If you’ve had a chance to hear Whitsitt — vice moderator of the 219th General Assembly and pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Liberty, Mo. — speak anywhere around the country, you have heard him mention “open source technology.” Many folks pre-read portions of this book on Whitsitt’s blog or heard about it online on God Complex Radio. His colleague in that endeavor, Carol Howard Merritt, writes in the foreword: “The Open Source Church is a metaphor rich with possibilities.” It certainly is.
In Chapter 1, Whitsitt takes care to explain that in “open source software” for those not techno-savvy, “the basic instructions for a program are open for anyone to see and edit.” The Wikipedia encyclopedia online is the most common example of “open source” — the wonder of pooled knowledge and experience creating a living, reliable document (with editorial review validating its content), infinitely more dynamic than those 20-plus volumes which used to fill our shelves, and then be almost immediately outdated.
From there, the reader is invited to envision a CHURCH “in which the basic functions of mission and ministry are open to anyone.” This vision is a hopeful one, for many of us have experienced a time when we have bumped up against the written, and myriad unwritten, rules that govern congregational life. The rules vary by congregation, and such experiences can be discouraging and disheartening. “Folks in our congregations have good ideas and want to live into their callings as disciples.” Landon’s assertion throughout the book is that individual freedom to create and act can be a source of renewal for the church.
The theological rationale for freedom and permission-giving, mutual invitation and community wisdom is well laid in subsequent chapters. Much attention is given to the freedom which Jesus proclaimed in his life and ministry, and the contextualization of our ministries today. “An open source Christianity is also interested in having as many people as possible proclaiming the gospel in their particular contexts so that our understanding the gospel can be as full and faithful as possible.”
Computer-literate readers will appreciate illustrations of open source and “techie” language they understand. Novices will appreciate careful explanation of vocabulary. I daresay, some folks will try to read blogs, use Wikipedia and listen to podcasts for the first time after reading this book! Theologians will find that Whitsitt challenges them with Jesus, Luther and Calvin as much as with contemporary questions facing the PC(USA) and the broader church. And this book is not just talk about theory; it leaves us with questions and with encouragement to continue the journey to freedom in our personal faith and faith communities.
Should you be asking “Where do we go from here?” after you’ve finished “Open Source Church,” the working title of Whitsitt’s work-in-progress is “Freedom and Fellowship: An Open Source Theology.”
I, for one, await this next chapter.
Leigh B. Gillis is associate executive presbyter, Heartland Presbytery.