Church as crowdsource

by Maria L. Evans

Gracious Father, we pray for thy holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. Amen.- -Prayer for the Church, page 816, Book of Common Prayer

The second half of George Clifford’s recent two part essay on Episcopal Café brings up the idea of improving on the notion of “Church as crowdsource.”

Although the term “crowdsource” is relatively new, the concept really isn’t. We were crowdsourcing before we even knew that was what to call it–perhaps the best and most well-loved version is the method for how new words make it into the Oxford English Dictionary, via their “Words of the Year.” The most recent (and in some ways most controversial) is Wikipedia. My friends in academia impress in their students’ brains that Wikipedia is a bad thing. Yet, when I look at the big picture, I say to myself, “Yeah, but this still beats what I grew up with–outdated stacks of World Book encyclopediae.” Pooh-pooing or not, it’s still progress.

We understand how crowdsourcing works through our over 100 years old knowledge of collective intelligence–it’s a well-established concept that groups collectively have more intelligence than any one individual. The problem is, of course how to funnel, collate, and use that knowledge.

In my mind, it brings up a parallel to another recent way to look at the church, elaborated in Landon Whitsett’s book “Open Source Church–Making Room for the Wisdom of All.” Whitsett likens the Gospel of Jesus Christ to an open source software platform, and makes parallels to church institutional behaviors that either work for or against this open source of the Gospel.

Through these lenses, I think I can make a case for our Book of Common Prayer and the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church for being a reasonable framework for dissemination of the open source of the Good News in Jesus Christ, with one proviso–we need to seriously look at the places where our framework hinders that funneling, collation, and application of the Gospel, and work towards ways that enhance it instead.

That’s not to say that going “open source” is without risk–the biggest risk, in my mind, is that none of us, by and large, like losing control over derivative works. We don’t know where this will take us. But perhaps that’s part of what faith’s about.

However, I have to admit–my one attempt at trying to get a class of medical students to create their own Wiki for my Pathology course was a dismal failure. It wasn’t a failure because they were Millenials, or the children of “helicopter parents” or all the things I postulated at first. It was a failure b/c they were medical students, who since time began have always looked for an easy, heuristic way to get “the right answer on an exam.” They simply just wanted me to give them the answers for the test rather than work looking them up–and every generation of medical student I’ve ever known or heard of has done some version of that. The truth was, all I gave them to try to invest them in this work that potentially had use and a legacy, were platitudes.

In short, nothing came up that allowed them to have a reason to invest in it personally. Pre-clinical medical students (those in the first two years, before they start doing regular rotations through patient care areas and various specialties) are on an accelerated classroom learning pace and have time demands they never dreamed of for accomplishing what’s required of them. Creating a living, edit-able work for posterity was simply viewed as a huge waste of their time.

When I went back and did the “What did I do wrong?” post-mortem, I discovered this fact about Wikipedia: There are 19,833,115 registered Wikipedia users (and that doesn’t even begin to scratch the people who use it unregistered.) But out of that massive number of registered users, when we look at months that had a large number of edits, it’s still a very small number that actually contribute. Let’s take December 2010, which had 34,048 edits. That’s roughly only 0.1 % of the registered Wikipedia population. It doesn’t even make the “1% rule of the Internet” benchmark–that 1% contributes and 99% lurk.

I’d grossly overestimated the ability of 170 medical students to contribute to a project that would require time for people to share their stories in order to be invested, or have a clue what the milleu would be to accomplish that. I had only looked at the framework and the theory behind the framework without understanding what a reasonable expectation was in its accomplishment.

Likewise, if we are looking to “Wikify the church”–to try to find a way to collectively use our intelligence to show the need of a relationship with God through community, in our modern society–I believe it will take investing at least better than 1% of its population in the notion that as heirs of grace through Jesus Christ, we are already account holders and editors in its future.

With these parallels in mind, how do we convince ourselves (and others) that we already have the power to be editors and authors of derivative works of the Good News in Jesus Christ? Where is the platform for crowdsourcing in the framework of our Prayer Book, Constitution, and Canons?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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