Wiki Work of the People

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If liturgy is the work of the people, I can think of no greater 21st century collaborative work than Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. At well over 5 million total articles and an average increase of 20,000 articles per month, it is the largest collection of encyclopedic knowledge ever assembled by human beings (It claims 26 million contributors, not counting anonymous contributions).

Wikipedia has its detractors, of course. Since *anyone* can edit it, how accurate could it possibly be? In its mere fourteen years of existence, several scientific studies have undertaken to answer that question (you can find them readily enough via Google search on "Wikipedia reliability"). They generally conclude that the encyclopedia is about as accurate as traditional printed encyclopedias. However, Wikipedia is able to quickly correct inaccuracies, while printed encyclopedias must live with their errors until the next printing. Professors, teachers and librarians are all among the most vociferous critics of Wikipedia, but my own experience as a former High School English teacher suggests that these same academics are also among its most frequent users and contributors.

My interest here, however, is not so much with Wikipedia's accuracy or the virtues of using its content in research papers--rather it is with the structure and ethos of Wikipedia that enables it to be such a monumental "work of the people." In an era where 9 out of the top 10 most visited websites in the world are owned by large corporations and authored by professional public relations teams, Wikipedia stands out as the only top 10 website controlled by a non-profit foundation, and authored by a gigantic cadre of enthusiastic volunteers. I think the Church, especially in its worship, could stand to learn a few things from Wikipedia's approach.

Let's start with the issue of security. Traditional security revolves around controlling access in order to prevent harm. It's why we have locks on our doors, walls on our borders, why our websites are password protected, and why only the Pastor and the worship committee decide what happens in the worship service. The underlying assumption is that while most people are well-intentioned, all it takes is one bad apple, one "intruder" to mess things up. And so we lock out all but a select few, and in the process keep out a lot of good people with good contributions to make.

Wikipedia turns this notion upside down: Anyone can edit an article; there's no lock on the door. There are, however, hundreds of eyeballs inside the door. Whenever I edit a Wikipedia article, instant notifications are sent out to all the people who have contributed to that article in the past, inviting them to see what I've done and verify that it is a good-faith edit and not vandalism. If it is indeed vandalism or patently false information, Wikipedia makes it easy to undo the spurious edit with a simple click of the mouse. This is a subtle shift of resources: Rather than spending great amounts of energy policing the front-end (doors, walls, passwords), Wikipedia uses its community to police the back-end, or actual contributions. Positive contributions are encouraged, while negative contributions are quickly minimized or redirected.

But what if my edit isn't spurious? What if it's just controversial? Wikipedia policy requires that when two editors have conflicting but well-supported viewpoints, both are included in the article, allowing readers to judge for themselves. If the disagreement persists, it is taken off the main article to a back-channel (but still public) page for further discussion and public comment. Finally, if no agreement can be reached, the discussion is settled by third-party neutral arbitration.

All of these things contribute to Wikipedia's reputation as a pretty open environment. But the online encyclopedia has its share of closed aspects worth considering as well: While I can edit the content of any article, I can't edit the Wikipedia logo or mission statement. Nor can I edit the underlying software that protects the right of any user to edit articles. Wikipedia may have millions of editors, but ultimately the non-profit is governed by a 10-member board of trustees, selected in various ways by its constituent communities.

So what would a Wikipedia approach look like on Sunday mornings in our churches?

It might begin with the assumption (on the part of the pastor and worship committee) that everyone in a congregation has something to contribute to the creation of the worship service, and I'm not just talking about congregational singing or repeating pre-written prayers in unison. Most contributions will be positive, and the few that aren't can be quickly redirected with help from the community.

I once was part of a congregation where the wireless microphone was passed around for prayer requests as well as for announcements. I've also participated in worship services where hymns were requested and selected on the spot by congregation members. I have led at least one or two worship services where the sermon was replaced with a panel discussion around an issue or scripture passage. And I know a few pastors who reserve time at the end of the sermon for questions and discussion. Prayer is another aspect of worship that lends itself to both spontaneous and volunteer contribution.

All this, of course, might sound frightening to some. Will there be any focus? Will the service run three hours long? What if people start arguing? Here again, Wikipedia provides guidance. It takes a lot of groundwork, a lot of "programming" to create an open environment that isn't chaotic. There is still a role for pastors, worship committees and governing bodies, but it shifts away from scripting the details and more toward setting the tone, parameters, and the "non-negotiables." Among these are the mission, purpose, and theme of the worship service, comparable to the Wikipedia logo, mission statement, or subject of the article being edited. Other parameters might include time limits and automatic triggers for deciding when discussion should be "taken offline."

In the end, even the best planned wiki-worship probably will be just a little bit chaotic, unpredictable, and far-ranging. Wikipedia is all of these things, and it isn't for everyone. Some people still prefer a traditional encyclopedia, slick and beautifully produced, stable and unchanging, the work of elite professionals. There is certainly no shortage of worship services made in this mold. But for the brave, the bold, and the bored... the wiki way offers challenge and opportunity. Yes, it's hard work. But it is truly the work of the people.