Open Source Church

As someone who works in the field of information technology I am fascinated by the concept of Open Source Software (OSS) development.  OSS is primarily the principle that by allowing anybody the chance to work on your source code you’ll end up with better code. Another name for it is community based development. Sure there is the possibility that someone sabotages your project, but most people that care about the project will treat it with respect and actually help to make it better. The thing that makes OSS work isn’t that it’s (largely) free software, it’s that communities develop around specific projects and these communities work together to make the project better.

Recently I’ve been thinking about the development of the church in terms of open source.  Initially the two seem to be polar opposites, church and software development, but the more I’ve thought about it the more it makes sense.

The development cycle for many pieces of OSS is that they start as closed source software, which is to say that a company starts working on the project behind closed doors. Either the software doesn’t take off or only a small niche of people takes a shine to it, so the company stops development of the software.  At that point, if the company really believes in the software, but can’t financially rationalize maintaining the project or if the small niche that grew up around it starts making a fuss and asking for the company to release the software – then the company releases the software as open source.  Now the community can rally around it and make it into everything they want it to be.  Admittedly there are many projects that start as open source or they start closed source and the company opens it up because they see it as a good business model. Also admittedly not all OSS projects take off – in fact most don’t. But the lucky few that develop a strong community around them grow exponentially and have unlimited possibilities for what they can become.

What does this have to do with the church? If you look at the history of the church starting at the ascension of Christ as a concept then the picture starts to develop. If we consider the teachings of Christ and all the Hebrew scriptures to be a piece of closed source software, when Christ ascended the project was no longer closed source, now the project was in the hands of unprofessional, untrained people.  A caveat that needs to be fleshed out now is that the Holy Spirit is always at work, so even with the concept of open source and community based development I am acknowledging that God is still at work in the process, which actually works with the OSS model. Back to the church, now that Christ has physically left the earth, the church is now responsible for figuring out what it is supposed to be and how it’s supposed to work.  They start as a small group of 11 and grow exponentially within the first few months.  This brings on new problems that need to be taken care of and figured out, except this time there are more people to help figure it out.  Then God throws them a curve ball and starts bringing in Samaritans and Gentiles – what are they to do with this?  The leaders get together and figure out a way to understand it and make it work – they make a ‘patch’ to use a software development term.

Now the church is moving between lots of different places, with different languages and customs, so it starts to get localized and the bigger it gets the more disagreements start to arise and thus the project starts to fork, but still it’s community-based development. Every now and then someone comes along and tries to close source the project and take control of how it develops, but those attempts rarely succeed.  The Roman Catholic Church is the best example of this, for centuries they had the western church closed off from community based development, but then this pesky German showed up and ruined all their fun.

There is no need to go into a full history of the church, largely because that would be really boring but also because the patterns are pretty visible – at least from my vantage point.

One of the things that make OSS so great is its ability to adjust at a moments notice.  One of the most well known projects is the web browser Firefox. Every now and then a major security flaw is discovered in the browser.  In a matter of days – not weeks or months – the community can have a patch coded, tested and distributed to the entire community.  If you look at a similar closed source project, like Internet Explorer (IE), it can takes weeks and often times months to get a patch out.  The reason for this is because a company like Microsoft, which makes IE, has so many levels of bureaucracy to get through and other goals that need to be achieved that they are not able to stop and focus on a single problem.  With a community-based project, like Firefox, portions of the community will automatically stop and focus development to that problem and because they are focused on the problem immediately a patch is created sooner while at the same time maintain the forward motion of the project.

Similarly when the church is community based it is able to adjust to new and different problems quickly, but when an overbearing leadership is in place it can take centuries to fix. If we look at the issue of Arianism, when the community came together to make a decision on it a solution came rather quickly – albeit around 70 years, but for the church that’s pretty quick. In contrast the overbearing leadership, both papal and imperial (of the Holy Roman Empire), of the early Middle Ages were responsible for the travesty known as the crusades.  All of this isn’t to say that community based development is always good and centralized leadership is always bad.  There have been many community-based developments that have turned out horrible as well as strong leaders that have turned out to be positive.  But by and large the church has been better when the community has had a large say in its beliefs and direction. And ultimately the church or an OSS project is at its best when there is a centralized leadership that can focus things while allowing the community to push forward the agenda.

The question for us today is whether or not the church community is open enough to its own development or if we’ve given in the wills and wants of a leadership that isn’t as good as it could be with our input.  I fear that in much of the western church and especially in the evangelical wing that we’ve given up on the communal based nature of church. We’ve instead decided that a few highly visible people are all we need.  I wonder about this as people discuss who the next Billy Graham will be without ever asking the more important question of whether we need another Billy Graham.  Billy was and is great, but times have changed and the era of the stadium evangelical meeting has gone.  What happens when all our churches become ‘purpose driven’ and we’ve all found our ‘best life now’? Do we continue to push ahead as the reforming reformed or do we become drones to whatever teacher we’re told we need to listen to? These questions are important if the church is at its best with a vocal community pushing and pulling – looking at our source code for bugs. Again all of this isn’t to say that Joel Osteen or Rick Warren are bad people, but instead to say that I believe the church is better with a vocal community that can make Joel and Rick better as much as they try to help us become better.

Who defines the church? We all do. The question is whether or not we’re willing to do the work to make it better. Are you?

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5 Comments

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  1. The ultimate evidence for your “Open Source Church” ideal is the existence of scripture, Old and New Testament. While not all of humanity was literate, since the inception of Judaism and thru the inception of Christianity, any human being could learn the core stories and concepts behind either religion by simply learning how to read. And by translating the Bible into the common tongues, the Reformers put the power into the hands of masses.

    I am not sure, however, that looking for a leader (i.e. Billy Graham) is contrary to “Open Source”. Linux has Linus Torvalds, for example, who helps to unify the major direction of the O/S and is useful in weeding out stupid debates over minutiae. That is the function that leaders like Graham and others have served over the years in Christianity, and it has similarly been successful.

  2. I don’t believe having a leader is a bad thing at all – in fact it’s necessary to the development of the OSchurch. What I’m saying is that when the leader ends up being the driving force rather than the guiding force things go awry. If we let Joel Osteen or Rick Warren drive where we’re going as a church then we’re missing out on the input of millions of people that could make the church that much better. But there is a place for them to guide and watch the boundaries of orthodoxy.

    RE: Your twitter question (http://twitter.com/mchesner/status/6427995136)
    The problem with discussing the emerging and community church movements is that they’re such broad terms. Some emerging churches are great examples of OSC – like Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan. A great leader that directs but doesn’t drive the body, in fact he’s stepped back to keep from being the exclusive face of the body. While there are others – like the Mars Hill in Seattle that is driven exclusively by its charismatic leader. So really there’s nothing different about emerging churches than from any other church. It’s really a question of how the leadership applies itself to the body.

  3. Which kind of leader do you think Luther was? I think he tried to be the good example above, but more often became the negative example above. Calvin, too.

  4. I think you’re correct about Luther. I think that Calvin was generally the more negative example – see the way he ruled over Geneva also the idea of unconditional election trickles down to the idea of a leader that picks winners and losers.

  5. The churches that I see that do well are the ones that exhibit a “vision”. It doesn’t matter if these have power centralized or spread out. If the culture is one that believes that “vision” is important and works to develop and carry out that vision, then it is successful.

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