Hacking the Church-Continued

With the groundwork laid, we can began to look at hacking the church. One way to view the local church is as a vast hacking project. The purpose of the local church is to embody the church universal in whatever particular culture it finds itself. Such a task takes creativity and the willingness to experiment with the way we currently do church. Experimentation is a scary word within the church because it implies change and the unexpected. Church in America is where people come to be comforted and encouraged, not to experience a work in progress. There is also the fear of experimenting away our faith into compromise with the world. Why do we need to try something different, when we already have the truth. This is the challenge that all hackers face. Don’t mess with something that works pretty good already. Yet culture is always changing. While the core truths of Christianity never change, the way we contextualize them needs to. Though God has given us the truth, He still calls us to actively work out our salvation. Staying the same is actually no guarantee of comfort or doctrinal purity.

The Protestant Reformation brought with it the idea of Ecclesia semper reformanda est, “the church is always to be reformed.” Like a good computer programer crafting a program, the church is always to be refining itself, searching for bugs, and seeking to better embody its purpose. When a church stops this process, it implies that it has things all figured out. It also ignores the fact that culture changes. What may have been a perfect contextualization of the gospel at one point in church history may do it harm in a latter. Being a living organism, the church should be dynamic, not static like a corpse.

The Protestant reformer Martin Luther was a classic church hacker. Like others before him, he observed that the Roman church, which was controlled from the top down, had become corrupt. However, more so than others before him, he recognized that their is no monopoly on church. No human being or pope owns the “source code” for the church, Christ and the Holy Spirit do. When the church rejected his internal grassroots efforts to reform it, he simply forked the Roman church and inspired others to do the same. (He also had a freeness with words that reminds one more of Linus Torvalds than the typical Lutheran pastor.)

Sharing is a concept that seems like it should be an important part of the church, but this is not always the case. Whether the average layperson knows it or not, church is big business. A pastor or church worker has the opportunity to go to any number of conferences in a single year, each costing hundreds of dollars. As someone who has worked in children’s ministry, I can testify that the cost of Sunday school curriculum can be astronomical and subject to all kinds of copyright restrictions. The church could benefit from an attitude of sharing in which churches are willing to share freely with one another, instead of treating their ministry like trade secrets. Selling and copyrighting ministry seems more at home in the business world than it does in the church.

One example of sharing is found in YouVersion. Started by LifeChurch.tv (which offers many church resources for free over the internet) YouVersion has become one of the best and most popular places for people to access the Bible online, especially through their tablets and smartphones. Another example is OpenLp. It is an open source media presenter for churches. Anyone with programing skill can contribute to it and it is completely free to use.

Open source is a philosophy that the church can adopt in the way it functions. Current models for church leadership in the United States draw heavily from the business world. Laypeople are either too busy or unqualified to minister so they work to pay pastors and other church staff to do the work of ministry for them. A modern American pastor’s role is that of a entrepreneur or CEO. They present a vision to the congregation and attempt to get everyone on board. A lot of current writing on church leadership focuses on how to “communicate vision.” This is simply another way of getting other people to do what you want. The role of volunteers has become to support the ministry of paid church staff. Open source presents a radically different model for churches.

In an open source church the might and main of ministry would be done by volunteers. The purpose of paid staff would be to shepherd the ministry of the members of the congregation. Instead of initiating and directing the ministry of the saints, leaders would oversee the ministry of the saints, arbitrating, providing resources, mentoring, and guidance. The obvious response to this is, “Would anything get done?”

This is a valid criticism of open source philosophy, but it is also a valid criticism of our current model of “doing church.” Just as the business world provides models for leadership of the church, so too does business provide the model for the way we “do church.” Contemporary American church relies heavily on the consumer model. Staff is paid to offer a buffet of ministry and programs to the people who walk through the doors of the church. This can cause people who can and should be creators of ministry into mere consumers. If the majority of a church’s staff or pastors were struck down with plague, “Would anything get done?”

As the growth of the open source movement in software has shown, a change in mindset is possible, but can take a long time. Any attempts at this are going to fail a lot before they actually succeed. But I don’t see this as a bad thing. It forces people to recover a more Biblical theology of church. The church is fundamentally a gathering of people, not a building, organization, or physical location. That is why the writers of the New Testament say things like, “Greetings to the church in the house of…” and “Greetings to the church in the city of…” Greetings are for people not buildings. One doesn’t so much go to church as go to be with the church. If believers don’t show up, church doesn’t happen.

Open sourcing the church will require the abandoning of the seeker sensitive model, which is essentially consumerism applied to church. The seeker sensitive model places a high value on performance. No one will want to come to a church where Aunt Ethel sings off key or the pastor’s sermon drones on. Church must appear polished and professional and be entertaining. This in turn causes more people to fill the seats of the sanctuary, causing more people to hear the gospel, finally causing more people to get saved. I don’t question its effectiveness. The model is efficient at producing conversions. However, I think it results in a Christianity that is passive and self-serving.

The rough around the edges nature of open source is naturally at cross purposes with an emphasis on performance. One of the primary purposes of the church is to train believers for the work of the ministry. People learn by doing, by making mistakes and by correcting them. This means making important roles open, even the coveted role of preaching, open to people who are still learning. Hacking is a messy process, but instead of trying to minimize the mess, it embraces it as part of the fun. This changes the way a church goer view him or herself. He goes from viewing himself primarily as a consumers of ministry, to viewing himself equally as a minister to others. Being a Christian suddenly becomes much more than going to church every Sunday and dropping a check in the offering. It is the same effect that occurs when someone teaches a child how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Sure they’ll make a mess starting out, but by placing some of the responsibility for feeding themselves in their hands, it sets them on the road to maturity.

Such a model brings with it the inevitable danger of forking. Forking within the church, as in software development, can become nasty. A single church can split itself into almost as many forks as there are personal preferences within it. For an open source project to succeed, the participants need either to be mature or growing into maturity. People need to learn how to submit their own needs to those of others. This is one of the great trade-offs of open source. Leadership loses a part of its control over the product (and the prestige). What is gained is that individuals gain the opportunity to learn self-leadership. In the long run I think this letting go of control gives more room for the Holy Spirit to operate in the hearts of individuals and the body as a whole.

Alas, at this point I would really like to make some kind of connection between church and a preference for t-shirts and hoodies, but I can’t think of any.

They are many other strengths and weaknesses with the application of hacking to the church. However, with this start I trust that the reader will be able to discover them on his or her own. It is also not my goal in this post to present hacking as the definitive answer to the challenges faced by the contemporary church. Rather, I hope that by viewing the church through a novel lens, it might draw out deeper insights into how the church ought to function.

A final question that you may be asking here is “Where are you going with this?” When I shared what I was writing with a friend, he immediately seized on this concept and wanted to follow through with a practical application. Writing for me is an exercise in understanding, an attempt to flesh out the incorporeal ideas in my brain. My main thought was not to “start something” but to put the idea out there for others to see. That said, do with this post what you want. I hope churches will benefit from the ideas presented here, even if it is as simple as discovering open source software and saving a few bucks. Perhaps someone who is a better writer and deeper thinker can use this post as inspiration. So I say take this post, go forth, and hack.

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