What if the meaning and value of faith movements were built and changed by their users – a “Wikipedia faith”? Question posed by Landon Whitsitt on the Alban Institute blog. Read Whitsitt’s pot on the Alban Institute here.– Ed.
Church as Wikipedia
by Landon Whitsitt
At some level, the notion of a “Wikipedia church” —or “Wikicclesia”— makes a lot of sense, even if we have 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 important, it touches on a reality facing the church today: Wikipedia is a part of our everyday lives.
According to the Internet statistics aggregator Alexa Internet, every day 13 percent of the world’s Internet users visit Wikipedia for some reason. At the time of this writing, Wikipedia was listed as the sixth most popular website in the United States and seventh worldwide. Thirteen million people worldwide are listed as registered users, and in the past thirty days, 135,000 of those users, on average, have edited an article on the site.
Wikipedia has become as synonymous 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 Wookieepedia, the Star Wars Wiki).
Given this reality, how do we as the church expect to be the least bit appealing to people who increasingly go throughout their day 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,” as Wikipedia describes it. They can offer their gifts of knowledge to the world and to 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, or emergence Christianity, and you are 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 Wikipedia or why the project works as well as it does.
Even though there is not a firm one-to-one correlation between Wikipedia and an open source church, this brief history of Wikipedia provides us with our first point of comparison. If you are anything like me, you were part of a church experience during your youth that was fun and interesting, one where you thought 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. The thought seems to be that the church should do whatever it can to get kids interested in the faith, to make sure they understand that it is relevant to their life. In my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), 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 our youth return to their congregations where little to no creativity is involved and efficiency is the order of the day. Our 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 the youth can’t seem to get a good answer when they question why they can’t sing a hymn in a different spot or why there can’t be more, or fewer, hymns.
Wikipedia’s origin story suggests to us what the church is in for (and has already experienced, in many cases) when it encounters an open source worldview. Established institutions are eager to do whatever they can to ensure their viability (The development of Nupedia—the non-open source predecessor to Wikipedia—was slow, and Wikipedia would ensure that it got content up in a timely manner), but they rarely realize that the very thing they are counting on to save them will be the harbinger of their death. There might be a host of reasons for their demise, but the primary one has to do with structure. Institutions are generally aware that their current way of doing business is not tenable in the long run and are astute enough to know they must commit to some drastically different practices if they want to survive. But decades of habit are not easily changed.
At its most basic, the split between Nupedia and Wikipedia had to do with how and whether the site was curated. To put it another way: Who was in control? This will also be the issue that drives a wedge between established churches and their creative offspring. Those who resonate deeply with the established institutional form of Christianity will not really know what to do with more creative expressions. The very existence of alternative worship or educational experiences, in some cases, will be an affront to the very thing that established churches 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 and allowing anyone to contribute. Yes, we want contribution and participation, but there must be a measure of indoctrination first. You have to know how we do it before we will trust you to do it.
Yet, what if you come to the church with an open source view of the world? What if your entire life was one in which you experienced a collaboration of gifts, skills, and knowledge? What if, almost every day, you experienced the coming together of seemingly disparate voices and ideas that resulted in beautiful and tremendously effective and meaningful events and solutions? What if this was your world, and you then walked through the door of almost 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 the obvious question again: Why is it that I can edit the world’s largest encyclopedia, but I can’t edit church?
If we want to appeal to the “open source generation” (is there such a thing?), we can’t be wedded to our current understanding of church structure. Our bureaucratic committee system will betray our true intentions, and that will repel those whom we hope to attract. I’m sorry, but it’s true.
Adapted from Open Source Church: Making Room for the Wisdom of All by Landon Whitsitt, copyright © 2011 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.