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Much as the music industry and the information/printing industry is changing, the church is going open-source.

How prepared is your church for this revolution? Please pass the link to this essay on to all the leaders, elders, pastors, etc. in your church. Discuss it together.

Christine Peterson coined the phrase “open source” in Palo Alto, California in 1998 during the Netscape Navigator discussions, but the principles go all the way back to Henry Ford, who succeeded in getting all the early US car makers to share patents which made parallel production of (very similar) automobiles possible.

In the broadest sense of the concept, Microsoft’s MS-DOS, not being wholly controlled by its host, IBM, launched a creativity revolution in software back in the 80’s. iTunes has changed the way music is bought and sold. Wikipedia has more or less replaced Britannica. The proliferation of free smart phone “apps” (a word no one used a president or two ago) is virtually infinite.

The world is going open source.

This has implications for the church:

1) All of your members have access to free Bible teaching and sermons from all over the world. It used to be that you, as a local pastor, had a monopoly on reaching and teaching them. Our church, Robinwood, reaches 100 times more people on its podcast than in person on Sunday mornings. Sample it at: http://tinyurl.com/ycgxvva

2) Open source is a challenge to monetize. Making money in an open source world is an uphill battle. Churches will need to look at creative income streams (we’ve done it before!) and church staff numbers will decrease vis-a-vis the size of the congregation. More and more pastors will be bi-vocational.

3) Christian denominations will not be able to maintain closed systems with solid lists of member churches and will not be able to control their clergy rosters. People in the open source world are getting used to an “opt in” mentality and can “friend” or “follow” you with a click. Peer relationships will matter more. Having your name on an official roster will matter less. The “name brand” denominations are currently raging against this revolution (even with record-company-like lawsuits!), but the ones who embrace it will survive. Their control over client congregations and pastors is evaporating. It will have to be replaced with attractive “opt in” branding and mentality. Denominations will have to earn and keep followings. And they won’t get to vote on this being the truth.

4) Seminaries will not be able to maintain monopolies on training new leaders. The ones that succeed are those that will go open source. Open source is cheaper, but it also attracts less money. Seminaries will have to become more trans-local and interactive. Those with an attractive branding and “opt in” vibe will thrive.

5) The monopolies on resources (remember that standard-issue icon: the official denominational hymnbook?) will disappear. Books will always be with us, but they will be produced POD (print on demand) and new media will proliferate.

6) Pastors who cannot attract large followings in social media will need to look for something else to do vocationally. They won’t have the chops to make it in the brave new world. If you can’t attract sheep, you’re probably not a shepherd.

7) Volunteers will become more important. Volunteers built Wikipedia. They are motivated, not by money, but by mastery and freedom. Click on the link for an amazing overview of this.

8  Your church’s media and branding will have to be integrated. One ping should activate and energize all of your media expressions. The good news: All of your social media and open source presence put together is cheaper than putting out a weekly church bulletin.

9) You will have to earn a following in a whole new way. But the human relational side will not go away. In fact, it will become more important.

Bless you. Follow me on Twitter @RobinwoodChurch

American national church denominations are not as old as people think.

We have no real memory before national denominational corporations, because they started before any of us saw the light of day; but not long before…

They came into being with the advent of the railroad.

For instance, with Lutherans, we used to gather, more or less, in state-sized groups:

-The Pennsylvania Ministerium
-The Ohio Synod
-The Iowa Synod
-The Missouri Synod
-The Wisconsin Synod

etc. etc.

The railroad changed all that. It made a national bureaucracy and national gatherings (assemblies) possible and affordable. This new transportation method also created the big political party conventions.

Nothing lasts forever.

These statewide church groups merged into national groups which merged some more. Along with the “Peter Principle,” they advanced to their level of incompetency: they became politically and economically unmanageable.

There are many reasons for the demise of national church corporations:

1) Many, if not most young adults, prefer being part of cool indie projects to being “tools” of large corporations.
2) The mergers have created coalitions with incompatible viewpoints (sexuality, etc.)
3) Lutheran versions (more so than other brand names) of these corporations tend to operate as closed systems (tightly controlled roster, Lutheran seminary requirements, etc.).
4) These corporations, in efforts to hold things together and make structure and function coherent, have discouraged innovation by entrepreneurial types.
5) For whatever reason, these corporations have very strained relationships with their best practitioners.
6) Generational and ethnic diversity issues have become too heavy for the corporations to carry.

This does not mean that church brand names are a thing of the past. It just means that the national church corporation is unraveling before our eyes. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men will not be able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. There is nothing wrong with this and it should not be seen as a failure–every human organizational form has a life span.

This does not mean that faith families and connectional Christianity are dead.

Post-denominationalism is just a reality that is emerging. I want to clarify: this does not mean post-brand-name.

This means that the national corporations are failing and will continue to fail. There is no point in any effort to “renew” them.

I don’t know what the post-denominational world will look like. But I do know that:

-Railroad-era national conventions are a thing of the past.
-Coalitions will replace national corporations
-The effort to form smaller, new “theologically correct” corporations to replace national denominational corporations will fail if they follow the template of the national church corporation (parliamentary conventions, national office, official rosters, closed systems, etc.). That’s railroad thinking in a Twitter-world.
-The influential congregations within faith families will fill the leadership vacuum, along with the more innovative evangelical seminaries (Fuller, Asbury, Gordon-Conwell, Bethel, Luther, etc). Classic “div schools” (Chicago, Yale, Union) will become irrelevant to church life, as will “company shop” seminaries of dying corporations.
-A lot of people won’t be able to separate the faith family names (Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, etc.) from the national corporations. Some of those names might not survive because of this. Hard to say.
-National leaders with a clear life message and a New (Social) Media presence will rule the roost. If it doesn’t matter on Twitter, it doesn’t matter.

My advice:

1) Think both/and, not either/or. We are in a postmodern era.
2) Stop trying to renew the denominational corporations.
3) Find new ways of being connectional.
4) Resist the temptation to build up new theologically “correct” corporations which are infected with the same terminal virus.
5) Find ways to embrace the good things about your faith family and preserve them for the future forms which will emerge.
6) Take social media seriously. Very seriously.
7) Be willing to let people of color and Global South Christians take the lead. It’s their churches that are doing the best. The New African Churches are very post-denominational and organizationally effective.
8) This will take time; perhaps a whole generation. Practice patience.

It’s a brave new world. Let’s watch it emerge, together.

Follow me on Twitter @RobinwoodChurch. Please feel free to forward this (link or full text) to people who love the church, or to post it online.

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