May 23, 2014

Open Source Church

I find myself intrigued by the idea of “open source church”. What happens when we open the doors, hand out keys, and give a wider variety of our neighbors a shot at creating what happens in church? Not just a voice in the planning of programs that the church leadership has already decided to do -- actual creating from scratch.

My experience at St. Mary’s in Los Angeles is that interesting things happen. We’re not all the way to an open source model by any means, but more and more of what happens, especially during the week, takes shape outside the traditional sources of authority and responsibility within the church. Language classes, music lessons, dance groups, community meetings, community gardens, band practice, and basketball, now all happen without direct participation from vestry, rector, staff, or even longstanding members of the congregation.

People are even solving problems on their own. Not too long ago, a group was cooking in the kitchen for a community event. They mentioned later that they had had a little problem with a clogged toilet. Not to worry, however, they had cleaned up all the water, called a plumber, and it was all taken care of. I should let them know if there were any further problems.

I find myself imagining how this all might unfold -- growing to include worship and other central aspects of traditional church life. It’s exciting, and a little scary.

I prefer “open-source church” to the term “lay-led ministry”, because I find that lay-led ministry too often means assigning a pre-determined set of churchy tasks -- administrative, educational and liturgical -- to unpaid, already busy volunteers. These volunteers are usually already well-vetted and well-proven members of the church, and their leadership roles often leave them burdened with the least inspiring aspects of parish life.

I even prefer “open-source” to “baptismal ministry.” Baptism is an insider thing. I was a practicing Christian well before I was baptized, or even knew much about baptism. I have practiced open communion throughout my ministry, and I don’t check anyone’s baptismal status before sharing ministry with them. The baptismal covenant is a phenomenal statement of Christian life, but baptism creates a limited circle of potential ministers.

Open source comes the closest to expressing the chaotic, creative process that is slowly emerging in my parish and others. It invokes the same criticisms that open source encyclopedias and other projects receive: How do you know if it’s accurate? You mean just anyone can do it? Where is the authority, the accountability? How do you know things will get done? How will we know that it’s ours?

I love the scene from “Finding Nemo” where animated fish Dory and Marlin find themselves in the mouth of a whale. As they prepare to let go of their precarious and fast-disappearing safe perch on the whale’s tongue, Marlin wails, “How do you know something bad isn’t gonna happen?” Dory shouts back, “I don’t!” And off they go to be blown out the whale’s spout.