What the Church can learn from Wikipedia [2of4]

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.

There has been much discussion about this topic on the blogosphere, so please forgive me for not responding to all points. This is very early on the series, and much of the conversation revolves around topics that I'm not ready to release my writings on yet. Thanks for your patience.

Still, on Richard's blog (among others) the topic for this week has come to light (emphasis mine):
[A]lthough Wikipedia has undoubtedly been a roaring success, the wiki idea does not seem to have really caught on. The editors of wikipedia are a very small fraction of those who read it. Similarly, in the church we talk of ‘the ministry of the whole people of God’, how many church members and friends are really prepared to get their hands dirty with ministry?
Richard has preempted the topic for this post. We can learn this week that when we scale ministry, it does (in fact) look a lot like Wikipedia, and there's a crucial lesson there for how to structure ministry.

Who Contributes to Wikipedia?

There's a common idea that everyone who visits Wikipedia edits. This is only mostly true. A large number of visitors to Wikipedia DO make edits (and become "contributers"), but it is a small percentage of the "audience."

Clay Shirkey, in his book Here Comes Everybody, writes about the "long tail" of the internet (also called the 80/20 rule and power law distribution). Basically, the top contributers (represented in green) contribute significantly more than anyone else when it comes to Wikipedia and other social networks. On any given article, there is usually one major contributer, who gives twice as much as the number 2 contributer, who gives as much input as the next 10 contributers combined, and then a ton of people who have made one edit each. You see from the graph that the "long tale" is the large group of people that make small contributions to a system (represented in yellow).

But that's not the interesting part to Shirkey.
There are two big surprises here. The first is that imbalance is the same shape across a huge number of different kinds of behaviors...the second surprise is that the imbalance drives large social systems rather than damaging them. Fewer than two percent of Wikipedia users ever contribute, yet that is enough to create profound value for millions of users. (pp.124-125)
In other words, even though many people are freeloaders, and even those that contribute do so very unevenly, this imbalance does not (in itself) damage the system. By the sheer scale of Wikipedia, for instance, 2 percent of the users is a broad enough base for it to all work out.

We are tempted to move into churchy stuff, but not yet. Two more observations. The first is a simple statement: most participants in a system are below-average. That sounds insulting, but it is true. In an imbalanced system like this, the average is well above most of the users (where the green meets the yellow above), so most people *are* below-average.

The second observation is that when we try to map out the "average" user of Wikipedia, there is no representative user, and the habits that come from thinking about averages are not merely useless, they're harmful. As Shirkey says, "You can't look for a representative, because none exists. Instead, you have to....concentrate not on the individual users but on the behavior of the collective."

So, to summarize, when it comes to wikipedia entries and involvement:
  • Most edits are small edits, with only a few contributers doing over half of the work.
  • Most contributers are below average.
  • Efforts to map out the "average" wikipedia contributer will fail miserably.
  • Even with below-average contributions and inequal distribution of work, wikipedia works!
Who Gets Involved in the Church?

Now, what does this mean for the church? A former seminarian linked to the following report written by Dan Dick from the UMC's General Board of Discipleship (I can't find it in digital form except on this weird iPaper website...let's see how this embed trick works)

The article, if you can't read it, is the results of a 75,000 person survey that concludes that most mega-churches are filled with below-average Christians. No surprise. However, Dick's point is that in mega-churches, most of the attendees are far below average.
[W]e found that the fastest growing churches depend on the least involved, least motivated, and least engaged Christian believers...Think of a baseball team where only one player is actually playing the game and everybody else on the team is just watching, or doing something else...This is what we found in the vast majority of ‘premiere’ churches – a whole lot of disinterested spectators.”
Which, rightly so, has people angry from those churches.
“They ignore the 10% (of the people) who are on fire for God to focus on the consumers. It isn’t a fair picture,” says a leader from Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church.
But it is a fair picture, by their own admission. Bringing in Wikipedia's distribution of involvement, they match perfectly: 10% are on fire, 80% are spectators. The vast majority of Christians who are in broadcast-based churches are not involved beyond presence and pocketbooks.

But let's not point at the Six Flags over Jesus churches. Let's bring it down a bit. My church has a membership of 150. Of those, 1 is super-involved. My #2 is about half as involved as #1. Then the next 15 people are involved in various ways. My sunday morning attendance is about 40. And my CEO attendance (Christmas & Easter Onlys) is about 60. So you see the distribution of involvement matches perfectly with the mega-churches and Wikipedia alike.

Map out your church involvement. I bet you get the same graph.

The Long Tail of the Church and Wikipedia

The lesson from Wikipedia is that no matter how small the contribution, the entirety of the whole is better for it. That is a tough concept for the church.
  • We want truly dedicated believers who are involved in every aspect.
  • We tend to rely on the semi-professional laity to get things done right...rather than trusting the under-average crowd to try something new.
  • Especially in the small-membership church, we tend to over-use our people who DO step up, and then wonder why they aren't exhibiting healthy self-care that makes others want to become involved too.
  • On the meta-level, there's still a strong stigma that small churches are worth less than big churches. It's not true, but I hear it a lot.
The secret of Wikipedia is this: By grabbing ahold of the long tail of ministry, churches can experience significant renewal. It is exactly those small areas of ministry where the church can be renewed. Consider the following small groups that may be in your church or community:
  • The soccer families that go out for pizza after their games. What if you sponsored a bible study for them to read while waiting on their pizza, or sponsored a social night at the church following games?
  • The couple or three elderly persons who visit shut-ins. What if you paired them with a sunday school class and they went together on their visits?
  • The people who do the dishes after coffee hour. What if you posted some hymns on the wall by the sink and they sang songs while they cleaned?
Those are little examples of how to focus your energies on the small groups in your church. But it expands to denominational systems too. It is OK to have small churches! The "below-average" crowd (any church under 150 attendance, by most estimations) is the "long tail" of the Church and needs to be embraced to further grow the church.
  • Local church leaders can reevaluate their budgets and ensure they are throwing money not only at broadcast and storefront areas (like sunday worship) but all the small groups that are truly grabbing ahold of people's lives (the "long tail" of ministry).
  • Church leaders can reflect the value of small churches and ministries in the way they evaluate churches. For instance, bishops that ask only how many professions of faith and apportionments are coming from churches are committing the sin of wikipedia: they are looking for an individual characterization rather than evaluating the collective whole.
  • In extreme examples, maybe big churches can be broken up into multiple churches, or big ministries broken up into small ministries that aggregate together only on occasion.
C.K. Miller, in Next.Church.Now, writes that churches that are successful are those that tie worship to a discipleship system. By further empowering small groups, and focusing more of our church resources on the "long tail" of ministry, then we can experience renewal in the church.

What do you think? How can we grab ahold of the "long tail" of our church membership and encourage discipleship, while realizing that our traditional modes of ministry (worship, bible study, dedicated accountability groups) don't reach the long tail like they have in the past?

Thoughts? Comment below! Thanks for reading.


Matt Shafer,  May 15, 2008 at 10:07 PM  

Fascinating. I love the wikipedia analogy, being myself a part of that site's "long tail".

Here's the question: once the long tail is embraced and grown, should those who are a part of it seek to become like that other 10%? Or do they just stay part of the "tail"?

Ken Lowery May 16, 2008 at 12:48 PM  

Absolutely fascinating. I'm still processing a lot of this, so I won't have anything useful to say right now--but I will say it's nice to see someone else articulate the vague thoughts running around your head so well... especially since I just got done chiding folks who ask for renewal but have no specifics on how renewal would occur.

Rev. Jeremy Smith May 17, 2008 at 7:10 AM  

@ matt, I don't think there is anything wrong with small group ministry, either intentional or consequential (unmanaged). I think ultimately many of those groups will remain part of the long tail, but those that find leadership, funding, or a niche will grow to the 20%.

It's all about being willing to try and fail if that's the case!

@ ken, glad you enjoyed it, stop back by when swirling thoughts twist out a question or insight!

Ken Lowery May 20, 2008 at 1:11 PM  

Rev: Have you heard of the 1000 True Fans idea? It's essentially a theory on how artists can best benefit from the long tail of fandom, but I think it has some application.

Also useful is this follow-up, quoting an extensive letter from a musician who's worked within the 1000 True Fans reality for decades, and his experiences thereof.

Rev. Jeremy Smith May 21, 2008 at 3:23 PM  

...Very interesting, Ken! I will certainly see what applications I can glean from that...thanks for thinking of this discussion and how you can contribute to it!

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