Whitsitt says online encyclopedia offers hints for ‘open source church’

December 15, 2011

The Rev. Landon Whitsitt

The Rev. Landon Whitsitt —Danny Bolin


“Church geek” is a label the Rev. Landon Whitsitt says he wears proudly.

And so, when the self-proclaimed “former fundamentalist Baptist turned born-again Presbyterian” and author of the newly published Open Source Church told the annual Moderators’ Conference here Nov. 18 that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) needs to find “new metaphors, new ways of talking about what we’re doing as church,” the gathering of 150 presbytery and synod leaders was ready to listen.

What they probably weren’t ready for was the metaphor Whitsitt ― vice-moderator of the 219th General Assembly and newly elected executive for the Synod of Mid-America ― tossed at them: the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

“The five ‘pillars’ of Wikipedia are very Presbyterian,” Whitsitt said. “They embody the way God and the new [PC(USA)] Form of Government have told us to behave. The PC(USA) is an ‘open source’ system ― we just need to start acting like it.”

“Open source” comes from computer software programming, Whitsittt explained. Every program has a “source code” that is either open (adaptable, amendable, flexible) or closed (hard-and-fast, fixed, unchangeable.)

Churches, Whitsitt argued, can be the same way: “They can be open and welcoming, creative and give off the sense that everyone has a sense of ownership; or they can be fairly closed, relying on old saws like ‘We’ve never done it that way before’ or ‘We don’t do it that way here’ or ‘That’s not where the table goes,’” he said. 

Wikipedia is the ultimate (at least so far) open source system, Whitsitt said, and its “five pillars” reflect that:

  • Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia, period ― “It’s not a dictionary, not a soapbox, not advertising for anything,” Whitsitt said. “It has a narrow purpose widely executed and the PC(USA) is the same ― our purpose is the six Great Ends of the Church and we live them out in our congregations and all around the world.”
  • Wikipedia has a neutral point of view ― “I know this is the hardest pillar for Presbyterians to grasp,” Whitsitt said, “but Wikipedia focuses on verifiability, not ‘truth,’ which is often simply someone’s opinion about something. Some things, like gravity, are as true as we can know but there are very few things in the Christian life that are verifiably true ― only that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior.”
  • Wikipedia is free content ― “Neither Wikipedia nor the PC(USA) is a free-for-all or anarchistic,” Whitsitt said, “but no one editor owns the content, so all contribute to the collected wisdom of the community. Why should a Wikipedia contributor stay in a church where he or she is told what to think? That’s part of why I’m a Presbyterian.”
  • Wikipedia operates in a civil and respectful manner “Respect and be polite even when you disagree, avoid edit wars, never engage in personal attacks, act in good faith and assume it of others” are the Wikipedia rules, Whitsitt said. “Wiki says, ‘We have millions of pages that need working on ― there’s too much to do to be arguing about petty things or attacking each other.’ How is the church any different than that?”
  • Wikipedia does not have firm rules“Wikipedia tells contributors ‘Be bold and don’t worry about making mistakes. Previous versions are still there and together we can fix whatever’s wrong ― we’re just trying to make it work better,’” Whitsitt said. “What are we afraid of in the church? Our ground is in Jesus Christ, who is love, forgiveness and redemption. Sin boldly! It’s our relationships, not our rules, that will make us trust each other.”

That question of trust is absolutely crucial for the conflicted PC(USA), Whitsitt said. “What some call divided, I call balanced,” he said. “There is truth, but I don’t know it and no one else does, either.

“But God does,” Whitsitt said. “Do we really trust the sovereignty of God?”

  1. I wonder what Mr. Whitsitt means by Jesus is Lord and Savior? If everything but that is changeable and malleable, what does the unchangeable Jesus is Lord and Savior really mean? Who is Jesus Christ if not what the Scriptures tell us? How is someone Lord and Savior if people aren't lost and in need of salvation? How does Jesus save? Not all proclamations that Jesus is Lord and Savior are the same. As Mr. Whitsitt has elsewhere indicated that he is a postmodern progressive, his statement that Jesus is Lord and Savior has almost no similarities to the same proclamation by an evangelical orthodox Presbyterian. This is where the fundamental confusion truly lies. Progressive/liberals use the same language for faith, when they mean the opposite. It is unbelief masked as belief...or biblically better understood as a false prophet or anti-Christ.

    by Adel Thalos

    December 19, 2011

  2. 'Some things, like gravity, are as true as we can know but there are very few things in the Christian life that are verifiably true ― only that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior.” doesn't sound very Unitarian-Universalist to me.

    by Maxine Pardee

    December 18, 2011

  3. "that Jesus Christ is lord & Savior" is the only thing in the Christian life that is verifiably true?? That's not what our ordination vows say or mean. All ordained officers "accept that the Scriptures of the Old & New Testaments to be... the unique & authoritative witness to J.C. in the Church universal & God's Word to You." I wonder what that means or doesn't mean to Whitsitt?? Doesn't he believe the Scriptures, Book of Order & Book of Confessions to be authentic, reliable & authoritative? Does "open source" mean that all sources are considered equal?

    by Leon J

    December 17, 2011

  4. The metaphor he's trying to pitch is a little forced. Open-source software means a few things. Community involvement with the main trunk of development, yes. But also that one can take the code, write one's own functions, then recompile it for one's own uses and keep it separate. I would argue that the present problems of PCUSA stem from exactly this second implication of OSS. Some have developed a new branch of "code" and have forced it into the main trunk through sheer numbers and by constantly filing "bug reports" on the previous code they don't like. It's clever to invoke a particular technological way of solving development problems as an example of what a divide church might try in order to save itself, but it doesn't quite cover the problems we face. To force the analogy some more, it's as if the Wikipedia article started out talking about how to build a watch and ended up describing a lawn mower instead.

    by Joe Duffus

    December 17, 2011

  5. Given the views Rev. Whitsitt expresses here, he is not a "born again Presbyterian." He is a born again Unitarian-Universalist. Surely someone as bright as Rev. Whitsitt must understand why people are fleeing the PCUSA in droves, a denomination which he freely acknowledges is unable to discern truth.

    by Jim Caraher

    December 16, 2011

  6. If Whitsitt really believes people should not be attacked why did he attack the people appeakling the Lisa Larges case? Why on twitter did he say they were whining? Why doesn't he apologize?

    by Viola Larson

    December 15, 2011