Comment on Landon Whitsitt’s new book, Open Source Church

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Open Source Church by Landon WhitsettI must first state that I am thankful for Landon Whitsitt’s contribution to the ongoing conversation around the questions: what has the church become and what might it be becoming? This is especially poignant given his position as vice-moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). So much is happening to the ecclesial landscape that is difficult to even wrap my head around the varied directions within the PC(USA), let alone the entire Christian landscape here in the U.S. and around the world. I think a critique is important and much needed, and Landon offers not only that in his new book, Open Source Church: Making Room for the Wisdom of All, but also a vision for a different way of doing things. It is compelling, but I’m not sure he and I see the same things in churches (though, I admit, as vice moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the denomination in which we both belong, he has definitely been in more churches than I have).

I am only about half way through his book and feel compelled to comment on a few things. I found myself reacting both personally and professionally to some of his more cutting statements. For instance, in all but name he mentions the Presbyterian Youth Triennium—a triennial gathering of some 5,000 youth across the several Presbyterian denominations in the U.S., plus a smattering of international youth delegates. He mentions how this gathering is “known go have some of the most creative, powerful worship that most staid Presbyterians have ever experienced.” He then goes on to say that there is a disconnect with what the youth experience at the Triennium and what they experience at home because they return home to “congregations where little to no creativity is involved and efficiency is the order of the day.”

First, the Triennium is planned at least three years in advance. It is one event for four days. Plus this four day event every three years has some of the best resources available to it from our denomination. Plus the sheer number of people creates an environment that is unequaled except in the larger mega-churches, which are few and far between. The local church has none of these luxuries! This is the most unbalanced comparison you can make: talk about oranges and apples! Second, to state that there is little to no creativity in weekly worship in most congregations is to miss the value of ritual and the natural rhythms of life that are evident in those rituals. The amount of creativity a congregation can pour into a worship service every week is heavily dependent upon the gifts and resources available to the congregation—and I’m not just thinking about money, but talent, abstract thinking, theological sophistication. But there is also the issue that the Triennium is a one-time even with its own energy and vibrancy that, to be quite honest, would be exhausting and mind numbing to experience every single week for many people. In other words, not everyone wants that sort of experience every week! If we did, everyone would be flocking to the mega-churches that can put on those kinds of spectacular worship services, complete with dramatic lighting and fog machines, not to mention the jamming rock band.

Landon mentions in his book that one of the 10 principles of the Open Source Definition upon which the entire software development community uses to decide whether or not a particular piece of software is “open source” is the idea of “derived works.” Landon explains that a piece of software license must guarantee the ability of end users (those who download the program) to create other applications and software from the downloaded software. He sums this principal up as: contextualization. When applied to the gospel, it should be “contextualized in order to be relevant to the time and place in which it is proclaimed.” Isn’t that what churches already do? He even uses his own context in Kansas to compare and contrast that with a church outside of the Midwest which might have a completely different perspective on the agrarian-focused nature of scriptures. I totally agree!

But that’s where I get confused, because the Triennium is a context and the local congregation is another context. I have served churches in suburban and urban California, suburban Ohio, and rural Western New York. I have seen how context changes dramatically how decisions are made, how interpersonal communication and relationships are carried out, and, most certainly, how ministry is done. It is not always the most creative, but it is, indeed, faithful. The gospel is naturally contextualized all over the world, let alone merely from east to west. I find myself a bit sad reading Landon’s caricature that worship is done in most churches with “efficiency” in mind over and against any sense of creativity about the revelation of God in Jesus Christ coming alive as we gather.

I’m curious what others might think. I’m curious if there are times when you have found creativity and aliveness in the ritual of Sunday morning worship? I’m curious if Landon’s statements ring true for you, maybe only in part, or if you experience something different.

I’ll be sure to post more of my musings on this book as I run through it. With all my criticisms, though, I do believe his concept of “open source church” is compelling, I’m just not sure he and I share the same guidelines or come at it with the same experiences. Maybe that’s the point?

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