Open Source Church – Part 3

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This is the third and final part in a three part response to the Rev. Landon Whitsitt’s new book, Open Source Church: Making Room for the Wisdom of All. You can see my other two posts (much shorter and incomplete) here and here. Some of what I write here may be repetitive, but the following is written after reading the entire book and the other posts were as I was reading it.

I continue to find myself intrigued by Whitsitt’s concept of the Church being an open source community, much like those who have devoted themselves to building and improving Wikipedia, the renowned online encyclopedia that seeks to collect the “sum of all human knowledge.” The idea that the Church is a place where anyone can plug in and contribute has been a long-held desire for those who gather, but it has been a challenging concept to implement. With over 2,000 years of tradition (some might say, “baggage”) to sift through in the attic, it can be a challenge to decide what is important and valuable, and what needs to be cleaned out, changed, upgraded, or rearranged. If we follow Phyllis Tickle’s take on the history of the Christian Church in her 2008 book The Great Emergence, the Church has experienced a theological “garage sale” about every 500 years, the very kind of attic cleaning, upgrading and rearranging of which I write, and are currently experiencing one in this post-modern emergence. It’s a good thing, and an “open source” church that is adaptable and pliable like Wikipedia, which is setup to adapt to various types of information, is more likely to survive and even thrive in our semi-annual theological garage sale. Whitsitt’s premise is worthy enough for all congregations, regional bodies, and denominations to take note. The Church must grow in its ability to adapt and change to the ever-changing needs of humanity, the ever-changing social structures of an incredibly diverse collection of cultures engaging one another more and more often, and the ever-changing technological advances that are dramatically altering the way we think, do, and be. However, our ability to adapt and change can only be taken so far before we begin to simply adopt rather than adapt to these changes, thus altering the purpose of the community of Jesus followers.

And this is my sticking point with Whitsitt’s assumptions. He asks, “Why is it that I can edit the world’s largest encyclopedia, but I can’t edit the church?” In response, I offer the following:

Imagine I walk into your home. You have painted your walls with colors you enjoy. You have arranged your furniture to make your home comfortable for you and your family. The pictures on the wall are arranged just the way you like them. But your home does not look like my home. I am comfortable in my home. So, I begin rearranging the furniture, throwing out the things I deem useless or not to my liking, and painting your walls to fit my tastes. That is what it is like when a person walks into a faith community and, without trying to understand or respect how things are arranged, begins to criticize and change things like orders of worship, types of music, preaching styles, social engagements, etc. Whitsitt acknowledges that even Wikipedia has boundaries, the rules which authors of articles and edits to articles must follow. Before one can just jump in, one needs to learn the rules the community (in this case, Wikipedia) has established. To begin just editing, no matter how passionate I am, disrupts the community and creates a whole lot of work for other people who need to now go in and clean it up. In fact, if someone continues to be disruptive, even after being told the rules, there are consequences (still writing about Wikipedia here).

The Church as an open source community is intriguing, but, as Whitsitt acknowledges later in his book, it must be a community with some rules that govern how the people who choose to be a part of that community will behave and interact. I am very intrigued by his notion of leadership as the custodial crew, to a degree. And I am intrigued by his notion of taking the leadership pyramid that is often the unofficial authority structure of most churches, even among Congregationalists, and turning it upside down so the “leaders” are at the bottom resourcing and providing space for the rest of the community to do the work. However, it is a very Western concept of leadership. I’m curious about the multicultural implications of what he proposes. The U.S. is becoming more and more multicultural, not only in terms of race or ethnicity, but also generationally, politically, socially, genderly (is that a word?), as well as the obvious theologically.

I find Whitsitt’s concept of open source church worthy of discussion. He articulates it well and makes a good case for moving further in this direction. His book is a good read with lots of personal stories about both the challenges and the joys of living in an open source community. Every leader of a church should read this book and at least consider how such thinking might influence how we can continue become more faithful to God’s vision for humanity. I also strongly recommend reading anything from Eric H. F. Law, founder of Kaleidescope Institute (see also his blog, The Sustainist), along side Whitsitt’s book and Phyllis Tickle’s seminal work in The Great Emergence.

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