The Church as Wikipedia (Open Source Church, Chapter 2)

Since my manuscript deadline is now a mere two months away (November 1) and my travel schedule as PCUSA Vice-Moderator is going to ramp up soon, I’m starting to get antsy. As I wrote the other day, I’ve got to get this done. My brain is starting to generate brand new ideas after working on this one for about 3 years, and I’m anxious to begin something new.

As before, I’m using a plain text editor, so refer back for the legend.

I think I need real feedback on this one, y’all. This is the linchpin chapter, I think. As such, there needs to be a strong case made for the differences between open source church and the church we have. I don’t think it has to hit the reader over the head, but maybe it does.

Any how, I now get to write the portion of the book that made me want to write it in the first place. I’m blocking out writing time every day for the next few weeks so I should make a lot of headway. Unless I don’t.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *


At some level, the notion of a “Wikipedia Church” makes a lot of sense – even if we’ve never thought of it before.

*Wikipedia: The encyclopedia that anyone can edit
Wikicclesia: The church that anyone can edit*

It kind of brings a smile to your face doesn’t it? More importantly, it touches on a very real reality facing the church today: Wikipedia is a part of our every day lives.

According to the internet statistics aggregator Alexa Internet, every day 13% of the world’s internet users visit Wikipedia for some reason. At the time of this writing Wikipedia was listed as the 6th most popular website in the USAmerica and 7th worldwide. 13 million people worldwide are listed as “registered users” and in the last 30 days an average of 135,000 of those users have edited an article on the site.

Wikipedia has become as synonymus with “encyclopedia” as Google has with “search.” The “wiki” phenomenon has caught fire, spawning many cousin sites each dedicated to cataloging their own (often) niche corner of the world (my personal favorite is Wookiepedia – the Star Wars Wiki).

Given this reality, how do we as the church expect to be the least bit appealing to people who increasingly live their lives knowing that they can “Wiki it.” Anyone, anywhere can log on to the internet and edit the world’s largest encyclopedia. They can contribute to the “sum of all human knowledge.” They can offer the gifts of knowledge that they have to the world and generations to come. Yet we expect them to walk into our churches and simply take what’s handed to them and do it the way we say they should? I don’t think so.

Read a blog post, an article or any number of books on “emerging/emergent/emergence Christianity” and you’re likely to find some reference to Wikipedia in the text. It is increasingly becoming a popular metaphor for the way many would like to see the church structure itself and operate, but not a lot of time has been spent on the particulars of it or why it works as well as it does.


Wikipedia didn’t start out as the game-changer that it is. In the beginning it started by playing second fiddle to another online encyclopedia, Nupedia.

According to the “History of Wikipedia” article on the Wikipedia site, Nupedia was viewed by its founders, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, as a serious enterprise. Although it was to be a free, online site, Nupedia, was built on the idea of using contirbutirs who were experts in their content area as well as insisting that each article move through an extensive peer-review process. Wales and Sanger had a mailing list full of interested editors with Sanger acting as Editor in Chief. They even had an intern. Yet the timeline for articles remained slow. In the first year, only 12 articles were produced. They needed a faster way to generate content.

Wikipedia began as a “feeder” for Nupedia. The intention was that articles would be begun on Wikipedia and eventually taken over by the Nupedia project to be cleaned up for inclusion in the “serious” online encyclopedia. In order to get the project up and moving, Larry Sanger suggested the use of wiki (Hawaiian for “quick”) software, which would allow the construction of collaboratively edited websites. Larry Sanger proposed the idea to the Nupedia mailing list:

“No, this is not an indecent proposal. It’s an idea to add a little feature to Nupedia. Jimmy Wales thinks that many people might find the idea objectionable, but I think not. (…) As to Nupedia’s use of a wiki, this is the ULTIMATE “open” and simple format for developing content. We have occasionally bandied about ideas for simpler, more open projects to either replace or supplement Nupedia. It seems to me wikis can be implemented practically instantly, need very little maintenance, and in general are very low-risk. They’re also a potentially great source for content. So there’s little downside, as far as I can determine.[1]”

Nupedia’s editors were not excited about wikis being a part of their project, so Wikipedia was founded as it’s own entity, yet still serving a “feeder” purpose. Wikipedia was founded on January 15, 2001. By February 12, 2001 the project passed 1,000 articles, 10,000 articles by September of that year, 20,000 by its first birthday, and 40,000 by the next August.

Unfortunately, Wales and Sanger began to have severe disagreements about the management style of Wikipedia. Wales favored the open style that has come to define the project, while Sanger favored a more top-down approach (which eventually led him to leave the project and begin another online encyclopedia, Citizendium). This was seen by both men as an intractable difference. Although the goal was ostensibly the same (as Wikipedia would later say it: to ensure that “every person on the planet has free access to the sum of all human knowledge”) there was a sharp difference as to the best way to get there.

The Nupedia editors could not come to grips with the thought that a credible encyclopedia could be constructed in the wiki style. This rough-shod development process was an affront to the very thing they were trying to create – they wanted to take the best knowledge in the world and make it available to everyone. How could that possible be accomplished with Wikipedia?

Wikipedians, on the other hand, knew that the sum of all human knowledge had to come from somewhere and as long as they could develop a system to harness it, they would be in good shape. By opening the doors for anyone to edit, they know that the combination of the localized knowledge present in thousands – millions – of people would have powerful effect Suffice it to say, that what began as a project intended to benefit Nupedia quickly took on a life of its own and needed to break with its parent.

This brief history of Wikipedia provides us with the first point of comparison to the Open Source Church.

If you are anything like me, you have been a part of a church experience during your youth that was fun and interesting, and in which you felt like you learned a lot and were valued for who you were. Your creativity was called upon and you were encouraged to collaborate with others to a large degree. Yet, once you became an “adult” you began to experience a very different form of church, one which was billed (probably implicitly) as more mature. “This is the way grown ups do church” was the message you got. Are we honestly surprised that many youth leave and do not return?

Similarly, churches decide to “start another worship service” or what-have-you with the idea that this new program will serve as a sort of feeder for the programing and structure that they already have. There is an implicit understanding that this new thing is okay for the kids, but it will not be (cannot be?) the “main thing.” Church boards are okay with offering some new experiences (or new spaces for experiences) in order to attract “young folks” but I believe that many of them harbor a hope that these young folks will someday want to be a part of the church in the same way that they’ve experienced it.

Some of this is arrogance, sure, but some of it is also a very real fear that they “don’t know what to do” for young folks. So they simply decide that they are going to do what they do and do it well. The faith as they’ve experienced it has served them well so they will do all they can to preserve that and pass it on. They develop highly refined institutions and organizational understandings. They are fine with this worship service where people wander around to “prayer stations” (aren’t prayers said together?) or that bible study that meets in a bar(!), but at the end of the day “we all know the way church is done, really.” In short – they act like ostriches (and Nupedia’s editors) and stick their heads in the sand, hoping it will all just go away.

Wikipedia’s origin story suggests to us what the church is in for (and has already experienced, in many cases) when confronted(?) with an open source worldview. Established institutions are quick to do whatever they can in order to ensure their viability (Nupedia’s development was slow and Wikipedia would ensure that it got content up in a timely manner), but they rarely realize that they very thing they are counting on to save them will be the harbingers of their death. There might be a host of reasons for this, but the primary one has to do with structure. Institutions are aware that their current way of doing business is not tenable in the long run, and are astute enough to know that they must commit to some drastically different practices if they want to survive.

Typically, these “new things” are given much wider latitude than the organization would normally employ. In the church, youth programming and worship services are encouraged to employ creativity and to do it with abandon. The thought seems to be that we should do whatever we can to get the kids interested in the faith, to make sure they understand that it is relevant to their life. In the Presbyterian Church (which I am ordained in) our national youth gathering is known to have some of the most creative, powerful worship that most staid Presbyterians have ever experienced. Yet there is a disconnect when they return to their congregations and little to no creativity is involved, and efficiency is the order of the day. Youth are discouraged from participating in worship because, in many cases, the service is simply a weekly puzzle. The pastor and musicians certainly put thought into the service elements, but when was the last time your church sang a hymn in a different spot? Or more/fewer hymns?

My point is not to harp on worship styles, but to point out the larger issue that at one point we create a system that encourages creativity and participation, and then expect those same participants to want to join us in something that is built to be assembled quickly and easily and is, in general, monological. Given the organizational structure of most of our churches, there is so much that is centralized at “the top” (with staff or with a relatively few number of congregational leaders) that in order to accomplish all that a church thinks it needs to accomplish the processes need to be streamlined with as little chuff as possible. Again, when the name of the game is efficiency, taking time to do something “new” puts more stress on those who are paid or charged with being the responsible party and it is resisted. With all that is required, “turnkey” solutions are the name of the game.

When it came down to it, the split between Nupedia and Wikipedia had to do with how and whether the site was curated. The same has been (and will increasingly be) the case for open source churches. Those who resonate deeply with the established institutional form of Christianity will not really know what to do with these newer expressions. Their very existence, in some cases, will be an affront to the very thing that they think they are about. Isn’t the point of Church to be a place where the “Divine Truth” is guarded and passed down from generation to generation? This cannot be accomplished by opening the doors to anyone to contribute. Yes, we want contribution and participation, but there must be a measure of indoctrination first.

Yet, what if you come to the church with an open source way of viewing the world? What if your entire life was one in which you experience a collaboration of gifts, skills, and knowledge? What if, most every day, you experienced the coming together of seemingly disparate voices and ideas that resulted in beautiful and tremendously effective and meaningful events/solutions/etc.? What if this was your world and you then walked through the door of most any church where it quickly became apparent that your job was to sit down and shut up – that your job was to listen and be spoon fed what you needed to think and believe? To ask it again: Why is it that I can edit the world’s largest encyclopedia, but I can’t “edit” church?

One cannot overestimate the role that the WIKI had on the trajectory of Wikipedia. Likewise, one cannot over estimate the role that a fluid and dynamic church structure will have on the life of a congregation/regional body/national denomination. The wiki allowed for rapid, responsive collaboration. 2 minutes after an event happens it is reflected on Wikipedia. This kind of infrastructure feeds into the ethos of the project. Rapid collaboration dictated the need for certain ways of being, understanding, and cooperating.

As Marshall McLuhan has famously said: The medium is the message. One can tell more about something based on the delivery vehicle than what is actually being delivered. If, week after week, I stand in my pulpit with a clerical collar, large cross and stole around my neck, while wearing a very impressive preaching robe it doesn’t matter that my message is “You too can proclaim the Word of the Lord.” No one is going to believe me because the medium of my particular presence there has told them the truth.

If you want to appeal to the “open source generation” (is there such a thing?) you can’t be wedded your current structural understanding. Your bureaucratic committee system will betray your true intentions, and that will repel those whom you hope to attract. I’m sorry, but its true.


Probably the most common misconception about Wikipedia specifically, and open source in general, is that it promotes an “anything goes” mentality. Nothing could be further from the truth. An organization without any parameters is no organization. “Open source” does not mean “anarchy.”

More accurately, open source means that the latitude with which users can function is greater. If you are used to an organization that has strict controls on this or that, you might, at first, be thrown by the freedom of an open source environment. But what you will quickly discover is that an open source organization still values some level of structure and clarity regarding intention/purpose.

Wikipedia provides its users with parameters, intention and purpose in the form of “The Five Pillars” which are the fundamental principles of the project.

*Wikipedia is an encyclopedia*
The first of the Five Pillars makes clear why Wikipedia exists:

“Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia and, as a means to that end, an online community of people interested in building a high-quality encyclopedia in a spirit of mutual respect.” ^(Wikpedia:What Wikipedia is not)

Of course, when anyone or any group defines what it IS, implicit in that definition is what it IS NOT. The Wikipedia Community goes a step further, and is very explicit in what it is not. An entire article has been written delineating (seemingly as exhaustively as possible) what the project is not ^(Wikpedia:What Wikipedia is not), but here is a summary from the main article on the Five Pillars:

“WIKIPEDIA IS AN ENCYCLOPEDIA. It incorporates elements of general and specialized encyclopedias, almanacs, and gazetteers. Wikipedia is not a soapbox, an advertising platform, a vanity press, an experiment in anarchy or democracy, an indiscriminate collection of information, or a web directory. It is not a dictionary, newspaper, or a collection of source documents; that kind of content should be contributed instead to the Wikimedia sister projects.” ^(Wikipedia:Five pillars)

It may surprise you to know that Wikipedia’s goal is surprisingly narrow. There are many good things in the world that need doing, but those are not the concern of Wikipedia. If it does not have to do with ensuring that everyone has access to the sum of all human knowledge, then Wikipedia (as an organization) is not going to bother spending energy on it.

To be sure, there are some things that Wikipedia must be concerned with, tangentially, in order to achieve their goal. In a speech to a TED conference, Jimmy Wales noted that their goal means that they must concern themselves with addressing the “digital divide”: that very real, yet immaterial, chasm that separates those in lower social-economic levels from having access to the internet and most other technology. To Wikipedia, the “everyone” who needs to have access to the sum of all human knowledge is EVERYONE. And so, even though working to develop digital access is not precisely developing an encyclopedia, the stated mission requires it.

That said, what does making clear “We are this and nothing” more do for Wikipedia? Simply, it guards against “mission creep,” that real situation many organizations find themselves in where they begin to pursue goals other than the one’s originally stated. To be sure, there is something to be said for revision of a mission, but use of the term “mission creep” implies that this expansion is not a good thing.

The best way to be successful is a single minded focus on what is to be accomplished and to pursue that exclusively. Clarity is an organizations friend. If there is any confusion as to where energy or funds are to be directed then the likelihood of an organization accomplishing *any* of it’s goals decreases dramatically.

Organizations should, first, be very clear about their mission and what they believe is involved in ensure that they accomplish that. Second, they must begin a practice of being vigilant against mission creep. Those responsible for fulfilling that mission should constantly be asking “Is this a part of our mission or not?” If there is even the slightest amount of “justification” that it should be, I suggest doing away with the idea.

So what is the purpose/mission of the Church? If the local congregations/regional associations/national denominations have any hope of being effective in the ministry that God has given us, we must be clear regarding our purpose. I knew one pastor who used to regularly ask church committees some form of “What do we have to offer that is uniquely the ‘church’? That is a great idea, but why should we be the one’s doing that? What makes us different than the average social-service nonprofit?”

The purpose of that line of questioning was to make sure that congregational leaders were thinking about the unique gifts that we have to offer the world *as the church.* In my tradition, we look to what we call “The Great Ends of the Church”, a list of six things that God has specifically called the the church into existence to accomplish:

“The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; provide for the shelter, nuture and spiritual fellowship of the people of God; the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of the truth; the promotion of social righteousness; and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.”

To some, that list might look broad. To some, that list might look too narrow. But that is the list that we Presbyterians go to when we are asked a questions like “What is the purpose of the Church?” Of course, just like Wikipedia, there will be tangential things that have to be asked and attended to if the Church is going to pursue that goal, especially when we start to recognize that the Church exists in many different contexts. What does the promotion of social righteousness look like for a national denomination? A regional association of churches? A local congregation? The answers to those three questions will most certainly look different, but the important thing is that they are answered.

It is my assumption that all variations of the Body of Christ called the Church have some answer to the question “What is the purpose of the Church?” If not, then that is the first step.

*Wikipedia has a neutral point of view*
The second fundamental principle of Wikipedia establishes that Wikipedia advocates for no singular point of view.

“WIKIPEDIA HAS A NEUTRAL POINT OF VIEW. We strive for articles that advocate no single point of view. Sometimes this requires representing multiple points of view, presenting each point of view accurately and in context, and not presenting any point of view as “the truth” or “the best view”. All articles must strive for verifiable accuracy: unreferenced material may be removed, so please provide references. Editors’ personal experiences, interpretations, or opinions do not belong here. That means citing verifiable, authoritative sources, especially on controversial topics and when the subject is a living person. When conflict arises over neutrality, discuss details on the talk page, and follow dispute resolution.” ^(Wikipedia:Five pillars)

This is the pillar which begins to highlight the hesitancy that many people have with Wikipedia: the project is not concerned with getting to “the truth.”

When I speak about this project I inevitably get asked a host of questions based on a person’s perception that Wikipedia is (or can/will be) full of false information. “What can you say about those times when Wikipedia is wrong? What good is an encyclopedia of we can go there to find the truth about something?”

First, let’s acknowledge the very real fear present in these questions: people want to know that the information they are using to live there lives by is reliable. We want to know that we’re not just “making stuff up.” Most of us are not comfortable in an “anything goes” environment. The reason, of course (at least, at some level), is because our lives depend on proper information. An extreme example would be gravity and the formulas used to calculate how gravity acts in our world and what kind of propulsion is needed in order for a plane, etc to overcome its effects long enough for us to be carried through the air. No one wants to live in a world where someone can make that kind of information up, do we? No, we want to live in a world where the science behind gravity is well established and consistently reconfirmed and verified.

But here’s where the situation gets a little sticky: What if we’re not talking about something so “certain” as gravity. What if we’re talking about the city of Kiev in Ukraine? Were you aware that there was a dispute on Wikipedia about the spelling of that name? That, although the common English spelling is *Kiev*, in 1995 the Ukrainian government adopted *Kyiv* as the preferred spelling?

This may seem like a silly argument to you, but I can assure that it is not to the Ukrainians. The “truth” of this matter is tied to national identity and ethnic history. How do you determine where the “truth” lies? I’m certain that, like most anything, one could find “experts” and “non-experts” alike who would testify to the validity of the argument they support. How do we decide? Wikipedia says we don’t. Functioning as Wikipedians, we would do well to remember that it is not our job to make that decision, and here is where the second of the Five Pillars comes into play.

Wikipedia is not the vehicle through which to present cutting edge research, or wax on about your new theory on Ukrainian linguistics. Wikipedia is the place where all available information is brought to bear on the topic and a group of people who care about it (presumably because of some connection to, and knowledge of, the subject) sift through it and make some sense out of it. Because there is some discrepancy about the topic, editors have to make sure and cite *VERIFIABLE* sources for the edits they make. I may not like the edit you make, but if you can establish that there is at least a credible basis by which you made it I cannot categorically revert the change. If I feel strongly enough about the change I can begin a discussion on it in hopes of changing enough minds that would allow me to make the edit I want.

This approach is referred to in the Wikipedia community as “verifiability, not truth.” Remember, the stated goal of Wikipedia is to ensure access to the SUM of all human knowledge, not merely the pieces that a small group of people think is best. As long as I can validate that what I am contributing is established and credible, then I am free to contribute it.

This also means that there might be seemingly competing pieces of information which find themselves side by side in Wikipedia. As we explored in Chapter 1, the open source worldview that informs this kind of structure holds that there are many contextual realities we each inhabit. Yours and mine will most certainly be different, but because we both have a valid basis on which to make our claims we will need to learn to how to live with it. The English version of Wikipedia currently notes that the city in Ukraine is “Kiev or Kjiv.” Both claims are present because both can be verified.

To say that applying this line of thought to the Church gives some people fits is an understatement. If you think that messing with someone’s understanding of gravity or the spelling of Kiev/Kyiv makes them feel a little nervous and crazy wait, until you suggest that their theology might be treated in the same way.

Again, let’s acknowledge the fear present in this thought: our faith is a very real thing that is literally a matter of life and death for many people. At some level, if our faith were not important, we would not waste our time on this question. Just as with Wikipedia, we aren’t interested in an “anything goes” kind of environment. We want to know that the thing we are giving our life to is trustworthy and reliable. We want to know that when we come to know “the truth that will set us free” that we can count on that being the case.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran pastor and author of *Salvation on the Small Screen*, likes to say it this way: we want to know that what we’re involved in “is more than five minutes old.” ^( Let’s give ourselves some credit and say that, at our best, we are not arrogant people who think we can do this thing called the Christian life any old way we want. Especially those of us in confessional forms of the faith, it would be the *height* of arrogance to assume that we can say anything without being in conversation with what has come before us or currently around us.

The problem that we find ourselves in, however, is that there is much less agreement about certain aspects of our collective faith than there is about gravity. Besides the statement that “Jesus Christ is Lord” I’m honestly not aware of a piece of Christian thought that doesn’t more resemble the Kiev/Kjiv discussion.

What an open source church asserts is that there is not really a legitimate chance that we are going to be able to truly know the “truth” and we shouldn’t try. Given the revealed nature of most versions of the Christian faith, I think we might feel comfortable enough to say that “the truth” *has* been revealed to us in Jesus Christ, but our previous discussion of context also makes plain to us that your experience (and subsequent explanation) of it might radically differ from mine.

So where does that leave us? What kind of church do we have at that point? If we are to try and view the church as similar to Wikipedia what does it mean to assert that the Church has a “neutral point of view”? I think it means two things:

1) The church is not the place to “experiment” with theology or practice. Now, this might be oft putting to some, but this is not to say that other practices cannot be explored nor that theological exploration is not done. This is only to say that, when it comes the church, what we’re doing is passing on something equivalent to the “verifiable” information the Wikipedia is interested in.

The Open Source Church will never say “We have the Truth” but it will say “Here is what we have found to be reliable over many times and places.” It’s not “Believe this or you go to Hell” but “If you want the Abundant Life, here’s what we have found to be helpful.”

Of course, the *fun* occurs when you and I begin discussing what exactly has been reliable over the ages. More often than not, we will find that we do not list the same things, which leads to the second point…

2) There will be space in the Open Source Church for different understandings to exist side by side. A classic example is the understandings of atonement, or how and why Jesus’s death and resurrection is the basis of our salvation. Some would say that God was paying the Devil a ransom, while others would say that Jesus was taking the punishment that we should have had to endure for violating God’s laws. Still others say that Jesus’ death set us free from being bound to ourselves.

Which one is the “Truth”? From an open source viewpoint, they all are and they all will exist side by side int he church. We, of course, must demonstrate how these understandings and other practices are reliably conforming us to the image of Christ, but once that bar is past its just like “Kiev/Kjiv.”

*Wikipedia is Free content*
The third of the Five Pillars reminds us that Wikipedia is a project founded on and reflecting the open source worldview that we discussed in the first chapter. As such, it is established policy that anyone can use, edit, and distribute the content generated by Wikipedia.

“WIKIPEDIA IS FREE CONTENT that anyone can edit and distribute. Respect copyright laws. Since all your contributions are freely licensed to the public, no editor owns any article; all of your contributions can and will be mercilessly edited and redistributed.”

Again, Wikipedia is not a “free for all” or a “free reign” kind of situation. This isn’t anarchy, but open source. If you quote a source (for “verifiability” purposes) make sure and cite it. Open source does not mean that we ignore the structures that came before, it means that when we have the opportunity to do it the way we want we choose to make it more open. Plus, this ensures that users remember that they are a part of an encyclopedia project, not cutting edge research or opinion.

That said, the content generated by Wikipedia will be particular in its rendering and users need to be aware going into it that whatever work is done will more than likely be edited and changed. The work that users do on the site is not for the benefit of any one person, but for the “everyone” that needs access to “the sum of all human knowledge.” Simply putting my heart and soul into an edit is not enough to warrant enshrining that work and freezing it for all eternity If tomorrow something new is discovered on the subject, it should be expected that the article will be changed again. Similarly, a user should expect that the work they do will be freely distributed. One should not do work on Wikipedia expecting to be able to hold it captive and limit access to it. Anyone across the globe can take advantage of the work that anyone else does.

For the most part, no one has a problem with this pillar up to this point. They like the fact that they can edit an article because they, of course, know what they’re talking about. They might have spent a good chunk of their life immersed in a given subject and their contributions are going to be well founded and sensible.

The problem comes when someone else makes an edit who has not spent the amount of time on the subject as the first editor. Why should they get to make that edit? They have not spent nearly the amount of time that I have – they should just sit back and watch for a while to see what kind of information is acceptable on this site and THEN contribute!

I know this feeling intimately, even in my work on open source (ironic, isn’t it?). By the time this book is published I will have spent almost 4 years of my life reading and thinking and constructing and synthesizing all sorts of thoughts and pieces of data and stories on open source and Christianity. I will have put in an incredible amount of time and effort into making sure that this information is presented in a clear and consistent manner. If I do good enough work, I might be able to have someone say about me, at some level, that I could be considered an “expert” in the intersection of these two spheres. But does that entitle me to have the subject locked up and be done with? Not at all.

The moment this book was published it was out of date and some new thought or idea was being generated that will eventually replace it. The moment I posted a draft of sample chapters to my blog, there was a strong possibility that some whipper-snapper who has put maybe 10 minutes of thought into the intersection of open source and Christianity might comment with the most cogent piece of thinking that I – the “expert” – had missed entirely.

I tell you: It’s already happened. I, personally, have already had to fight the feeling of protecting my “baby,” and the work is better for it.

Applying this pillar to the church highlights a tension that those who value a more open source church will have to address. The reality is that there are generations of history behind the idea of preserving the institution of the church, along with its accompanying traditions. The tendencies of this worldview and an open source worldview could not be more different.

We will find this to be especially pronounced in the Mainline church. Unlike their Evangelical counterparts, Mainline churches are not so much conservative in the theology as they are in their structure. Whereas Evangelical churches will tend to emphasize the conservation of theological viewpoints but employ any and all structural models available to communicate them, a Mainline church will typically be much more comfortable with varying theologies yet resistant to various styles (both in structure and implementation).

One reason for this is the tendency of Mainline churches to record things. EVERYTHING. (My own denomination has as its motto: “Everything Decently and in Order.”) We feel like we have arrived at very good and workable solutions for many of the situations that churches find themselves in, and we have written them down for future generations. This is a great impulse. for a while, I was the chair of the regional committee who made sure that congregations kept their minutes appropriately, and I often told those in charge (the “clerks”) that they were the foundations of the church. “If we didn’t have you,” I would say. “We wouldn’t know the giants upon who’s shoulders we stand.”

But there is a dark side to keeping such good records, isn’t there? Sometimes (often times?!) the movement of the Holy Spirit is restricted because instead of intentionally considering where God would have us go, we simply consult our past. “What do the minutes say?” is a question I have heard often. Again, I do not want to belittle the established institution, but to place it in a context and remind us that we have entered (almost all of us) into a new contactual reality.

Think about “minutes” with me for a second. When you think about a group recording its “minutes” what do you think of physically? I bet all you good Mainliners out there think of a beautiful and meticulously kept book with archival paper that runs the gamut from laser printed pages back to type written pages back to handwritten minutes in the most beautiful penmanship you have ever witnessed. When you look at those pages, you are not only struck by the content of those pages, but by the fact that some faithful soul sat down month after month and wrote them out. If you’re the sentimental type, you might even shed a small tear and thank God for her, commenting about how you could never do that for long before your hand would start to cramp.

Again, when we ask “What do the minutes say?” that is a powerful question that reveals the nature of our tradition. In the era of handwritten minutes, a lot of value was placed on those pages, their correctness, and the truths they contained. The minutes were almost scriptural in their status because they were (for all intents and purposes to a local congregation) the last and final word about what a church felt its call from God was. If those clerks/secretaries were worth their salt, just as much effort was given to the beauty of the page as to their content. To have to cross out a line, I’m sure, would have been insulting. (Almost all of this carried over into the typewritten era, which added the idea that we can be efficient in discerning and recording the truth.)

But now think about the age of Wikipedia and digital record keeping. True, things like the wiki have a feature which will show one previous drafts of things, but (for the most part) when a line is corrected in a digital format the new replaces the old and the old is no more. If I were to replace this sentence as I type it into my laptop it ceases to exist for anyone but me. Only I knew what that sentence said.

I am not now placing any kind of value on this form of recording information or previous forms, but I would like us to recognize that the *technology* we use to live our daily lives has an influence in how we see the world and the way it operates. We might bemoan the fact that a new generation does not value the keeping of records in the same manner that we do, but to say that the church must learn from Wikipedia is actually not just a fun mental experiment. Rather, Wikipedia serves as an example of the kind technology that has informed the lives of an entire generation.

To an “open source Christian,” to be a part of a community in which nothing can be changed is uninteresting at the very least and offensive at worst. The Open Source Church embraces this reality and celebrates it, knowing that, just like eras in the past, God will be able to use the understandings of people in this time and place to accomplish peace, justice and wholeness.

*Wikipedians should behave in a respectful and civil manner*
As we have stated repeatedly, many people believe that Wikipedia is simply an experiment in anarchy. In actual fact, the fourth of the Five Pillars places an expectation on Wikipedians that they will act appropriately in times of disagreement and conflict.

“WIKIPEDIANS SHOULD INTERACT IN A RESPECTFUL AND CIVIL MANNER. Respect and be polite to your fellow Wikipedians, even when you disagree. Apply Wikipedia etiquette, and avoid personal attacks. Find consensus, avoid edit wars, and remember that there are 3,393,351 [at the time of this writing] articles on the English Wikipedia to work on and discuss. Act in good faith, never disrupt Wikipedia to illustrate a point, and assume good faith on the part of others. Be open and welcoming.”

It makes sense that if an organization makes it a policy to open up its workings to most anyone, then *anyone* is exactly who will come and participate. With this kind of policy, an organization has effectively forfeited the right to determine who can and cannot participate in a project based on any kind demographic criteria (or what my mentor used to call “accidental characteristics”). When a diverse group of people gathers together to work on a project, they are going to have varying ideas not only about what the project can/should be but also varying ideas about how to accomplish their goal. No one is going to agree 100% with everyone else and conflicts will naturally arise. Some will be taken care of very easily (they might be the result of a very minor misunderstanding), but some will not. It is in regard to these “some will not” situations that the Fourth Pillar offers guidance to the community.

The basics of Wikipedia’s conflict management can be stated this way: *Act on the trust that everyone wants the best for the project, and they will do the same for you.*

True, there will be times when people will act selfishly, and, true, there will be times when the whole idea of an open-source project on the scale of Wikipedia will be made to look foolish. This is unavoidable because there will always be people who will take advantage of another’s trust. But the conviction of Wikipedia is that the benefits of trusting your fellow editors far outweighs the benefits of spending copious amounts of time and energy ensure that no one can deceive you. Wikipedians would rather spend their time reminding one another of the good that comes from a system of trust than enforcing rules that would denote a system of fear and litigation.

Once, someone asked Jesus how many times he had to forgive his brother. Jesus responded “Seventy times seven.” All the nuanced interpretations aside, the point Jesus was making was “You can’t forgive someone too much.”

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul made the case that God in Christ has given us “the ministry of reconciliation.” He said that in God’s own actions through Christ creation was reconciled to God, and that our mission was to carry on that work.

If any organization should be equipped to function in a loving, trusting manner it should be the church. And, yet, it seems to many as if that has not been the case. Gabe Lyons reported in his book, *unChristian*, that the church (the North American church, specifically) is seen by the vast majority of people as argumentative, judgmental, and hypocritical. We have a perception problem and that problem is that we arrogantly proclaim that we’re better than everyone else while our actions say otherwise.

Because the Open Source Church commits itself to being as open as possible it also commits itself to cultivating and maintaining a high level of trust. The OSC understands that the more open an organization is, the more it must practice trust. These practices might look different from congregation to congregation, but they all hold fast to the belief that, even though people of goodwill will disagree, assuming that the other person is acting in the best interest of the group will go a long way to solving problems.

*Wikipedia does not have firm rules*
The fifth of the Five Pillars codifies the understanding that Wikipedia is still, at its heart, an open organization, subject to change.

“WIKIPEDIA DOES NOT HAVE FIRM RULES besides the five general principles presented here. Be bold in updating articles and do not worry about making mistakes. Your efforts do not need to be perfect; prior versions are saved, so no damage is irreparable. However, don’t vandalize Wikipedia.”

At the end of the day, Wikipedia makes a stand to make the trust encouraged in the fourth Pillar an official policy. Trust is not simply a good idea for the editors to remember as they interact with one another, but it is such a good idea that the organization itself has built into its DNA the belief that some times good policies, procedures, and schedules need to be thrown out to make things better.

Many organizations have an extremely detailed manual of operations that instructs them on how to interpret and engage almost any eventuality. If a situation arises, there is a process for it in the book! This does not happen over night, but over time. Someone suggests a “best practice” and, since it seemed to work this time, it must be a good idea for all time. It is written down and voted on – it is made an official part of “the way we do business.” It may not be a problem for the idea to be in place, and it very well could be a fantastic way of tackling a given problem. The issue arises for organizations when they are wedded to the successful way things have been done in the past and not to creative and intentional solutions for today (which might very well resemble the past ones!)

When organizations are wedded to the past they spend a lot of time shoe horning new problems into existing solutions. There might be a high tolerance for those moments, however, because they are probably few and far between. Yet a couple of situations start to erode the confidence in “business as usual.”

One is that the varied situations start coming faster and faster, and the operation procedures need to be changed. Hopefully (for the organizations sake), the situations are so varied that a very wide policy must be adopted, allowing maximum applicability. The other situation is when the standard operating procedures may work well enough, and yet those in charge take on the roles of simply finding people to carry out duties. People do not want to be recruited to produce widgets. We live in what Doug Paggit calls an “inventive age.” People want to contribute through their own creativity. The era of recruiting people to fill slots is over.

If an open source organization understands anything, it understands that the more you micromanage process the more you strangle creativity and innovation.

So, in Wikipedia’s case, editors are encouraged to be bold in their actions. Go big or go home! Be attentive to the way things are normally done, but if you think that something you can do will better ensure that everyone has access to the sum of all human knowledge, the do it. Take risks, and fail often.

Why can this be the approach? Because if something doesn’t work, things can always go back to the way they were. Everything is saved – nothing is lost.

Can we be honest that this approach scares the crud out of most people in churches? For some reason we are risk averse in the church and we like it that way. I think some of it comes from a lack of understand regarding what the church is about. As we said earlier, there are a lot of ways to answer the question “What is the purpose of the Church?” but, if they’re faithful, all the answers will involve creatively working for the peace, justice and wholeness of God’s creation.

Another piece of the hesitancy is due to the fact that many of us just don’t want to spend a lot of time on “church things.” It is seemingly easier to maintain what we’ve got going on than to put time and energy into revising. Still another aspect might be that changing things is a tacit admission that we don’t know what we’re doing.

As our survey of an open source worldview reminds us, varying times and places require varying ways of doing God’s work. We must be willing to be contextual and “translate the Word of God” for the places in which we find ourselves. We won’t get it right the first time, but we shouldn’t worry: we always have time to improve our work and we can go back to our old methods if we need to.


Goals, principles, policies and procedures are nice, but an organization is an organization because of the people who work together in it. A structure is useless unless it is populated by people who can take advantage of the structure and put it to use.

For the purposes of our thought experiment there are four basic roles in the Wikipedia community that are applicable to the life and ministry of the Open Source Church. The first two shed light on the most basic category of involvement in the life of any organization – membership.

1) *Wikipedians*
More formally called an “Editor,” anyone who contributes to the stated goal of ensuring that everyone has access to the sum of all human knowledge is considered a member of the Wikipedia community. Anyone. You are a member of the community by virtue of your participation in the community. There are no hoops for you to jump through. If needed, you are educated about the Five Pillars, but – mostly – you’re left to take advantage of the structure of Wikipedia and to offer the wealth of specialized creativity that you possess.

2) *Registered Wikipedians*
The difference between an “Editor” and a “Registered Editor” is minimal, even though it is significant. Whereas an Editor can only edit the content of an article, a Registered Editor can start an article, upload images, rename articles, and take advantage of advanced editing tools. Although not everyone chooses to do so (I have not), being a Registered Editor of Wikipedia affords someone a more full experience of contributing to the project’s goal.

I wonder what the difference would be to the life of our congregations/denominations if we chose to define “membership” along lines similar to these? I suspect that most denominational understandings of membership have been created to serve administrative functions. This is not to say that we don’t have good, solid theologies of membership, but how closely tied to our actual practice are they?

I want to say that every church welcomes most everyone who walks through their doors. They greet them and invite them to be a part of the life of the community (whatever that might be), and these visitors eventually want to become “members.” We lead them through some sort of process and they are received into the membership of the church. And then what do we do with them? We wait for them to get involved.

Why do we do this? Usually, its because we want to make sure that we’re not going to burn them out, because if we burn them out, they’ll leave, and if they leave they won’t tithe and then how will we pay for our building and programs?

Recently, I contacted a new couple in our church to ask if they would mind leading the youth group. They have been worshiping with us for about 9 months and formally joined the church 2 months ago.

I wrote them and explained that some shifting in my job responsibilities were going to make it difficult for me to continue being the lead youth person, that I normally hated to ask new folks to take on significant responsibility, but would they mind? The next day I got an email saying, “Yes. We were actually going to volunteer.” Wow!

What this little episode taught me is that they had spent 7 months contributing to the life of the community in whatever way they were comfortable, but when they decided to formally align themselves with our particular congregation they expected to be involved and contribute the gifts and skills that they had. I’m sure they wondered what took us so long to ask for their help.

3) *Administrators*
Once someone has been a Registered Editor for a period of time, they can be chosen by the community to function as one of a variety of Administrators. These persons can delete articles when called for, roll back to previous versions, block users, etc.

In short, these are persons trusted by the community to use certain tools to keep the community and its work running smoothly. They might still contribute to Wikipedia as a Registered Editor, but in their roll as Administrator, they agree to perform certain “watchdog” functions for the sake of the group. In the understanding of Wikipedia, these privileges being able to use these to old does not make them better or more important than anyone else. If an Administrator weighs in on an issue, their status as Administrator should carry no weight, and they should never insist that it does. In fact, the symbol for Wikipedia’s Administrators is a mop and they are often referred to as the “janitors” of the community.

This understanding of leadership is commensurate with many Christian traditions. In my own, when we ordain and install Elders, Deacons, and Ministers, we say that God has called them and “set them apart, not above” for service to the church.

Do our churches’ leaders think of themselves as “janitors” or “executive vice presidents”? Do they understand their roles as being that of “housekeeping” or “being in charge”? This simple distinction is really the impetus for this book. If we believe that God has called and gifted individual members to engage in certain ministries what is the most effective way to support the ministry of the whole community?

We will return to this in the next chapter, but I want to submit now that unleashing the creative force that is the congregation will require two things:

1) a change of heart on the part of church leadership (from “being in charge” to “housekeeping”)
2) a change of structure that encourages and rewards the creativity and innovation of the membership while discouraging and punishing leaders who use their positions to unduly influence the process of ministry.

4) *Benevolent Dictator*
In open source communities, there is almost always someone who fulfills the role of “Benevolent Dictator.” The BD is a person with almost unlimited power to take unilateral action. However, it is understood that his person never exercises their power for their own self-interest or benefit, not=r for the interest and benefit of a small group of people. The BD should always exercise their power in such a way as to benefit the entire community. The BD functions as the chief protector of the community, sometimes even protecting it from itself. Because of the open nature of open source communities, it is understood that the BD’s power is given at the consent of those being “governed” and can just as easily be taken away.

In the Wikipedia community, founder Jimmy Wales serves as BD. He is listened to in ways that others are not, and expected to continually make sure that the community is aware of its vision and goals.

There have been times that Jimmy has used his power to protect the community. When a rash of vandalism by Neo-Nazis once occurred, the community was worried that their open process would be sabotaged precisely because of its openness. However, no one had the authority to do anything about it. Except Jimmy.

In relating this story to a TED conference ^[TED Talk citation], Jimmy told of how he understood his role to be the one person that could protect the community’s openness. He blocked several users and locked down several articles until the issue abated. Jimmy used his extraordinary power to protect the project from being derailed. But usually, he does not operate in a way that a normal Registered Editor would.

There are present in our congregations leaders of this stature, either by longevity and dedication or by virtue of their role in the community. Primarily, the person who can fill the role of BD in a congregation is the Pastor.

Just like Jimmy Wales, the pastor is no more special than any other member, but because they function in a certain role they are afforded a massive amount of power that can be used.

Again, I submit that pastors and certain other leaders must learn to see themselves as merely Benevolent Dictators, subject to the consent of the “governed.” Their roles are to provide the community in which they serve a constant and consistent view of the vision and goals of that congregation. When needed, they are to use their authority to protect the flock that they have been given to shepherd. As Jesus himself reminded the disciples, it is other communities that have those in charge who flex their authority. “Not so with you,” he said. “Whoever wants to be the greatest among you must become the servant of all.”


Even though we understand that a Wikipedia-like organizational structure is the result of a particular worldview, we still might find ourselves hesitant to invest in it. No one is going to blame you for that feeling.

At the end of the day, our churches have been called by God to do a particular thing, and however we define that thing, no one should doubt that each and every person involved takes it seriously. As we have suggested earlier, we don’t consider that we are just “playing church.” We truly believe that God has called and gifted us and we want to be as faithful as we can be.

And so, we are not simply going to abandon the structure that has served us well for decades. Let’s be honest: the structures that we currently utilize were the structures that saw the rise of Christian dominance to levels unknown previously. A mere generation ago, a staggering percentage of the USAmerican population not only identified as Christian, but also attended some sort of worship service on a weekly basis. It was these structures that led to what affectionally became known as “The Christian Century.” The proposal of the Open Source Church is not to say that was has been has been bad or ineffective. It is to say that world views change and so structures must do the same.

All the same, if something works then it works, and we must now turn our attention to whether or not this open organizational structure can, in fact, “work.” As the old saying goes: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” How does the “open source pudding” taste? Can we employ these insights and still accomplish the work God has called us to?

I want to argue that we not only can, but that, because of the wisdom inherent in crowds, we will find that we will be more effective as well.

15 thoughts on “The Church as Wikipedia (Open Source Church, Chapter 2)

  1. Mr. Vice-Moderator,
    So much food for thought here. It seemed every time I had a concern or a question about something you wrote – or didn’t write – next thing I knew, you were addressing that very concern or question. I need some time to reflect more on this to comment subtantively, but something about what you are writing feels “right.” I will be in touch with you via email later to ask about how we might both continue and broaden this conversation. Thanks for sharing your work.
    Stephen Smith-Cobbs, Pastor
    Trinity Presbyterian Church, Herndon, VA
    National Capital Presbytery

  2. Landon, I haven’t read your piece in full yet, but did want to pass on one thing:

    One of the ministers in this presbytery (National Capital) wrote about this topic for our monthly newsletter in November 2007. Unfortunately he comes out on the hand-wringing side. Full article is not on the Internet so I can’t get the whole thing, but I clipped this quote:

    “I’m convinced that the Christian faith is becoming more like Wikipedia and less like Encyclopedia Britannica. Instead of time-tested religious insights, people are accepting ‘what others are saying.’ ”

    I share this quote because it encapsulates both the criticism and the dismissive view many have of Wikipedia (neither of which I share).

    Sure, we need to be intentional in these shifts, but I’m personally glad the Christian faith is moving away from Encyclopedia Britannica.

    You’ve probably read The Wisdom of Crowds, in fact you invoke that phrase at the end.

    OK, enough from me.

    • It’s unfortunate that he can’t equate what others are saying as those time tested insights. I wonder what he’d say now.

      Actualyy, The Wisdom of Crowds was the main impetus for writing this book! I’m getting ready to reflect on it in the next section.

  3. Lot to read friend, this old-timer will have to print it out and digest it.


    I think the whole tone of article and possible objections will change if you tried EVERYone can edit instead of anyONE can edit. Isn’t the church itself a gathering of everyone (ideally) instead of everyone doing what is right in their own eyes? Pardon if you have address this. Look forward to reading it old school style.

    • that’s a nice thought – I’ll have to think about that. I use “anyone” however, because that’s the word Wikipedia uses.

  4. Brother Whitsitt,

    First: Way cool. Yes! Church is open source. Yes. Love it. Rock on.

    Second: Have you read “Among the Thugs”? Give it a go. Great book about the dangers of the mob. I know you aren’t talking about mob rule, but it may help you clarify your own points. My congregation fears such openness because they don’t trust the vox populi.


    • thx, my man. It has been a blast as I’ve gotten into it.

      I’ve not read that, but I’ll check it out. anythign to make the work better!

  5. Landon –

    What a great article! As a part of the younger generation that you talk about who’s now attending a PC(USA) Seminary, the idea of a “Wikicclesia” (great term!) is something that I’ve been looking at carefully. I ran across this site in my investigations; it’s meant for open-source government, but maybe it’s something on which to hang a new polity model?

  6. Ok, now I’ve read chapter 2. I like the picture of pastors as janitors – janitors have to have an idea of the mission of an organization in order to do their jobs well – which things to clean up, which to leave alone, which to reorganize – so that the rest of the body can function as it needs to, and they often have a better idea of daily mission and routines than an executive vice president.
    Also, I especially like wikipedia’s view that we are all in this project together, by and for all – a true liturgy, work of the people.
    I have more to say, but I want to mull it over first. 🙂

  7. Hi, Landon!

    As with previous chapters, I’m sending you an e-mail with the picky-edit version of the chapter attached. No sense in inflicting that on all your adoring fans! But here’s a thought that might be worth some discussion. One thing that strikes me about Wikipedia and OSC is that it’s all rather utopian. Haven’t there been plenty of BDs over the centuries who have in the end turned out to be despots? Haven’t there been trusted leaders who have influenced communities by simply going underground, rather than operating in the open? And so on. Do you need to talk at some point about sin? (Or is that question that only a Lutheran would ask?)


    • Perhaps I do need to address it (sin). My assumption is that the leadership of a church are God’s gift to the church to ensure that ministry can occur. I think god uses the structure of the church and it’s leaders to help guide us away from sinful organizational actions. While I’ve not addressed sin directly, I do think that pushing a more open structure helps to combat secretive and manipulative actions. but, again, maybe I need to address it head on.

      • I agree that God uses the church and its leaders, like anything else in creation, for good. But that doesn’t mean the church and its leader aren’t sinful. I’d encourage you to take this on. I’ve taken a couple courses on sin and evil, and one of my profs said, “The presence of evil in the world is the greatest challenge there is to the Christian faith.” I think you’d be wise to acknowledge that it affects the church and its leaders. At least for me, your arguments won’t hold much water if you don’t.

  8. Late Summer Reading for UU Leaders | Growing Vital Leaders

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s