What the Church can Learn from Wikipedia…still!

Questions without Answers or Answers without Questions?

One of the first pieces that Hacking Christianity had syndicated on United Methodist Reporter was our series on “What the Church can Learn from Wikipedia” back in May 2008 (OMGoodness the blog is FOUR YEARS OLD). In those four posts, we talked about what would happen if the church structured more of its items like Wikipedia. Here’s those links from 2008:

This is relevant because a few months back the Encyclopaedia Britanica has ceased publication of its hardbound encyclopedias, which was a talking point for the wikipedia conversation in this way (from Part 4 above).

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.

Knowledge 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…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.

Seth Godin wrote about the differences between two entries on the new online Encyclopaedia Britanica and the Wikipedia entry, and I think his comments are important enough to re-open this series as…there’s new knowledge out there!

Consider this entry on Rick Santorum (free ), and compare it to this one from Wikipedia.

The first is out of date, sure, but it also seeks to end the quest for information. The Wikipedia entry, on the other hand, starts the quest. There are more than a hundred outbound links on the page, all designed to help the student explore and discover.

Does it hold together? Can you follow one link to another to another and understand a coherent story about the person you’re researching? If not, what’s not right about it?

Are there hacks and mistakes and sock puppet issues in Wikipedia? No doubt about it. If you have a few hours to waste, read some of the Talk pages, like this one on paella. But since Wikipedia has never taken the position that it represents the end of the discussion, that’s not really a failing.

Precisely. When you read a Wikipedia article, everything is cross-linked and you can search and seek out more knowledge. Outbound links take you to the sources so you can check for yourself if the information is accurate. The article, in short, offers more resources for the questions than simply answer the questions themselves.

For the Church, we often see Sunday Morning as the time when we provide answers and replace the wandering thoughts of the congregation.

  • Preachers say: You think THAT? No, you should think THIS. Just as Encyclopaedia Britanica sought to be the definitive source of knowledge, some churches seek to be the end-all to any discussion.
  • Boards of Ordained Ministry say: “How is the pastor answering the question in congregant’s minds?” I ran into this many times as I was more comfortable with open-ended sermons/bible studies than the Board was.
  • Even progressive congregations (actually, especially progressive ones) often critique the dominant narrative and replace it with an exact opposite for the congregation to think. Okay, fundamentalists do that too (which is why fundamentalism is applicable on any side of a theological scale).

In other words, the Church often seeks to answer questions or narrow the search terms for the questions. You’ve seen it, from the biggest Word-Faith congregation to the smallest rural congregation, they often seek to provide answers and give a satisfactory end to people’s thought processes.

But in churches that have a more open-system, they are more like the Wikipedia entry:

  • Wikipedia Churches offer multiple avenues to explore after the sermon is over. Everytime you offer wisdom through a quote, people want to know more about that person. Bonhoeffer said that? Who is that? Everytime you tell a story of a historical person, people want to know more about that person. I personally include a John Wesley quote or United Methodist doctrinal affirmation in almost every sermon.
  • Wikipedia Churches see their role to open the conversation rather than close it. By highlighting varieties of opinion while affirming basic values underneath, they allow for a diversity of opinion so long as their opinions are grounded on similar values. It’s the opposite of some fundamentalist churches that affirm one opinion and lift it up by allowing multiple values to point to that opinion.
  • Finally, Wikipedia Churches build up the network of knowledge rather than single affirmations. Like a Wikipedia entry that sends outbound links to a hundred articles, each of those articles is then examined to see if it fits the original entry’s quality…then beefed up if it is not. In the same way, Wikipedia Churches work on having a consistency in beliefs. Bible Says It We Believe it? Really? Have you read Leviticus? Word-Faith has lots of theology on healing and spoken word…not much elsewhere. And don’t get me started on Westboro: when your whole theology revolves around hell, there’s something wrong. But in, for example, Wesleyan churches, the broad spectrum of tools (Wesleyan Quadrilateral, letters from Wesley, traditional structures) offer a holistic approach that makes for a higher quality theology…if the church wants it. There’s many examples but these are the ones I’m most familiar with.

The point is not to say that one church is better than the other. Really. It is more a conversation about what type of person will be attracted to that church. If a person reaches for a 1978 encyclopedia, reads the entry, and says that must be the end of it, then there’s certain churches for that personality type. But for other people who visit a Wikipedia page and lose an hour reading through the links and the six-degrees-of-kevin-bacon nested links, there’s different types of churches for them that encourage questions rather than seek to answer them.

Your turn.

  • Are there some topics that you want a Britanica answer or a Wikipedia gateway to possibilities? Are you comfortable with others having the opposite desire?
  • What role do questions play in your philosophy? Questions needing paired answers or Questions that remain on their own?
I think ultimately the question is how do we handle being finite; how do we handle being unable to answer all the questions that come our way. And when we seek answers or better questions, do we need a final say or are we comfortable with more avenues to explore, more outbound links.
(Photo credit: “I’m contributing to Wikipedia” by Kalexanderson on Flickr, creative commons license)
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  1. says

    Greetings! I’ve been reading your web site for a while now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Dallas Texas!
    Just wanted to mention keep up the good work!

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