Open Source Church

I consider Landon Whitsitt a friend. If providence put us in the same city he’s a guy I’d go for drinks with on the daily. He was the person we picked to be our first guest when we launched this site a year and a half ago. We contributed to the magazine he created and edits, PLGRM, and hope to contribute in the future. I put this out there so you know I’m biased when I review his book, Open Source Church: Making Room for the Wisdom of All, even though this review is a year late and it’s not like I get anything for it.

Open Source Church belongs to that genre of popular Christian books talking about how everything is changing in the church. It could be compared to the work of Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, Phyllis Tickle, or a variety of other folks trying to describe something similar.

I have an odd relationship with these books (and I’ve read a lot of them). On the one hand, I basically agree with the vision for Christianity they are attempting to describe. On the other hand I’m a deep skeptic when it comes to attempts to write grand meta-narratives about history we’re still in the midst of. I think it’s about as reliable and as convincing as astrology. Everyone thinks the time they personally are living through is the MOST IMPORTANT TIME EVER. I don’t think we’re in the middle of some new reformation, or inventive age, or new great awakening bla bla bla. Or maybe we are, but if so we won’t see it until centuries after the fact. The cynic in me says this is precisely why writing books proclaiming this period of time as pivotal is profitable no-risk business. If you’re wrong no one will remember, and if you’re right everyone will think you were some kind of visionary.

Landon completely overcomes this objection of mine by keeping it real. To illustrate I’ll compare his book with one of the worst offenders in the vague meta-narrative category: Diana Butler Bass’ book Christianity After Religion.

DBB cobbles together a very loose historiography in her book. She uses some quantitative data here, mortared together with some anecdotes over there, and a hefty dose of poetic license to call the entire period from the 1970’s till now one giant “Awakening” (still ongoing). Landon by contrast doesn’t try to press diverse movements decades apart from each other into a single narrative. He starts with a specific movement (the open-source software movement) and pretty much stays there. It’s significant that the open-source software movement self-identifies as a movement, and has some concrete principals that they have named. Landon takes these things at face value. He isn’t reading tea-leaves here, he’s talking about stuff that you could go look up yourself and applying it in concrete and logical ways to the church.

Furthermore, I think Landon’s guiding metaphor of “open-source” has more legs and speaks more directly to the experience of my generation than the metaphors of “awakening” or “emerging”. The friction I experience isn’t really between different belief systems or worship styles – it’s more to do with power. How is authority distributed in the system? Who holds expertise and wisdom? How are decisions made? How do we “function” together?

I’m not one to proclaim any particular sea-change in our society, but we can point to a clear division in philosophy of how information is exchanged between web 1.0 and web 2.0 for example. Increasingly, people of my generation expect all exchanges to be open and egalitarian. Why would I want to participate in any organization where I wasn’t given access to the “source code” of the group? This is a change which isn’t vague, but specific and the practical steps for engaging this trend are therefore equally specific.

It’s refreshing to read a book that I feel like I can immediately apply to my ministry, and not because it’s a curriculum or a how-to manual. It’s a theological book rooted in the experience of communities which can be almost directly emulated – and probably should be. Before you pick up any other book purporting to explain “the nones”, or postmodernism, or the end of Christendom, or the emerging church etc… etc… try Open Source Church. There’s a lot more to sink you teeth into here.