Open Source Church – a Potluck of Sorts

What role does the institution of the United Methodist Church play in fulfilling its mission to “Make Disciples of Christ for the Transformation of the World”? Is it an enabler or an obstacle?

According to Clay Shirky, an institution always excludes and marginalizes people.  He refers to the 80/20 rule: 20% of the users of any institution use 80% of the resources.  The 80% zone is the cost of running the institution, while 20% of users are treated as employees.

When a movement becomes an institution its primary concern becomes self-preservation. The focus shifts to a consumer mentality that tries to keep church attenders happy so that they will give money so that the 20% can be employed doing the work of the church.  When this happens decisions are made that benefit fewer and fewer people and we lose the bigger picture of sharing the good news that God’s kingdom is at hand. We end up playing church instead of being the church.

I often ask people to pretend that Jesus has just given them and 10 of their friends the charge to share the good news of God’s love to the ends of the earth.  How would they go about doing that today if they had to start from scratch?

How do we get pre and post-church as well as spiritual but not religious people together without the institutional baggage? Can we build cooperation into the structure, arrange the coordination in the group and get the same outcome (making disciples) without the institutional costs? Can we design systems that coordinate the outcome of the mission without regard to institutional models and metrics? Can we convene people without trying to control them? If so what would this look like?

I am imagining everyday life and discipleship formation as one in the same.  I am imagining small groups of people getting together to dream about God’s preferred future for them and their neighborhoods and then daring to make that a reality. I am imagining people being allowed to contribute as much or as little as they like. I am imaging a pot-luck of sorts where everyone is fed spiritually and physically.

We can look to the phenomenon of social/amateur media. The former audiences of mass-produced professional media are now increasing full participants. We need only look to the role that social media played in the Arab Spring to know that when anyone can be a reporter of the news as it is happening movements can begin. They can be as playful as a flash mob to as inspiring as a regime change — messy for sure, but filled with spirit!

We have learned that the role of social media is less and less about crafting a single message to be consumed by individuals. It is now about creating an environment for convening and supporting groups.  This just happens to be a hallmark of our post modern times. People long to connect and make a difference. Everyone has their own story to share, their own take on truth and their unique gifts to offer. They just need someone to ask the important questions and begin the conversation.

How can we make best use out of this metaphor in a post-modern church? How can we help the Church move from being a professional (paid clergy) platform of information/theology/praxis in the form of church as we know it on Sunday morning to a social network (Methodist movement) that learns from and empowers each other?  How can we go from inviting the stranger in to being the stranger that is sent out?

Can we build the system so that anyone can contribute at any amount? In other words can we embrace the gifts of the non-church-goers and treat them not only as consumers but also as producers? Can we treat Wesley’s means of grace not only as open source content but also as a platform for further creativity in spiritual practice?

Listen to this wisdom from Clay Shirky, a consultant and teacher on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies.  And just imagine an open source church movement!

 “The trends are towards easier collaboration, and still more power to the individual. The open source movement has demonstrated that even phenomenally complex systems can be developed through distributed volunteer labor, and software allows individuals to do work that once required a team. So while we don’t know what ultimate effect the economics of free content will be on group work, we do know that the barriers to such free content are coming down, as they did with print and images when the Web launched. …The interesting questions are how far the power of the creator to publish their own work is going to go, how much those changes will be mirrored in group work, and how much better collaborative filters will become in locating freely offered material. While we don’t know what the end state of these changes will be, we do know that the shift in publishing power is epochal and accelerating.” Clay Shirky

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Beth Estock

Beth coaches weird churches all over the United States. She grew up in the Midwest, began her pastoral work in the Bible Belt, and then moved to the Pacific Northwest two decades ago. She is an ordained United Methodist pastor, a contemplative, cultural architect and futurist. She is co-author of the book, "Weird Church: Welcome to the 21st Century." She convenes a network of missional faith communities in the Wesleyan tradition in Portland, Oregon.

4 thoughts on “Open Source Church – a Potluck of Sorts”

  1. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit the last couple of days. It seems to me that one of the dominant themes of the last 20 years is institutional failure. Whether it’s churches failing to protect parishioners from sexual predators, banks lending recklessly, or governments failing to perform essential services responsibly they all represent critical (on once-critical) institutions failing. But I think the real challenge is discerning what’s born out of those failures? As our society becomes more complex, there’s a need for complex responses to complex problems. Some things that started out as very grassroots/unstructured (such as wikipedia) have developed structures with hierarchies and “professionals.” Is that just the last gasp our of “professionalist” world trying to survive, or a recognition we still need some institutions? I’m not sure what the answer is, but the church is certainly in the midst of one of these transitions, even if most in church leadership don’t recognize it or don’t want to recognize it.

    1. Good points Brian. As I ponder the open source metaphor for institutions I have to laugh at myself because you would think I was proposing a libertarian value system. I understand the value that healthy organizations can bring to the common good — like the UMC and its “Imagine no Malaria” campaign or our concerted efforts in our annual conference to end hunger in Oregon and Idaho. I understand the value of healthcare and education for everyone. I like the fact that there is a government with a rule of law to keep us fairly safe with our basic needs met.
      I also think about facebook and twitter as well as Wikipedia. And I think what they offer is something different. They provide a platform for people to engage. They are paving the way for this new way of being in our post-modern world. So while they do have structure and an organization with a chain of command (although my guess would be it is a more collaborative and innovative atmosphere), what they offer the world is a way to share, learn, connect and even transform.
      That used to be the realm of the church and we have lost our relevancy because we continue to operate out of a mechanistic, industrial, production oriented model. Our world has shifted and we have failed to understand the ramifications of that shift into more complexity, which requires more flexibility that institutions are frankly not structured for.
      That is why I am so excited to live in this era and to be able to experiment with different ways of forming community. I think our experiment with the network of house churches will be one way we discover what works and what doesn’t — what we lose and what we gain in this new open source world. I am so glad you are on the journey with me!

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