What the Church can Learn from Wikipedia [3of4]

Here’s part 2 of my series on “What the Church can learn from Wikipedia.” It is a weekly series, published every Wednesday in May.

The past two weeks we’ve hit on two important lessons from Wikipedia

  1. By lowering the thresholds to new ministry ideas, rough forms of ministry can emerge that would otherwise be snarled in bureaucracy (link).
  2. By empowering the smallest of groups in your ministry, you will be encouraging discipleship from your less-committed members (link).

So, those are the “how-to” aspects of what we can learn from Wikipedia. But what about the Why? Why do people contribute to Wikipedia, and why would people want to become involved in small rough forms of ministry?

This leads us to our third segment: motivation. What motivates people to contribute time and energy to a system, and why do they do it? And how does friendly competition actually de-motivate people and stunts ministry?

Why Wikipedia Works

Why do people contribute to Wikipedia?As is the norm in our series, we reach out to Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody to guide our discussion. Shirky writes about his editing of a Wikipedia entry on Koch fractals…something he knows next-to-nothing about, but was still able to meaningfully contribute. Why would he do it? Three reasons (text decorations are mine):

The first was a chance to exercise some unused mental capacities–I studied fractals in a college physics course in the the 1980s and was pleased to remember enough to be able to say something useful about it, however modest…
The second reason was vanity…the pleasure of changing something in the world, just to see my imprint on it. Making a mark on the world is a common human desire…
The third motivation was the desire to do a good thing…the genius of wikis is in part predicated on the ability to make non-financial motivations add up to something of global significance.

Those are what motivates at least Mr. Shirky to contribute to Wikipedia. For others, there are hundreds of reasons: to correct or add on expert knowledge, to clean up grammer, etc. Contributing can also mean cleaning up vandalism (thieves!) of “the encyclopedia everyone can edit.” Why would people do that, spend time cleaning up vandalism?

How does an open community defend against attacks?As an example of a failed wiki, the L.A. Times launched a “Wikitorial” feature where they allowed their editorial pages to be edited by the public, like a wiki. Almost immediately, the users defaced, deleted, and filled the pages with porn. It was pulled within 48 hours, and never tried again. Shirky explains (bolded and links mine):

The problem that The Times suffered from was simple: no one cared enough about the contents of the Wikitorial to defend it, much less improve it. An editorial is meant to be a timely utterance of a single opinionated voice–the opposite of the characteristics that make for good wiki content. A wiki augments community rather than replacing it; in the absence of a functioning community, a wiki will suffer from the Tragedy of the Commons

A wiki does not create community; it supplements an already strong community. In the absence of community, wikis fail to motivate people alone.

Everybody loses when incentives are inequalAs a final point, the most important motivating aspect of Wikipedia is that no one is getting paid. The social psychology experiment The Ultimatum Game involves two people getting $10 under two conditions: one can divvy it up, and if the other accepts the division, they both get the money. More often than not, if the dividing person chooses more than $7 for himself, the other rejects it, even though they would still be getting a free $3. Why? The experiment shows that if there in unequal distribution of money, there is less motivation to accept the system, and thus everyone loses. By removing monetary rewards (and even social advancement to Wikipedia moderators is not public knowledge), Wikipedia removes those barriers and allows for purely non-financial motivations.

In summary, Wikipedia works because of (a) personal motivations to better a communal product and someone’s self-image, (b) the strong community to withstand vandalism, and (c) non-financial motivations make it more tolerant of the long tail of participation.

Competition and Community are Incompatible in Ministry

Moving to churchy stuff, Shirkey’s three reasons to edit a Wikipedia page translate easily into the local church context.

  1. A desire to contribute a skill or ability.
  2. A desire to be remembered.
  3. A desire to do a good thing.

We see those at play in our churches all the time, there’s no lesson there. However, the two other reasons are significant indeed.

Dedicated communities make open systems work.First, the presence of a strong supportive community makes open systems work. Admittedly, Wikipedia has built in tools to survive malicious people that the Church simply doesn’t have: it is easier to clean up after an attack than it is to mount it in the first place. When a vandal defaces an entry on Islam, a Wikipedian just has to click the “revert to previous entry” and it is done. I’m jealous.

The community is the safeguard of the Wikipedia; thus, a strong community may be the safeguard of the Church. Consider these examples:

  • Do community-building stuff to encourage trust and participation among each other. How long has it been since you’ve done a potluck dinner after church, or held a fun event just for the fun of it, even if it cost money? The more people interact, the more they can trust each other with ministry ideas.
  • Articulate a Vision/Mission statement that ministry groups can coalesce behind. With a mission statement, then it becomes easier to “test” ministry ideas against that mission, rather than expressing “personal” concerns with the ministry ideas. This relaxes interpersonal conflict by holding up an impersonal yet deeply personal standard to judge ministry ideas by.
  • Ensure there is space for ministry leaders to just worship or do bible study. In my church, I lead a Mission:Possible bible study and accountability group for my church leadership. They don’t have to prepare anything or lead anything, they just come to be nurtured. This relaxes typical mindsets and allows leaders to grow towards one another.

Focusing more resources on community-building may become essential to open ministry.

Demoralization of ministry groups, even with financial incentives, is never good.Second, open ministry is incompatible with competition, so seek the reduction or removal of incentives-based ministry. We saw from the Ultimatum game that when there is an inequality, sometimes everyone loses. By removing financial benefits and even social-capital-building benefits, ministry can handle both motivating people AND reaching out to the long tail of the membership. Our churches love to offer benefits to people and breed competition, so removing them will ironically remove barriers to motivation.

I see these barriers all the time in small forms that are well-intentioned.

  • Get rid of Gold stars in Sunday Schools registering attendance. After the long tail plays out, it becomes obvious those who are unable to attend every week will never catch up to Suzie Sunshine with the 10+ Gold Star lead, so why bother trying? (unless you are Hillary Clinton, of course)
  • Stop pitting church groups against one another in fundraising. At General Conference, a basketball was to be offered to the highest bidder of the delegations, so delegations started raising money and pledges from their delegates and home conferences. I saw my own delegation say “what’s the point” when some other Conference easily took the lead with a ridiculous amount of money. They raised a ton of money, but at what cost? Demoralization of ministry groups, even when you are raising more money, is never good.

I am part of a group that believes in me, and I believe in them.In conclusion, motivation is based on personal feelings and agendas. But motivation in group theory is also based on a feeling of closeness to one another, rallying under one banner, and by not feeling in competition with one another, especially when groups are gathered around the budget table. By removing the roadblocks to ministry, even friendly competition, we can grow into a community that sustains and complements a wiki-structured ministry.

Your Turn

Your turn to contribute to this discussion. In addition to general comments on the content, any thoughts on these two questions?

  • What community-building ideas have you found successful in your local context?
  • What incentives or competitive aspects of your context stunt ministry growth?

Thanks for taking the time to reply…much less read these looooong posts!

Print Friendly and PDF

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>