Sunday, July 24, 2011

Open Source Church: a sermon

One of my absolutely favorite things in my house when I was growing up . . . was my family’s set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. We had the whole thing – A-Z, plus the Indexes, plus a couple of annual supplements – all in a wonderful little bookcase that my father had built specifically for them. They were right in the living room, down low, at easy kid level, and always available whenever anyone – most often me – would ask some kind of question. Why does . . .? What was the first . . .? How big is . . .? No matter what, it was the same: “Let’s go look it up.”

I remember once declaring that I was going to read through the entire Encyclopedia – cover to cover, volume by volume. I think I stayed at it for a week or something like that. But I remember the feeling that everything I could ever want to know was contained within those volumes.

When my father died back in 2003 the Encyclopedia was up for grabs. I thought about taking it, about how I could lay on the floor with my kids exploring the vastness of what there is to learn. But then I realized that if I did this, my kids would learn that dinosaurs were all a kind of grayish-greenish color, and that the one with the large body and really long neck is called a Brontosaurus. They’d learn that there are nine planets in the solar system and that Saturn is the only one with a ring. They’d learn that the smallest computer can fit inside a single room and, of course, they’d learn that Richard Milhous Nixon is President of the United States.

Now I don’t particularly want my kids learning any of that. In the years since I lay on the floor thinking that I could read my way through “the sum of all human knowledge,” as the Britannica billed itself, a lot has changed. Pluto has been demoted, and Neptune, Uranus, and Jupiter all got rings. Computers? Well, most of you probably have one in your pocket that could out process that room-sized behemoth without breaking a sweat. We’ve learned that dinosaurs came in all kinds of colors, and my old pal the Brontosaurus is now known as Apatosaurus. And Barack Hussein Obama is in the White House. Things have changed.

When I thought about bringing the Encyclopedia into my house for my kids to use I realized that my perspective – that these volumes contained everything I could ever want to know – had changed subtlety over the years. I now see that such volumes contained the knowledge within them; it was, both literally and figuratively, bound in them. And we don’t live in that kind of world anymore.

How many of you have in your pocket right now a smart phone or, at least, relatively intelligent one? How many have some kind of computer at home that you use to connect with the internet? We live today in a world of interactive interconnectedness. We’ve come to assume it.

And we assume its instantaneousness. The other day I was waiting an incredibly long time for a computer here at church to connect to the internet. Really, an unacceptably long time. I couldn’t believe how slow this machine was being. And then I looked at the clock and noticed that only a minute had passed. It would have easily taken me two or three times that long to go to the living room, find the right volume, and look up the article I was interested in, and back then I was used to it. But now? Infuriating and unforgiveable.

And if it’s like this for me – and I can assume from your reaction that you know what I’m talking about – then I have to say that it’s even more so for what now, I’m afraid, I have no choice but to call “the younger generation.” Some of these folks have no memory of a time when you couldn’t get the idea to go out to a new place for dinner, look up your options, read a couple of reviews, get directions, and invite a bunch of your friends to join you there all within the span of a couple of minutes and all with a device you can hold in one hand. Whether we all want to recognize it or not, it is a different world today, and it’s getting differenter every minute.

So why have I chosen to talk about this in my first sermon with you?

This summer I’ve been reading what I think is a really exciting and important book by a Presbyterian minister named Landon Whitsitt. The book is called Open Source Church: making room for the wisdom of all, and the author suggests that the open source movement in computing offers us some insights into new ways of “doing” church.

But before I tell you any of his ideas, I’ll bet that there are some folks asking why we need to consider new ways of doing church in the first place. Well, simply, because by nearly every measure the ways we’ve been doing things for a long time just aren’t working so well anymore. Membership, across denominations, is down. Participation, especially by that coveted “younger people” demographic, is down. The perception that the church is a relevant institution in today’s world is way down. And all of this is especially true among the kinds of liberal and progressive folk who either are or who might be interested in becoming Unitarian Universalists. Something’s not working.

Perhaps one thing is that in a lot of ways our churches are kind of like those old Encyclopedia Britannicas – bound volumes that contain the wisdom and transformative power within. Oh, things get updated from time to time – supplements are published – but then, essentially, those get as bound up as the things they’re replacing.

Whitsitt sees as illustrative one of the first serious efforts to update the encyclopedia concept for the Internet Age. Now, many of you have already recognized the image on the cover of our Order of Service and are now assuming that I’m going to talk about Wikipedia. I am, but first I have to tell you the story of Nupedia.

Nupedia was envisioned as a digital counterpart to the traditional, printed encyclopedia – experts would submit articles on topics within their areas of expertise and these articles would then go through a rigorous peer review process. Only after all of these experts had signed off would an article be published to the web. In the first year of its existence, Nupedia published a total of twelve articles.

Recognizing the need to speed the process up a bit, Nupedia’s founders decided to create a wiki as a feeder site, and thus Wikipedia was born. A wiki is a perfect example of an “open source” web site, meaning that anyone can get into it and play around – anyone can become an editor at Wikipedia. Literally.

Now this might sound like an invitation to chaos, and Wikipedia is often seen as anarchistic and, therefore, fundamentally untrustworthy. Yet the reality is actually different than its initial appearance, but it does take a change in perspective, the use of a different lens, a “paradigm shift” (if you will) to see it. Some people may find this too radical. Others will find it refreshing and welcome.

But, as I said, whether we want to recognize it or not the landscape around us is already shifting. More and more of us are living more and more of our time in this new world: we watch TV on demand, essentially creating our own “must see TV” line ups; we download music to our mp3 players, creating, if you’ll excuse the anachronism, our own albums; we are becoming accustomed to having input into nearly everything and being able to actively arrange things (and then easily rearrange them) as we wish. And there is a growing generation that expects this, having known nothing else.

And then folks come to church where a few people – the leaders – with one particular person – the minister (as if there’s only one) – act as “experts” and set forth a vision and an agenda and then invite people to join them in enacting it. There’s a whole committee devoted to helping people find the “slot” on the slate that fits them best. And if you have an idea for something new and exciting there may well be several levels of committees and councils and many, many meetings that you have to go through before you’re told that there isn’t enough money, or there isn’t enough volunteer energy, or that we’ve tried something like that before and it didn’t work.

Is it any wonder that membership, participation, and the perception that the church is a relevant institution in today’s world are all way, way down? Something isn’t working. Something isn’t syncing up quite right. Perhaps it’s time for us to look at another model.

Rather than limit itself to the input of a few “experts,” Wikipedia, instead, relies upon the tremendous pool of knowledge generated by bringing together a group of diverse people. Few of us may be able to call ourselves “experts,” but each of us knows something and, if we’re honest, the vast majority of us know a whole lot about at least a few things. If we were to pool our various areas of knowledge together we would, in essence, create a new kind of expert – a communal expert. And this expert would have access to all of the information that’s in all of our heads.

Of course, mistakes might creep in. As an example, when Sarah Palin recently spoke about Paul Revere warning the British with bells and shots, some tea party supporters went to Wikipedia and edited the article about Paul Revere’s Ride so that it more smoothly coincided with Palin’s description. Yet other folk, from Revolutionary War scholars to armchair historians, were right there to change things back. Over time, Wikipedia proves itself incredibly accurate.

And up to date. As our knowledge base increases, Wikipedia is able to keep up with it in a way that more traditional encyclopedias never could. Remember Nupedia? Twelve articles in the first year? In the first month of its existence Wikipedia generated a thousand articles; nine months in it had ten times that many articles; and over the next three months that number jumped to twenty thousand. Forty thousand before another year had passed.

Now that’s responsiveness. That’s creativity unleashed. Can you imagine that kind of energy in the church?

So what would an Open Source Church look like? One sermon isn’t enough to tell you everything I’d like to, or that you might like to know, but we have years ahead of us to play with these ideas – through sermons and AFD offerings, in discussions on our FaceBook page, and in blogs. In the time I do have left though – roughly three minutes – I’d like to sketch out one piece of the puzzle.

In an Open Source Church we’d organize ourselves around the premise, as Wikipedia does, that everyone who’s here is a member. Everyone. Those who’ve been here since the founding of the church and those who just walked through the door; those who’ve stayed through thick and thin and those who stepped out for a while and are tentatively stepping back in – every single person is already a member of this community because membership in this community is open to everyone. No hoops. No hurdles. No hassles. No haggling.

So, too, everyone who points their browser at Wikipedia is already a member, or to use their terminology an “editor” or “contributor.” No one checks your bona fides at the door to make sure that you understand how they do things. In fact, that’s part of the genius of this – it’s recognized to be a good thing to have the input of people who see things differently, who have different expectations, different backgrounds and perspectives, and, thus, different gifts to offer. So everyone who shows up at the door is instantly an editor – or member – and instantly able to participate. To contribute. To make suggestions. To actively change things.

Now some people want to go a step further. In Wikipedia they’re called “registered users,” and it’s free, it’s easy. Again, no one will check whether or not you’re the right kind of person. Want to step up? Step up.

These folks may have a few more tools in their toolbox than do un-registered users – they can create a new article, for instance. Still, essentially, these registered users are just regular users who’ve taken a stand.

There are “Administrators,” folks who might be akin to the folks we call “Church Leaders.” Two things are worth noting here, I think. First, Wikipedia’s Administrators do not see their role as setting the agenda. They don’t think they’re in charge. In fact, they’ve been known in the vernacular as “janitors,” because their primary function is to clean up after everyone else. It is stressed that these leaders, these Administrators, are fundamentally just users, editors, no different than anyone else. The one difference is that they’ve taken on the task of making sure that everyone else has what they need to do their work.

Notice the difference here? These leaders understand their role as supportive – what, in the church, we might call “servant leadership.” They don’t ask, “Who out there can help us fulfill our agenda?” but, rather, “What can we do to make you successful in what you’re trying to do?” A very different thing.

Of course, there are some “rules” to Wikipedia, there are some norms and expectations, and there is a clear understanding of Wikipedia’s purpose. But beyond the so-called “five pillars” there are no firmly established rules because the open source perspective recognizes, as Whitsitt puts it, “the more you dictate process, the more you strangle creativity and innovation.”

This is a risky approach, a radical embrace of trust, and, to quote Whitsitt again, it “scares the crud” out of most people. Churches are, generally speaking, like most other institutions, incredibly risk adverse. Yet religion – the spirituality at its core – takes risks in stride. Trust is part of the DNA of true spirituality. What if it became core to the way we do church, as well?

Can you imagine a church in which every single person who walked through the door was welcomed as a member, already fully qualified to begin fully participating? Can you imagine a church in which the leaders understood themselves not as “gatekeepers” who serve by making sure things don’t get out of hand but, instead, as facilitators of the unleashing of everyone’s fullest potential? Can you imagine a church based on such radical trust?
I can. I can, and it excites me tremendously. Perhaps it excites you, too. Maybe it scares you. Whatever your reaction, I look forward to exploring this further in the weeks and years ahead.

In Gassho,



Open Source Church: making room for the wisdom of all, by Landon Whitsitt. © 2011, The Alban Institute

The Metanoia Project (Landon Whitsitt’s blog):  (See, especially, his online booklet – which forms the first few chapters of his book – “Open Source Gospel” )