to make things people like to use. The beautiful thing about this is that it often really does try to make people’s lives better while creating something they like to use. User experience has had a few years to think about activism. Many of its leaders are concerned about making the world a better place, and I think this is because they’ve learned to think about people as more than consumers. If the field realizes (even some of) its potential, it will affect all of us in ways we can’t yet imagine.

Ecclesiology does not (exclusively) have people at the heart of its thinking. Ideally, it has God at the heart of its thinking (though this is not at all a given). But missional ecclesiology (and others, over the years) has what God is doing in the world among the people that he loves at the heart of its thinking. It seeks to involve people in experience of, and pursuit of, the kingdom of God. Again, it thinks of them as more than consumers, and this is a deep shift that cannot be overestimated.

How we figure out what God is doing among people, and how to go with them toward the kingdom of God, can be deeply impacted by the disciplines of user experience. We can’t know what God is doing among people until we know them and find out from them, and this is one of the most important things good design can teach us to do.

Helping people to do more than consume

At its best, good design helps people to do things more than it helps them to consume things. It does involve consumption, as does any part of our economy, but this is not where it thrives. It thrives in helping people to do things. Google, Twitter, and Apple, to name a few, all do this. They give us things they want us to consume, but they also give us deep opportunities to do things in the world, whether it be learning to organize information or catalyze deep cultural change or create entirely new ways for us to do what we already need to do, or even simply to look at the world as a bigger place (all three of these companies do all of these things).

The church, as well, exists to help people do more than consume things. It typically just wants people to come in, consume religious goods and services, and then pay some money for them, but this is not where it thrives or where it is called to be. Inviting people into the kingdom of God means is inviting them into something that is far bigger than they are, and giving them opportunities to do something there.


I put this last, as I think it can be the easiest to misunderstand. Good design always creates things that real people can really use. Things that are unusable make it harder to do things, whether they’re beautiful things that change the world or stupid things that numb us into thinking there is meaning where there is none.

This doesn’t mean it has to be simple, though simplicity is a wonderful thing that most designs could use a lot more of. It means that the design should be as simple as it needs to be in order to be used and experienced properly. If we’ve added complexity for complexity’s sake that makes people frustrated, confused, or unable to do what they want, we’ve designed badly. But if we’ve been simple for simplicity’s sake and neglected features that are necessary, we’ve still designed badly.

This could lead us, again, to think of the seeker-sensitive church. And it’s true, they’ve done a great job at making usable things. One could walk into any megachurch in any suburb, and know exactly where to go, what to do, and what to expect next if it wasn’t the first time.

But can you imagine walking into one of those for the first time, without prior experience of Christendom? If you can, or if you’ve ever been involved in planning for one of them, you’ll know that the last thing they are is simple, and often they are simply not usable. And this is the question for us who seek to form communities for post-Christendom: how do we make our communities usable? How do they allow people to be invited into the kingdom of God without the equivalent of things that are not links but look like links, things that are links but don’t look like them, and forms that ask us questions that don’t make any sense (to name a few)?

Toward a user experience ecclesiology

In designing these communities, we in more missional settings typically have the freedom to be more organic and shape things as we go, but my argument is that we can consider these disciplines that allow us to think about how people will actually experience what we create.

This will lead us to ask questions that we wouldn’t otherwise ask, of ourselves as shapers of community, of others who join us, and further (as people who would at least like to be incarnational types) of the people around us who are not yet part of our communities. We’ll need to think about how to see people as deeply equal participants rather than consumers, how to help them see themselves that way as part of something huge, and also how to make our simplicity deep enough and our complexity understandable enough to reach into real lives.

We need to think about ecclesiology in a number of other disciplines as well, and they’ll all have deeply valuable things to contribute as well, but design can be one that gives structure to the stories we’re telling.

  1. Initially, I thought a direct parallel of user experience design and ecclesiology would lead us to the seeker-sensitive church of the last century, most exemplified by Rick Warren’s Saddleback. I remember reading the story of his development of that church, and while I don’t have any interest in that model there was good content in there. But of course, it’s thoroughly an attractional model. Personas were created of the citizens of Orange County, and then programs were created to attract those folks. It has worked well for them of course, and that’s fine, but it’s not the kind of missional community that we have sought to create and be a part of. []