I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about the intersection of recent movements in thinking about church and the “open source” movement. Now I’m not the first to do so, in fact folks like Jordon, James, Spencer, and others have written extensively on this with much more eloquence that I will provide here. What has been bouncing through the brain, however, is a sense of what this means in practical terms rather than simply philosophical ones.
As per Wikipedia, “Open Source” refers to “projects that are open to the public and which draw on other projects that are freely available to the general public.” These projects are generally licensed under a specific definition, which includes ten elements, of which the first five are the most pertinent to our conversation:
- Free Redistribution: the software can be freely given away or sold.
- Source Code: the source code must either be included or freely obtainable.
- Derived Works: redistribution of modifications must be allowed.
- Integrity of The Author’s Source Code: licenses may require that modifications are redistributed only as patches.
- No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups: no-one can be locked out.
This is, of course, geek language based in legal definitions to define a reality that conforms more to the hacker ethic that first arose in the computer centers of MIT and Stanford back in the late 1950’s (which I wrote about here). These ethic holds that:
- Access to computers — and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works — should be unlimited and total.
- All information should be free.
- Mistrust Authority — Promote Decentralization.
- Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.
- You can create art and beauty on a computer.
Put in other terms the notion of open source believes that any project, be it a piece of software, and idea, or in our context a religious movement like the church, is a communal property rather than an individual one. While an author may write and publish a “kernel” (the central code or thought around which the project originates), once it is sent into the world it becomes the property of the many instead of the property of the individual. The result is a communal ownership that leads to further development as persons rework the original work and build on it.
Open source is not anarchy. There is a a system, a rule of communal life, reflected in the hacker ethic above which sets the parameters of life together. Large scale open-source projects usually have a leadership team and a project manager to help to steer the direction of the project. However they understand that they don’t own the project in the traditional sense, and that they are dependent on the good will of the community to make the project better, stronger, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. While it would be great to suggest an egalitarian ideal of open source, in reality there is a hierarchy of value based on the quality of one’s contributions to the project. However, since all are invited to contribute, there are few gatekeepers that restrict any person from contributing however they can.
What does all this mean for the church? What open source offers as a model for communal life is a religious community that moves from traditional hierarchical models of leadership and development toward a communal movement. The ethic of this community includes these beliefs::
- All members of the community contribute to the community, not simply follow the beliefs of the leader.
- The control of information is an exercise in oppression. Open source shares information freely so that all are empowered to assist.
- While all are valued in the community, leadership arises from those who contribute to the well being and development of the project.
- The notion of stewardship is crucial to communal understanding. The church is not the property of any individual or family.
- The work of the church is focused less on the development of the communal institution and more directed toward meeting the specific needs of the world through communal interaction. While this “mission” may be practically focused, there is an intrinsic value in creating things of beauty.
Later on today I want to look at the recent development of Firefox, perhaps the most successful open source project since Linux, and examine the implications of that project on the church. Nag me if I don’t get around to writing it.