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COMMENTARY: What United Methodists can learn from Wikipedia Jeremy Smith, Sep 4, 2008
By Jeremy Smith Special Contributor
Wikipedia is an Internet phenomenon: an encyclopedia of knowledge to which anyone can contribute or edit material.
“A Wikipedia article is a process, not a product, and as a result, it is never finished,” writes Internet theorist Clay Shirkey in his book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (Penguin, 2008). “For a Wikipedia article to improve, the good edits simply have to outweigh the bad ones.”
Wikipedia has a mystique of a collaborative process. In reality, the articles come from argument and persuasion, from behind-the-scenes adding, rewriting, summarizing, categorizing and applying writing standards. For this reason, there are no “finished” pages on Wikipedia, no products ready for publication. All pages are in process.
There’s a reason why Wikipedia must be a process, not a product. Consider the Encyclopedia Britannica: a wealth of knowledge in a series of encyclopedias, written by experts in the field. If they stopped publishing it today, it would slowly become obsolete, right? Like reading an old edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that claims homosexuality is a mental illness, or a religion book that claims Moses wrote the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, knowledge does not necessarily withstand the test of time.
Indeed, there’s a half-life of knowledge. Like the half-life of radioactive elements that slowly break down into nothing, knowledge also breaks down over time. As Tommy Lee Jones says to Will Smith in the movie Men in Black: “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 15 minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”
New knowledge must replace old knowledge, which cannot stand the test of time. In this, Wikipedia far outdoes Encyclopedia Brittanica because it has the capacity to remove obsolete knowledge much faster than a paperbound edition. By considering nothing to be sacrosanct, Wikipedia gains its power and authority.
In the church, however, we model our ministries more often on Encyclopedia Brittanica than on Wikipedia. We bring forth ministry ideas when they are more like finished “products.” We prefer to show the storefront of the church to people, not the behind-the-scenes wrangling that takes place. We display the fruit while hiding the pruning shears behind our backs.
What if we saw church as a process, not a product? What if we considered ministries as not set in stone, but rather as processes that are temporary and relative to the context? If we do, then our ministries can:
Challenge the sacred cows, the finished or established ministries or areas of the church that are unmovable. (Seeing all of it as “up in the air” may cause anxiety, but a nurturing hand can guide people to less idolatrous notions of church.)
Dislodge the “Frozen Chosen” to become involved. (In established congregations, people don’t get involved because they feel “new.” By allowing everything to be “new” again, people may feel more motivated to become involved.)
Create breathing room for new ministries. (Our Finance, Trustees, SPRC and Worship teams often seem to get first billing as “featured products” while everything else is “seasonal stock.” By giving more credence to every ministry, we can level the playing field and allow ministries to really grow in their niches.)
Why should we do this? It’s simple. 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 in turn re-orient our world, but the feeling of ecstasy soon fades. Summer-camp experiences often don’t transform our lifestyle because as we leave the wilderness, we find nothing else in our world has changed.
We have to be willing to constantly test and expand our discipleship because if we rest on our laurels, we lose our spark and tenacity. Our half-life discipleship decays until we are no more radioactive than the culture around us. Like a dead body that takes on the temperature of its environment, we won’t notice that our discipleship has faded until our hearts are already cold.
Maybe it’s already happening.
Have you ever said, “The Bible says so!” Does it really? Like the saying goes: “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.
How about, “I’ve earned this position 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 chosen roles, you can determine if there is a better fit than the one you’ve always had.
Wikipedia shows that seeing the church as a process, not a product, reaps great rewards and ensures equal footing for all ministry initiatives. That process begins with each of us, as we strive to be constantly growing in our discipleship.
We cannot afford to become complacent in an ever-changing world.