What if the Presbyterian Church took a page — a Web page — from Wikipedia?
Wikipedia is an online community that is forming and thriving on the Internet without centralized leadership. As an informational hub, it has become a popular Web site for quick, accurate information while also becoming an irritant for most established academics. It is too easy, basic, and accessible to be valid, they complain. However, the formation and resulting community of Wikipedia could be an interesting place for the PC(USA) to draw some structural insights as she seeks to minister in a changing environment. As John Leith argues, “Presbyterianism is not a fixed pattern of church life, but a developing pattern that has both continuity and diversity.”1
The original concept for Wikipedia was to create a free online encyclopedia that underwent the same rigorous publishing reviews used by traditional encyclopedias. Founder Jimmy Wales’ first attempt was called Nupedia, which struggled to take off because it relied upon a cumbersome review process in committee. “Essentially the design of Nupedia was very top-down, in the sense that there were seven-stage review processes, committees for this thing and the other, and basically very, very little work actually ever got done.”2 This structure produced slow and tedious results, which they discovered was an ineffectual method for a medium like the Internet.
Needing adaptation, Nupedia’s editor-in-chief suggested they utilize a new technology that would allow for immediate, online edits of the material by anyone. This open-system technology, called “wiki” took off and within nine years Wikipedia has grown to include 236 translations and 2.9 million English articles.
Jimmy Wales’ mission was to make accurate information available to all people, and he realized that the Internet harnessed tremendous power. However, his first concept, Nupedia was ineffectual because it brought an old structural process into a new environment.
When Wales opted for an open system that encouraged community and bottom-up leadership, Wikipedia revolutionized the industry.
It is interesting to note the connections with our denomination, which is struggling to find her place in a globalized and connected world. Like Nupedia, we are bringing a top-down, committee-focused approach that produces few results. Originally our polity was formed as a protest to top-down ecclesiology, yet this has inevitably led to an institutionalism satisfied and empowered to maintain the status quo. John P. Kotter argues most movements that have experienced reasonable success evolve into complacent institutions: “In a fast-moving and changing world, a sleepy or steadfast contentment with the status quo can create disaster.”3
The decrease in our membership, dissolution of churches, and internal squabbles, which are negatively affecting our service to the Gospel, are the consequence of our complacency and our consistent attempt to force an old, established institution into a new environment.4
It seems easier to compare our denomination not with the explosive growth of an online community, but rather another struggling industry. A few years before the government got involved with the car industry, there was an NBC Nightly News report from the Auto Show in Detroit. A CEO of one of the major American car companies was asked by Brian Williams, “How will the car industry respond to these lackluster sales?” The CEO’s response was startling at the time, but perhaps no longer. He said, “Well Brian, we will keep building the great American car.”5 Unwilling to admit a change was necessary, the CEO wanted to plow ahead. Their company lacked creative vision for adaptive change, and it seems the PC(USA) is heading in a similar direction.
However, the core principles of Reformed theology need not be reconsidered. Just as Wikipedia seeks to carry on the tradition of encyclopedic information through a bottom-up leadership style, the PC(USA) would be better positioned if it sought to retain the heritage of our Reformed theology while structurally adapting for this new environment. A “wikiterian” approach would refocus on historical Presbyterianism.
For a denomination that espouses a belief in the importance of laity, “that the power is primarily in the [local] body and is exercised through the organized courts [i.e. presbyteries],”6 we have gradually become more centralized in our decision-making. Whether a commission, task force, network, fellowship group, or coalition, these groupings have become top-down mechanisms of the few battling for power and control.
What would it look like, however, if we became “wikiterian,” and allowed the leadership from below, the local congregation, to serve Jesus Christ?
As Wikipedia describes its community, “its primary but not exclusive method of determining consensus is through editing and discussion, not voting.”7 Open to editing and discussion, I propose some initial suggestions for our denomination to consider that are modeled on Wikipedia:
» Reduce oversight -— diminish the governing roles of Presbytery to ordination and discipline of ministers, along with support to the local congregation (CPM and COM).
» Encourage local initiative — focus energy and financial resources on a nesting model of church planting. 8
» Dissolve “low notability” — Consolidate or dissolve churches that are insolvent, unable to retain leadership, or have low participation. 9
» Enforce a “Three-revert Rule”10 — restrict redundant overtures and motions by bodies that consistently lobby for the same core issues.
» Promote an open system — permit non-geographical presbyteries as a loose federation of churches.
Some changes need to occur or we will soon be going the way of the American car industry rather than Wikipedia. Like Jimmy Wales, who held before his community a message and then got out of its way to let the work of the community unfold, our denomination needs to consider how to boldly proclaim the message of the Gospel and then get out of the way to allow the Spirit to work among the local communities.
WES BARRY is the associate minister for evangelism and young adults at First Church of Charlotte, N.C.
1 John H. Leith, Introduction to the Reformed Tradition. (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), 155.
2 Ori Brahman and Rod Beckstrom, The Starfish and the Spider, (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), 111.
3 John P. Kotter, A Sense of Urgency, (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2008), 17.
4 At the time of this article, there is tremendous irony that the current Wikipedia entry for the PC(USA) spends a majority of its time discussing our polity and current controversies. Nowhere does it talk about the centrality of Christ, Scriptural authority, or have any section on Reformed Theology. Our online identity is based upon our structure and our internal struggles and not our belief in or witness to Jesus Christ.
5 NBC Nightly News interview summer 2006.
6 Ibid. Leith, 157.
7 “Wikipedia: What Wikipedia is not: A Democracy‚” Wikipedia.com, accessed on 6-16-2009 at http://en.Wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:What_Wikipedia_is_not#Wikipedia_is_not_a_democracy.
8 Nesting model of church planting requires the initiative, leadership, and founding members originate from within an existing church (or grouping of churches) and not a governing body.
9 Wikipedia has a specific deletion policy due to the concern that articles with low notability do not build community and might contain inaccurate information.
10 Occasionally, Wikipedia has to lock controversial articles such as “evolution” due to the malefic of redundant debate.