Your Friendly Neighborhood Church Expert (Open Source Church, Chapter 3)

My Lady was nice enough to let me bolt from the house tonight to write.  November 1 is coming soon, and I’m starting to get nervous.  4 more chapters to draft (the ones I’m looking forward to), then its time for the hard stuff: rewrites. But…writing is in the rewriting.

This chapter is sort of a rewrite.  It’s actually a revised article that I wrote early in the process as part of the book proposal I gave Alban.  I think I’ve tweaked it enough to make it work, but if you could point out my inconsistencies, that would be great.

I like this chapter a lot.  There’s nothing like telling people they’re not as important as they think they are.  As an introverted thinker, this has been a lesson that I’ve learned the hard way in several different ways.  I’m still thankful that God has given me people to knock me off the pedestal I’ve put myself on.  Life is certainly better for it.

I will assume that the main critique of Chapter 2 will hold for this one as well: more practical examples.  If you think of any as you read, PLEASE SEND THEM TO ME!

Feedback desired, as always.  Please and thank you.

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


I was not surprised to be asked the question.  Given all I knew about the church, it was sure to come.  And it did.

By the time I met Pastor Search Committee, the congregation was a little over 180 years old.  Like most mainline churches it had gone through the heyday of Christendom, and for the last century positioned itself as a real power house in the community.

40 years prior to my arrival had been what was arguably the most prolific period of the congregation’s life.  A young pastor had been called who would stay for 20 years, and during that time many ministries in our community were started, literally in the middle of our sanctuary.

The pastor’s predilection for social justice found him marching in Selma, protesting the Vietnam War, helping to begin the Kansas City Chapter of PFLAG, co-organizing a community men’s group of black and white members, inspiring and assisting the creation and development of a homeless transition ministry (whose model is now world renown), and providing support for a few members to begin the Kansas City Affiliate of Habitat for Humanity (the seventh to be organized).  His preaching and passion was so well thought of that I still hear from former students of the local baptist college tell me how they spent those four years “as a Presbyterian.”

Subsequent pastors maintained and even grew the membership of the church, but following a pastor like that is a hard act to follow.  Add to that the pressures that the world was beginning to change in such a way that was undeniable.  Even though our little town just outside of Kansas City had always been slightly insulated, people were beginning to recognize the gem our community was and they moved in to raise their families.  An influx of new people brought new ideas and new expectations.  Some of the long-time members of the church welcomed the change; some resisted.

New ideas about what it meant to be church reached our folks, and in the 20+ years between the era of social justice and my arrival the congregation had struggled with their historic Presbyterian identity in both content and style.  The “worship wars” came and went, and there were flirtations with several forms of being a “seeker sensitive” church.

Those struggles resulted in a measure of disharmony which saw almost all but the “I was born in this church” members leave.  By the time I came on the scene, the church had been without a full-time, permanent pastor for over three years.  In fact one older, long-time member confessed that at my installation as pastor he wept through the majority of the service.  “I was sure this church was going to die.  I didn’t think we’d ever find you.”

And so I knew full well what question they would ask me:  *”What’s your church growth plan?”*


Although the question they asked was “What is your church growth plan” what the Search Committee was after was something much deeper.  Something was amiss, and they knew it.

You didn’t need to tell them that their community was different – they didn’t really know all their neighbors any more.  You didn’t need to tell them that the big Baptist church accross the highway just kept getting bigger – they could watch it.  You didn’t need to explain to them how the Methodist church was doing a better job of reaching out to families with youth – most of their kids had left, had taken their grandchildren and had gone there.  They didn’t want to give up the core identity they had as Presbyterians, but the clearly knew that what they were doing wasn’t cutting the mustard.

The only way they knew to measure whether a church was successful was to count the number of people in the pews on a Sunday morning.  “Church growth” may have been their metric, but metrics are always interchangeable.  The key word in the question they asked was “your.”

“Pastor, what is your plan for growing our church?  What is your idea about how we can attract more young families?  What is your thought about contemporary worship?”  (Interestingly, no one has yet asked me “What’s your budget plan for the church…”)
Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t have anything against church growth.  If a community is living God’s love in the world then people will notice and people will want to participate in that.  If a church is faithful to Christ’s mission I believe that some measure of growth can usually be expected.  However, the area I knew I would have to tend to with my new congregation, from day one, was on their expectation that I was coming to be their resident “church expert.”

It’s not hard to see why.  From where they sat, wasn’t I the one who had just spent three years at a prestigious theological institution where I learned not only theology and biblical studies, but all manner of practical theological concepts?  Wasn’t I the one who had worked in campus ministry and as a student pastor in a church plant geared toward postmodern young adults?  Wasn’t I the one who had been ordained to work as the Program Director for a world recognized interfaith organization?

Wasn’t I the “expert”?

Indeed, their expectations were not all that unique.  Citing research done by Pulpit and Pew, a report produced by the Presbyterian Church (USA) sums it up nicely:

“The Bible describes a variety of forms of ministry leadership. EVANGELISTS served a critical role as the early Christian church began to organize. In the Middle Ages, the pastor as MEDIATOR OF SACRAMENTAL GRACE became primary. The sixteenth and seventeenth century Protestant Reformation’s principles of sola scriptura and the priesthood of all believers, among other things, elicited the pastor as PREACHER and pastor as ETHICAL GUIDE models. Around 1900 and with growing literacy new images and metaphors for pastoral ministry began to emerge, especially after the First World War. In no uniform order or pure forms, pastoral ministry models of PROFESSIONAL EDUCATOR, PSYCHOLOGIST/COUNSELOR, AGENT OF SOCIAL CHANGE, and manager of the church surfaced as ideals.  Recent research shows many congregants expect their pastor to master each of these models; _to be an expert in each of these roles._” ^[“Raising Up Leaders for the Mission of God”: A Report of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Joint Committee on Leadership Needs, February 2, 2010]
(_emphasis mine_)

Many churches are not sure how to navigate the waters of the changing postmodern landscape, and so they still rely on the model that they have used for years: find a really smart pastor, and pay her to do it for us.


In his book, *The Wisdom of Crowds*, James Surowiecki reminds us of the phenomenon that was *Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?*  According to Suroweicki, the popular game show presented us, several times a week, with an opportunity to watch individual intelligence compete against group intelligence.  And, as he notes, “every week, group intelligence won.”^ [The Wisdom of Crowds, James Suroweicki, page 3]

Remember, this was a game in which you had several “life lines.”  You could have of the potential answers removed (“50/50”), you could “phone a friend,” or you could “Ask the audience.”
Everything we think we know about intelligence suggests that the smart individual would offer the most help.  And, in fact, the “experts” did okay, offering the right answer – under pressure – almost 65 perfect of the time.  But they paled in comparison to the audiences. Those randoms crowds of people with nothing better to do on a weekday afternoon than sit in a TV studio picked the right answer 91 percent of the time. ^[Wisdom, Suroweicki, 4 ] To be sure, the results from *Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?* wouldn’t be admissible in court, but what Surowiecki is demonstrating with the example is a well-documented phenomenon at the heart of his book: *groups of normal people can consistently discern better solutions than an expert.*

The likelihood of the *Millionaire* audiences getting tripped up was rare because the vast difference in knowledge meant that they were able to approach problems from several different vantage points and employ knowledge from several different areas.  And, if we think that this is impressive when answering a simple question on a game show, this ability is even more pronounced when a group of people tackles a complex issue, requiring a multi-set solution –  something church boards are called upon to do regularly.

“But,” you may ask, “are you saying that we could gather together a bunch of morons and we’ll be fine?”  Not at all.  There is, to be sure, a certain level of knowledge that one must possess to be a functional member of any group.  But there are a couple of problems: *No one really knows what that level is or what that knowledge looks like.*

So what do we do?  Typically, we decide that if a little knowledge is good, a lot of knowledge is better.  However, we don’t really know how to objectively quantify that, and so we are left to arbitrarily determine what someone with “a lot of knowledge” – an *expert* – looks like.  As I said, there are two problems with this.

First, the reason we believe, with respect to intelligence, that if a little is good then a lot is better.  We believe this because we typically assume that intelligence is fungible, that is: we assume that if someone is intelligent in one area that they must be intelligent in all areas.  We assume that if someone is intelligent enough to have become a foreman in a construction company or a partner in an accounting firm that they would also make great board members.  Of course, because of this assumption about fungible intelligence these new board members will most certainly be tasked with overseeing buildings and grounds and finance, respectively.  And because they are the “experts” we will just turn over the respective areas of responsibility to them and then we are back to square one with our problem of needing and trusting an expert.  To be sure, these new board members might also possess the needed skills and disposition to be a board member, but the chances of that are not likely if our congregational culture places a premium on “being smart” to be a congregational leader.

And here’s where it gets weird: as individuals, we feed into this proposition.  I know this sounds pessimistic, but how many people do you know who admit that they don’t know what they are doing?  I don’t know many.  I’m not even referring to those that are trying to fool people maliciously, but those folks who, day to day, are put into positions where they just don’t know what they are doing.  And yet, people are counting on them.  What would you do?  You tell yourself that you can do this and you step up and try to meet expectations, don’t you?  There’s a psychological name for this tendency.  It’s called the “Dunning-Kruger Effect,” named for Justin Kruger and David Dunning of Cornell University, which they established in their 1999 research paper ‘Unskilled and Unaware of it: How difficulties in recognising one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessment’. ^[citation/web address]  Dunning and Kruger make several large claims in their paper regarding not just our competence but also our ability to correctly assess our level of competence.

The pair conducted several tests across a range of areas (humor, logical reasoning, grammar) to first measure a person’s level of competence.  Then they took a further step and asked them to rate themselves in relation to the others who participated.  What they found was pretty amazing.

If you took the scores and plotted them on a bell curve, what Dunning and Kruger discovered was  that those at the bottom end of the curve held an inflated opinion of their abilities.  And we I say “inflated” I mean “INFLATED.”  In one test of logical reasoning, the bottom quarter of students indicated that they believed they had out performed 60% of their peers when in fact they had beaten out just 12%.  A 48% difference! Not only did they lack the competence to score well on the test, they didn’t even know it.  And showing them the disparity did nothing to rectify the problem either. As they write in their paper: “Despite seeing the superior performance of their peers, bottom-quartile participants continued to hold to the mistaken impression that they had performed just fine.” ^[Unskilled and Unaware of it]

Conversely, those who scored at the top of the curve had a tendency to doubt their achievements.  In the self-evaluation they indicated that (on average) they assumed they had faired better than 3/4 of their cohorts when, in fact, they had scored 90% or better.  While the incompetent get overconfident, the highly competent get doubtful.

This point is important in our discussion because there is a direct correlation between being able to assess one’s own competence and being able to assess the competence of others.  Because of our own incomptence for a given task we are incapable of accurately determining who is or might be.  When it comes to recruiting “experts” most of us simply don’t have the ability to pick them.

Depressing, isn’t it?  It gets worse.

Secondly, part of the problem with trying to recruit a group of “experts” is that what exactly consitutes an expert must be defined. Again, this is not easily done, which means that we are typically left with an arbitrary (and not usually explicit) set of criteria that our board members must satisfy.  We may think that the more board members we have that meet our criteria the better off we are, but, actually, we would be mistaken.  The more homogeneity a group has the less chance it has to make intelligent, beneficial decisions.  Answering why is actually fairly obvious.

Imagine that a group is assembled in which all the members possessed to a large degree what we have determined (although not explicitly!) to be intelligence.  If such a set of criteria were to be used we would begin to realize that all of the group members would more than likely resemble one another.  They would have similar worldviews and opinions about various situations.  Their life experiences would look remarkably similar.  They would have similar backgrounds for they would probably inhabit the same social class, if not the same race and gender.  They would all have close to the same level of education.  In short, there wouldn’t be much significant difference between them at all.

A large part of this has to do with the ways in which we asses and rank desirable characteristics.  As an example, let’s take a look at what Malcolm Gladwell discovered in a 2007 article for the *New Yorker* magazine about I.Q.

Part of Gladwell’s article documents the psychological principle known as the “Flynn Effect,” which states that, over time, the raw scores of I.Q. tests increase.

“If an American born in the nineteen-thirties has an I.Q. of 100, the Flynn effect says that his children will have I.Q.s of 108, and his grandchildren I.Q.s of close to 120—more than a standard deviation higher. If we work in the opposite direction, the typical teen-ager of today, with an I.Q. of 100, would have had grandparents with average I.Q.s of 82—seemingly below the threshold necessary to graduate from high school. And, if we go back even farther, the Flynn effect puts the average I.Q.s of the schoolchildren of 1900 at around 70, which is to suggest, bizarrely, that a century ago the United States was populated largely by people who today would be considered mentally retarded.” ^[Gladwell, “None of the Above”, New Yorker]

Flynn is anything but an I.Q. fundamentalist, and has spent a good portion of his career challenging the ways in which we assess intelligence.  He says that the shifts in scores from intelligence test should give us a “crisis of confidence.”  In trying to reason why the shift itself happens he correctly surmises that either kids these days were much smarter than their parents and grandparents or the methods we use to assess intelligence are themselves flawed.

The best way to understand why I.Q.s rise, Flynn argues, is to look at one of the most widely used I.Q. tests, the so-called WISC (for Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children). The WISC is composed of ten subtests, each of which measures a different aspect of I.Q. Flynn points out that scores in some of the categories—those measuring general knowledge, say, or vocabulary or the ability to do basic arithmetic—have risen only modestly over time. The big gains on the WISC are largely in the category known as “similarities,” where you get questions such as “In what way are ‘dogs’ and ‘rabbits’ alike?” Today, we tend to give what, for the purposes of I.Q. tests, is the right answer: dogs and rabbits are both mammals. A nineteenth-century American would have said that “you use dogs to hunt rabbits.”

“If the everyday world is your cognitive home, it is not natural to detach abstractions and logic and the hypothetical from their concrete referents,” Flynn writes. Our great-grandparents may have been perfectly intelligent. But they would have done poorly on I.Q. tests because they did not participate in the twentieth century’s great cognitive revolution, in which we learned to sort experience according to a new set of abstract categories. In Flynn’s phrase, we have now had to put on “scientific spectacles,” which enable us to make sense of the WISC questions about similarities. To say that Dutch I.Q. scores rose substantially between 1952 and 1982 was another way of saying that the Netherlands in 1982 was, in at least certain respects, much more cognitively demanding than the Netherlands in 1952. An I.Q., in other words, measures not so much how smart we are as how modern we are.

Gladwell goes on to remind us that at points in time in our nations history various immigrant groups were thought to have much lower intelligence than their USAmerican counterparts that we can now generally attribute to their ignorance of the rules of the modern USAmerica game.  Once these groups were assimilated to a certain point, their I.Q.s rose dramatically.

Ruby K. Payne makes this point very clearly in her book *A Framework for Understanding Poverty.*  Payne’s thesis is that the various socio-economic groups that we each inhabit have “hidden rules,” systems of communicating, that make it virtually impossible for us to interact with the others.  The ways in which members of the middle class communicate, and what it is that they value, sound, to a lower class member like a foreign language.  In fact, Payne contends, if one wants to elevate their social standing (from lower to middle class, or from middle to upper class) they must be willing to forgo their previous system of communication and live by the “hidden rules” of their new class group.

I offer these two examples not to begin a discussion on the ways we measure intelligence, but as a way of pointing out that the ways in which we decide who is and is not intelligent are inherently flawed.  This is an important reality for our churches, and it points to an obvious result of our lives together: Birds of a feather flock together.  We tend to gravitate to and reward those that we deem are like us.  Most of us assume that, if someone speaks the same way that we do – if they emphasize similar points, employ similar ideas and metaphors, use turns of phrase that we might ourselves use – then they must possess some measure of what we think of as intelligence.

I have seen the effects of this repeatedly in groups I have worked with.  There usually seems to be at least two unofficial factions, and it probably wont surprise you to learn that they are usually drawn along class lines.  These two groups value different things, communicate differently (a la Payne’s “hidden rules”), and rarely see eye to eye on anything.

On a couple of occasions, when I have been responsible for leading a group, I have had what I refer to as the “those people” discussion.  No one is mean or offensive (quite the contrary), but they usually say something about our group being able to be more effective if so-and-so were not a part of the process.  “They just don’t get it.  They raise issues that are not important, and ask questions that don’t have anything to do with anything.  We need to get them shaped up or we need to find someone else.”  Just as Flynn points out that I.Q. test don’t measure a level of intelligence, but modernity, “those people” are usually being judged by whether or not their ability to “get it” measures up to the notions of someone in a another (usually higher) socio-economic class.

But if we do this (construct an implicit or explicit list of criteria by which we can judge persons and assign them to our group of experts) chances are good that what we actually are ending up with is a group of people that are destined for failure.  I say failure because not much can be done to head this group off given its characteristics: people who are overly confident, unskilled, and unaware of it who are put into a position in which they need to constantly “prove” their worth to their colleagues.  What’s worse?  Since everyone in the group shares a startling number of characteristics, they have almost no chance of seeing their faults (and if the Dunning-Kruger effect holds, they never will until their level of competence is raised).

Now, imagine that this group was presented with a complex, multi-step issue to be addressed or problem to be solved.  Psychologist Irving Janis would not have much hope that this group would do very well becasue of the reality of what he termed “groupthink.”

Regardless of the group’s defining characteristics, when group members are similar they tend to become cohesive fairly quickly.  This cohesiveness is deceptive because it promotes reliance upon the group to such a degree that members become insulated from outside opinions.  Now subject only to the logic of the group, each member determines that the group is right when assessing key questions (“If everyone is saying it it must be right, right?”) and any counter-opinion or caution is dismissed as out of touch and unhelpful to the process (at best) or as combative and detrimental (at worst).  Key information is not recieved into the group’s process and the result is a less than stellar answer to whatever question is posed.


How about a little good news now?  Even though we can’t define or adequately (for our purposes) assess intelligence and competence – and even though, when we try, we end up constructing a beast that consistently underperforms – there is hope and a more than adequate way forward.  Remember those *Who Wants to be a Millionaire* audiences?  The reasons they are successful are the same reasons that Wikipedia is successful, and they will be the same reason that the Open Source Church will be successful.  All we need to do is name them and ensure their presence in our churches.

Surowiecki claims that a group of normal people can outperform an expert almost every time if the following four conditions are met:

*Diversity:* As we have seen, homogeneity allows for a higher than normal level of cohesiveness.  That cohesiveness lulls a group into insular thinking and shields it from an outside/alternate thinking, resulting in groupthink. If a group is to be “wise,” it will possess healthy amounts of diversity in terms of opinions/beliefs, life experiences, race/class/gender, and education level.  Even one divergent opinion or one person asking simple, probing questions will make a group “smarter.”

The *Millionaire* crowds were made up of random groups of people who had nothing better to do on a weekday afternoon than sit in a TV studio.  They represented a fairly varied cross section of people, with different life experiences, opinions, and education levels.  Their lives each afforded them different gifts and skills.  Likewise, by allowing “anyone to edit,” Wikipedia is codifying a method for ensuring as much diversity as possible.

*Independence of Thought:* Almost every group, at one time or another, has a member or two who tends to dominate conversations.  Because these persons are so persistent in their opinions other group members gradually begin to subordinate their ideas and opinons.  This sets up a dynamic in which an “expert” is again established, nullifying whatever diversity has been achieved.

The *Millionaire* crowds don’t get to talk to one another.  The only thing they can do is press their keypad.  There is no chance for them to be influenced by the woman on the other side of the room who is certain that she knows the right answer.

Wikipedia’s commitment to maintaining itself as an encyclopedia, and the insistence on a neutral point of view and verifiable information helps to ensure that persons who have access to relevant information are able to contribute it without being subject to ideological conformity.

*Decentralization:* Many organizations make the mistake of insisting that all decisions must either go through (or worse yet – originate with) a centralized person/group.  The thinking goes that this person/group can ensure that nothing “irregular” happens if they clear everything.  Yet this person/group rarely has the knowledge of the situation that someone “closer to the ground” would have. Two things result: bottlenecking of workflow and the lifting up of one group of people as the recognized “experts.” The tried and true reality is that allowing specific individuals to apply their knowledge to the areas they know best is the most effective way to accomplish any kind of goal.  In order to create a culture of decentralized action that is – at the same time – consistent with the larger vision, a basic set of norms and expectations must be set up and promoted.

For the *Millionaire* crowds there was a very clear procedure for offering their help.  These procedures ensured that everyone could offer whatever information they had.  they didn’t have to check their work.  They just voted.

Wikipedia’s establishment of its “Five Pillars” and its encouragement to be bold with editing helps to meet this condition.

*Aggregation of Collective Wisdom:* Ironically, what is required to ensure that a diverse, independent, decentralized organization can adequately complete its work is a small amount of centralization.  Work done must be coordinated to ensure that the process of constructing the project goes on regardless of the content of the project.

The diverse *Millionaire* crowds had their independent, decentralized information aggregated by the computer system that received their votes.  This aggregation was then projected on a screen for the contestant to see and use how they saw fit.

Wikipedia’s use of the WIKI ensure that information gets to the place it needs to go.  But this is also the place in which the leadership of Wikipedia plays a large role.  The Administrators of the community use the tools at their disposal to make sure that work carries along in as smote a fashion as possible.  Those given the responsibility to do so guard the process, and if there is an instance that goes beyond the scope of the day to day administrators (extreme vandalism, etc), Jimmy Wales as the Benevolent Dictator can step in to guide the community back to a place in line with the Five Pillars.

In the following chapters, we will take an extensive look at each of these conditions and how they might play themselves out in the life of the Open Source Church.  We are going to begin with Suroweicki’s last condition, *Aggregation of Collective Wisdom.*  In the Open Source Church this aggregation is accomplished through the established leaders of the community.

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