What the Church can Learn from Wikipedia [1of4]

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)
Too many hoops stunt new ideas' growth.As Shirkey continues, the bolded section was the downfall of 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.

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)
Ease of beginning new things promotes growth.The crucial difference between the two was that 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!

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)
By leaving ministry to "experts" we are sucking energy from new ideas.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 rough, unpolished ministry ideas were let loose? The Horror!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.

Offer tools for growing good ideas, and safeguards against bad ideasThe 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!


Anonymous,  May 7, 2008 at 8:26 AM  

Jeremy, great conversation starter, as always. I agree that anything that puts real bite into the notion that every Christian has a ministry is a good idea.

One thing I don't hear built into your proposal is the self-editing function of Wikipedia. The online encyclopedia works because other eyes look at what is being posted and change, improve, or correct it. Often these people have little or no contact with the people who made the original post.

Getting lots of "stub" ministries started is great. How do we cultivate those and correct the mistakes? On Wikipedia, everyone can see what everyone is doing. There are no "lone rangers" out there writing whole sections off by themselves.

All our bureacracy was invented to cull out bad ideas and mistakes before they got put in place. Your critique of the downside of bureacracy is good. How do you still fulfill its function, though?

Can our committees be restructured to serve this purpose without squashing the whole thing?

This strikes me as a real problem given the fact that few laity - especially at mid-size and smaller churches - have the kind of energy and time that the volunteer Wikipedians have. Wikipedia benefits from its massive scale - everyone on Earth can contribute to it. That's several billion potential contributors and editors.


Tripp Hudgins May 7, 2008 at 8:30 AM  

I think that this is good. I call it the noodle ministry...like making pasta. Just throw it against the wall and see what sticks. It need not be perfect.

But then...we've trained the laity to ask for the expert in all things. Heck, our culture is still ruled by that attitude. So, part of the puzzle is teaching the laity to trust themselves.

Good stuff.

blake May 7, 2008 at 10:23 AM  

since reading tony jones' latest book, the new christians (he talks about a "wiki-ecclesiology) i've been thinking about this idea of an open-source, scale-free framework. i like it mainly because it is inherently resistant to the traditional top-down hierarchy of "experts" and i'm glad your thinking about it too.

as @cometothewaters noted a perceived negative of this is the thought the bureaucracy naturally tends to cull out the "bad ideas" and this wiki-framework wouldn't do that as efficiently. i think at least half of that could be challenged. true, bureaucracies tend to cull out the bad, but as you mention the also tend to be slow and ominous. and i think the assumption that the wiki model doesn't cull out the bad is a bit of a mis-perception. things just get culled differently. it's more organic and fluid. to use churchy terms it happens within the community. the community checks itself and helps itself, like a living organism.

to keep with the wikipedia example, tony notes in his book that over time--i'll say that again, over time--wikipedia articles tend to have the same amount or accuracy, bias, and mistakes as britannica, a product of the experts and the bureaucratic hierarchy. wikipedia just goes about handling those issues in a different way, one that doesn't limit knowledge and application and one that allows anyone in the community to take part in the ongoing creative process. interesting.

i'm not saying there are problems with the wiki model. obviously there are just as there are with the traditional top-down model. since we've been keeping with the traditional model for so long and have admittedly made mistakes i think it would be nice to see some churches adopting and adapting this wiki model. and as @cometothewaters noted, we have so many passionate, driven people in the community i think it would be a great disservice to limit them.

thanks again for the post.

Warren May 7, 2008 at 10:34 AM  


It's really interesting that you've put this together. Since General Conference, I have been thinking about ways in which we can wiki- the church.

I have been thinking of ways of decentralizing the way in which the Book of Discipline is written.

It is clear that your post takes a very different route than the one which I have been working over in my mind. I say that to mean that my comment here is not missing the point of your post, rather spring-boarding therefrom.

I am thinking about a project, if others have energy behind it, whereby we put the BOD into wiki format, and leave it open for a set amount of time (say, a year.) In that time, people can go through and change it paragraph by paragraph. In this way, we can envision a more holistic and consistent BOD. (and let's speak truth, the current BOD is neither.)

David May 7, 2008 at 6:16 PM  

This sounds a lot like the application of "The Starfish and the Spider" section on Wikipedia.

This is a great read, and very helpful to where to lead, and how to lead. Similar to what the Stress Penguin has to offer in his blog today too.

Good stuff. Application makes all the difference.


Anonymous,  May 7, 2008 at 8:07 PM  

as @cometothewaters noted a perceived negative of this is the thought the bureaucracy naturally tends to cull out the "bad ideas" and this wiki-framework wouldn't do that as efficiently.

Just to clarify. I'm not saying bureacracy does something that Wikipedia doesn't. I agree 100% that Wikipedia has a good self-correction mechanism. It is group edited by everyone. Over time, this does develop articles that are informative and accurate.

My question is how does that group editing process work in church ministries?

If I start a stub on Wikipedia about Rev. Jeremy Smith and write that he is a devotee of snipe hunting, there is an efficient and transparent mechanism for Jeremy or anyone else to add to or correct my stub.

In a church setting, how is this same function carried out? I'm not just interested in culling out bad ideas - although I think that is necessary if we are going to have any theological commitments at all - but also how do you spot good ideas and develop and build on them. How do I even find out what all the ideas are that are in the church? There is no "search" button on the front door of the church building.

In short, I see the case for bottom-up, let a thousand flowers bloom approach to ministry. But Wikipedia's genius is not just that anyone can start something. It is that the community can monitor and improve (or correct) anything.

When you are dealing with people and not web pages, how do you do that?

That is my question.


Rev. Jeremy Smith May 7, 2008 at 9:34 PM  

@ John (CttW), both of your posts are shots across the bow of this proposal: how to deal with problems of scale and self-correction. You are right that wikipedia works because it is ALL out in the open and there are billions of people to help "police" it. In a church setting, there is not. I'd invite you to hold that thought until next week, as I'll expand more on the problems of small numbers and how to deal with that.

In fact, John, you've articulated weeks two and four of this series: what to do with volunteers and scalability (week 2) and how to do group processing and editing (week 4). Way to blow my cover. ;-)

@ Tripp, I enjoy your image of throwing pasta against the wall. Sounds very satisfying. You are correct the proper approach is to empower laity, not take down church structures alone. There has to be a happy medium that I can't outline for every different situation, but perhaps the kernals of conversation will stir something up!

@ blake, glad we are on similar wavelengths. I don't presuppose that a wiki model would be a better model, or end up with a better product at the end, but rather it would be a process that would have more voices and empowerment at the table. I'd have to see it in action to really judge its viability. But I'm very interested in bringing in new voices to the table that are put off by church hierarchies and structures much in the same way Nupedia was a failure.

Rev. Jeremy Smith May 7, 2008 at 9:38 PM  

@ warren, a wikiDiscipline? That would be a fascinating project. Please email me (use the CONTACT page at the top or bottom) and we can talk more.

@ john, glad you enjoyed it! Let me know if they spur more thought later in the week.

@ david, I have read Starfish and the Spider thoroughly, and will have much to contribute after I get through this series. Hopefully after getting this series out on paper, my posts will have more background to contribute to the ideas in that book. Glad to hear it is relevant, and I hope you stick around for that conversation too (June, most likely).

Andrew June 4, 2008 at 5:27 PM  

warren, I've been promoting the Discipline wiki idea for awhile. If we could implement it before the 2012 General Conference, we could then submit and publicize the results as proposals for that conference. I would love to see the reaction.

As for the main thrust of the original post, I think the bubbling up from the bottom is great. The issue is when church finances or other resources are being committed. Someone needs to approve such use even if it is just to give a group of people the resources to do something that they design separate from the allocation of the resource. I am reminded of how local groups of poor people received federal money back in the '60s (I believe) to support their community. The program became controversial and eventually had its funding limited, but it was successful when it was providing significant resources.

Post Your Comment (click here for a pop-up comment form)

Questions? Read the "Four Responsibilities of Commenting"
Jazz hands! ~Jeremy

Comment via FriendConnect

Favorite Sites

Latest from the Methoblog

Search the Methodist World

Want to see more United Methodist responses to a topic? Enter the topic into this search engine and search ONLY methodist blogs and sites!

UMJeremy's shared items

Disclaimer: all original content reflects the personal opinions of Rev. Jeremy Smith, not the doctrinal positions or statements of the United Methodist Church local and global.
all linked or quoted content represent the source's opinions, not Jeremy or the United Methodist Church.

  Blogger Template © Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP