What the Church can learn from Wikipedia [4of4]

Here’s part 4 of my four-part series on “What the Church can learn from Wikipedia.” It is a weekly series, published every Wednesday in May.

Welcome to the last installment of this series on Wikipedia. There will be more series after this, but this is a shorter final entry. There will be a wrap-up with lessons learned later. Read on to discover how Wikipedia is a process not a product…and like radioactive elements, our own Discipleship has a half-life that must be maintained to keep us from becoming lukewarm followers of Christ.

Throughout all of this series, there’s been one thing that I’ve neglected to mention but it bears nuancing for this final post. It is important to remember that Wikipedia is not a product so much as a process. Clay Shirkey, in Here Comes Everybody, writes about the origins of Wikipedia (written about in the first of this series)

A Wikipedia article is a process, not a product, and as a result, it is never finished. For a Wikipedia article to improve, the good edits simply have to outweigh the bad ones. Rather than filtering contributions before they appear in public (the process that killed Nupedia), Wikipedia assumes that new errors will be introduced less frequently than existing ones will be corrected. This assumption has proven correct: despite occasional vandalism, Wikipedia articles get better, on average, over time. (pg. 119)

There’s a false mystique here of a collaborative process of sunshine and puppy dogs. In reality, the articles come from argument and persuasion, from behind the scenes adding, rewriting, summarizing, splitting up entries, categorizing, and standards of presentation. As Shirky says, “the articles grow not from harmonious thought, but from constant scrutiny and emendation.”

There are no “finished” pages on WikipediaIndeed, there are no “finished” pages on Wikipedia. From A-Z, from their own home page, categories, terms of service, and other “static” pages, they are all editable (though some may have restrictions). The lack of a finished “product” may sound like beta-hell, but it’s the operating model of Wikipedia.

There’s a reason why Wikipedia must be a process, not a product. Consider the product of an Encyclopedia Britannica: a wealth of knowledge in a series of encyclopedias, written by experts in the field. If they stopped publishing it today, and the finished product of all the expert articles was the final say, it would slowly become obsolete. Like reading an old edition of the DCM claiming homosexuality as a mental illness, or religion books that claim Moses wrote the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, old knowledge is simply not permanently correct as societies change and science marches on.

The half-life of knowledge makes products obsoleteKnowledge does not necessarily withstand the test of time. Indeed, there’s a half-life of knowledge. Like the half-life of plutonium or radioactive elements that slowly break down into nothing, knowledge also breaks down over time. Like Men in Black when Tommy Lee Jones says to Will Smith:

Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat…and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.

New knowledge must replace old knowledge that cannot stand the test of time. Not all knowledge has a half-life, but most of it does. In this manner, Wikipedia far outdoes Encyclopedia Brittanica because it can remove the knowledge that has become obsolete much faster than a paperbound edition.

The Process of Wikipedia is its greatest strengthIn summary, Wikipedia is not something you can download and get its full effect. Yes, there is knowledge in a paperbound copy, but it is in the growing, experimenting, categorizing, re-categorizing, and offering up every word and syllable to constant scrutiny that make Wikipedia what it is. While the tools help, and the software protects the system from hackers, it is considering nothing to be sacrosanct that gives Wikipedia its power and authority.

In the church, we strive to be more like Encyclopedia Brittanica than Wikipedia. We bring forth ministry ideas when they are more like “products” we are pushing on people. We just show the storefront of the Church to people without the behind-the-scenes wrangling that takes place. We like products and people to believe in products and contribute to making products better.

What if your church was a process, not a product?What impact would it have to consider your church a process, not a product? I guarantee it would radically impact how you view your groups: Disciple classes, homeless outreach, bible studies. These are not set-in-stone ministries, but instead are processes, temporary, relative to the context processes, not “products” you have to shove out the door weekly.

Perhaps a ministry can become a process that…

  • challenges the sacred cows, the products, the finished or established ministries or areas of the church that are unmovable. By re-orienting a congregation to seeing all as up in the air and nothing as sacrosanct will certainly cause anxiety, but a nurturing hand can guide people to less idolatrous notions of church.
  • dislodges the Frozen Chosen to become involved. In long-time congregations, people don’t get involved because they feel “new.” By allowing everything to be “new” again, people may feel more interested in becoming involved.
  • creates breathing room for new ministries. Often when we walk to the budget table, the Finance, Trustees, P/PRC, Worship teams seem to get first billing as the “featured” products while everything else is seasonal stock items. By giving more credence and importance to every ministry at the church, it can level the playing field and allow ministries to really grow to their niches.

The half-life of discipleship makes following Christ a lifelong processMore importantly, our ministries have to reflect our own discipleship. There’s a half-life of discipleship, too. We like to think we become Disciples of Christ when we pledge our hearts to follow Jesus and re-orient our world, but the feeling of ecstasy ebbs and flows. Summer camp experiences often don’t transform our lifestyle because when we leave the wilderness, nothing has changed. We have to be willing to constantly test and expand our discipleship, because if not we lose its spark and tenacity. If not, then our half-life decays until we are no more radioactive than the culture around us.

A dead body, you see, will take on the temperature of its environment. Such was the case with the church at Laodicea. (source)

Consider the ways your discipleship’s half-life may be stunting your spiritual growth

  • “The Bible says so!” Well, does it? Like someone famous (anyone help?) said, “Don’t just read the Bible. Study it. Either study the Bible or don’t read it at all.” We all grow up with conceptions (old knowledge) of what the Bible says. Read it and study it again. It may say something very different.
  • “I’ve earned this by being a faithful member of this church.” A role or position in the church is not a product you’ve bought with tithes and presence…it is a part of the process of being Church. Perhaps by faithfully re-examining your role in the machinery of church structure you can determine if there is a better fit than the one you’ve always had. In my congregation, a woman who was usually relegated to cleaning and maintaining the church found that she did that out of respect for the sanctity of the church. She is now my Acolyte Coordinator, which brings sanctity to the congregation.

The process of church must be the forefront, not the storefront.For the Church to truly emulate Wikipedia, it begins with seeing the Church as a process, not a product. And that process begins with each of us individually: to see that our discipleship has a half-life, and if it is not kept up, we will become more and more unable to be recognized as faithful Christians. This is not a message to induce anxiety, it is meant to be honest that we cannot afford to become complacent in an ever-changing world.

Thoughts? Feel free to post a comment and introduce yourself!

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Comments

  1. Anonymous says

    Can I forward this to my senior pastor? Maybe I should just forward this to myself daily when I feel entitled for all I ‘do’ for the church. Thank you for sharing.

    AJ a UMC member since birth and starting a new journey on what it all means.

  2. Rev. Jeremy Smith says

    Of course! Pass it on to whoever you’d like to…just remember that while you may find inspiration from it, that doesn’t mean others will.

    Here’s hoping for encouragement not discouragement!

  3. Anonymous says

    " New knowledge must replace old knowledge that cannot stand the test of time. "

    I'm finding this a bit worrying. Are you saying that the Bible can be edited and updated like Wikipedia? Infact, was the bible edited to suit the beliefs & views of the writer up to the time of the oldest versions that we can now see?
    Richard Headey

  4. Rev. Jeremy Smith says

    Richard, thank you for this discussion. In our history, there were periods when people “knew” that women were unfit for ministry, where people “knew” that we needed an intercessor (the Pope) to pray to God, where people “knew” or “believed” doctrines that some segments of Christianity do not hold any longer. This is life open to the Spirit which spurs us to new experiences and definitions of ministry and polity. I’m not talking about the Bible here, I’m talking about church rules, polity, and doctrine.

    I hope that makes more sense!

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