Here’s my promised series on “What the Church can learn from Wikipedia.” It will be a weekly series, every Wednesday in May.
Wikipedia is the internet phenomenon of an encyclopedia of knowledge that anyone can edit and contribute to. It is largely self-regulated by passionate wikipedians (is that the proper term?) who remove false information and vandalism. Over time, Wikipedia articles get better and more accurate. While hard to believe that an encyclopedia that anyone can edit could possibly work, it is a phenomenon because it DOES work!
The Church (United Methodist or any bureaucratically organized church) can learn a lot from Wikipedia in the way they initiate new ministries. Read on for more…
Clay Shirkey, in Here Comes Everybody, writes about the origins of Wikipedia
Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger founded Wikipedia in 2001 as an experimental offshoot of their original idea, a free online encyclopedia of high quality called Nupedia. Nupedia was to be written, reviewed, and managed by experts volunteering their time. (pg. 109)
Nupedia. In the first nine months, it finished only 20 articles because of the reviews and hoops articles had to jump through to “get out there.” If any section of the seven-stage process of publishing hung up, then it would take forever to get an article out the door.As Shirkey continues, the bolded section was the downfall of
Hence, a few months later, they created the polar opposite to Nupedia: Wikipedia, the encyclopedia that anyone could edit.
Wikipedia surpassed Nupedia in the total number of articles in its first few weeks of existence. By the end of the year, with fifteen thousand articles in place and the rate of growth continuing to increase, two things were clear: Wikipedia was viable, and Nupedia was not. (pg. 113)
it was easier to initiate new articles in Wikipedia. All you had to do was create a placeholder with a few words, and others would come and add to it. The threshold to contribution was very low, almost ground level, and thus the ease of contribution lowered immensely!The crucial difference between the two was that
This is the crucial point, and as a final quote, Shirkey shows why this is important.
Since anyone can act, the ability of the people in charge to kill initiatives through inaction is destroyed. This is what befell Nupedia; because everyone working on that project understood that only experts were to write articles, no one would even begin an article they knew little about, and as long as the experts did nothing (which, on Nupedia, is mostly what they did), nothing happened…In a system where anyone is free to get something started, however badly, a short, uninformative article can be the anchor for the good article that will eventually appear. (pg. 121)
When we leave ministry to the experts, we are stunting ministry. As Disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to reach out to the world in relevant ways. But how many of those relevant ways do we really try? Why not leave those to the pastor and other established laity…they are experts! They know better!
We structure our churches to squash new ideas and ‘professionalize’ ministry. Consider the typical church process for a new evangelism initiative: to send out a mailing to known middle school students showing the parallels between Iron Man and Jesus Christ. That’s hip, right?
- First, someone with the idea pitches it to the pastor…after all, she’s the expert, right?
- It has to be approved by the pastor, at least in the tentative stages.
- Finance decides if there is funding for the mailing.
- The Evangelism committee makes the mailing (or, more likely, leaves it to one person to work on their spare time).
- Finance committee again decides if there is money for the mailing and sends it to Administrative Council.
- Administrative Council approves it at their monthly meeting.
- The pastor approves the final product.
- The church secretary has to filter through the phone book for all middle-school age families.
- The church office has to find volunteers to lick stamps and put it all together.
- BAM! It is mailed out…….6 months after the movie came out.
Like Nupedia, our church structure ‘professionalizes’ ministry, and along the chain of authorization, the impetus behind the topic loses steam. If it works, and if the people pushing it are thorough, then yes, a lot of people can get behind it and it has a polished look. But the timing is off and out-of-sync with culture, and often ministry ideas can lose out to the church calendar.
What if your church structure looked like Wikipedia and allowed for “rough” forms of ministry to try out? Untried, unfinished, possibly disastrous forms of ministry. Doesn’t that scare you? It should…can you imagine our reputation if we let un-thought-thru forms of ministry run amok? (*cough* like sponsoring Halo game nights, anyone?) But if Wikipedia taught champions of Nupedia that dedicated amateurs could be better than professional products, then can’t our ministry initiatives learn the same thing?
It could start like this:
- It could begin with an unstructured think tank, like people batting around ridiculous ideas during a coffee break or while watching kids at the park.
- Inviting fresh peeps to committee meetings, and purposefully giving them time and the courage to offer feedback and ideas.
- “Just doing it!” on a small scale: a bible study participant emailing everyone in a bible study about the parallels between Iron Man and Jesus Christ, then beginning a weekly email on Christ figures in the media…which could then turn into a short-term bible study.
- This may sound crazy….but actually offering leadership training NOT TO YOUR COMMITTEE PEOPLE could lead, I don’t know, to MORE LEADERS. Something like a non-leaders’ leaders’ training, where everyone knew everyone else was on the same level.
The key is giving as much freedom as possible to the regular parishioners, and not concentrating power in your committees and “experts.” By allowing regular members to start ministries, it can get really scary really quick…but if like Wikipedia you build in mechanisms to remove harmful ministries and funnel energy towards viable ones, then you may have a bottom-up energy for ministry in your congregation…and nothing else can stand before that!
There you have it: the Wikipedia way of starting new ministries. Put it out there in raw, unfinished form, and see who will champion them and make them better! This is also the HackingChristianity way of doing things: bottom-up ideas are often better than top-down ones that follow a bureaucratic structure.
Thoughts on these ideas? I know, they are scary as yesterday’s meatloaf, but can Wikipedia teach us a thing or two about ministry, and expose how the way we professionalize ministry stunts its effectiveness?
Your thoughts are appreciated!