Open source religious education resources…

/ 27 May 2003

Imagine a website where any community could publish the things they’d created to support religious learning and religious practice. This website would be free and open to the public, so that anyone could post resources – curriculum materials, bible studies, worship notes, and so on – and anyone could download them. The key would be that anyone posting through this site would have to agree – in the posting – that their resources would be there under a “creative commons” copyright agreement to stay free and accessible. They would be able to work out separate agreements with print publishers only as long as the original electronic publications remained free and open. So, begin by imagining a web space in which people from all over the world could publish the resources they’ve developed locally, and others could download and use these resources – perhaps modifying and reposting them back to the website, further contextualized for use in specific settings.Now, imagine that this website has two additional features – a very powerful search engine, that allows people to search in multiple ways amongst the materials, and a very powerful and flexible ratings system, that allows anyone who chooses to, to add their own evaluation of the materials.Finally, imagine groups of people all over the world – religious education professors at seminaries, for instance, and local groups of religious educators in a specific denomination – who regularly go to this site and engage in evaluation of published materials there. Individual readers of the site could develop their own ratings of the critics, and begin to use both keyword search criteria, as well as their critics’ favorites, to quickly and easily find materials that they can use in their own context.Can you see it? There are already numerous websites out there that function in this way in certain limited ways. “,” for instance, is a public space for discussing popular films and their use within religious contexts. The “Workshop Rotation” model for Sunday school curricula is a space in which people are experimenting with curriculum development together. Or perhaps the “internet sacred texts archive” or the “Disseminary.”From the larger digital world, “” is a website in which people regularly post information, and then rank the postings and engage in community discussions of various aspects of it. “” is a powerful database of available materials for purchase, but it also has a collection of reviewers who regularly review materials.What might be the obstacles? Well, setting aside funding for the moment (issues of building a sufficiently solid database, buying server space, etc. etc.), one of the big issues that people keep raising with me is editorial control. The concern seems to be that we would need an editorial board to review material before it is posted.I, on the other hand, think that that is precisely the opposite of the purpose of this site. I am imagining a wide open site, in which anything can be posted (I suppose we would have to work out a minimum guideline statement, so that we would eschew copyright enfringement, dangerous speech, and so on). Then, the key editorial work would come from individuals and communities who regularly go to the site either to find materials – and later post their experiences with them – or to evaluate materials (as in students from my classes, for whom I would make it an assignment to practice their evaluation skills on materials from the site).The editorial function would grow organically from the users of the site. And the beauty of that growth would be that we would also be “growing” evaluation capabilities amongst communities of faith. It used to be that many churches simply looked to their denominational publishers for “authoritative” content, assuming that whatever the publisher put out there must be doctrinally and educationally appropriate. Setting aside for the moment a judgment about whether or not that process ever worked well, we can say at the current moment that it does not work right now. Communities of faith are simply too diverse, and situated in too many different contexts, for print publishers to be able to produce materials in a timely, cost effective, and theologically appropriate way. Sure, there are some exceptions. And there are certainly materials that work best as print – certain kinds of reference books, for instance. But print companies are finding it very difficult to use their old models for developing and selling content in the current era. (Cf. “The Cluetrain Manifesto” for a longer discussion of the ways in which the new technologies are reshaping our modes of production). Further, communities of faith simply cannot afford to leave such judgments to people not organically linked to them, no matter how theologically astute and biblically informed they might be. We must, within communities of faith, learn what our criteria for evaluation are, and how to apply them. We cannot leave such judgments to others, particularly if doing so means that we cede our ability to do that evaluation.There are some other possible benefits as well. Imagine a site with resources in multiple languages from around the world. Now, think about churches in your own context with recent immigrants. How might a community support the religious development of their recent immigrants, if they have no familiarity with the communities people are coming from? One place to start might be with materials drawn from the original context and reshaped to reflect the concerns of the new. Imagine “old members” of a church, and “new members” of a church sitting down together with a lot of draft materials to play with and learn from together, to build something new together, and then imagine that group re-posting those materials to the website for others to build on.I have done some travelling in other parts of the world where religious educators are quite adept at engaging mass mediated popular culture materials in religious education (Latin America is one part of the globe where this is happening in interesting and evocative ways). It’s been difficult for me, however, to build on that work except where I happen to run into it. I’ve been very blessed to be able to travel, but many of us can not. Still, a web site such as this one we are imagining together, could make this kind of meeting possible. A web site like this could open up a global conversation amongst people in religious communities who are developing materials in their own congregations to serve their own needs. What might we discover about each other? My guess is a lot of differences – but also a lot of similarities. And my guess is that some of those similarities might even cross faith boundaries.Still, this is just a thought experiment at the moment. I need help playing with it, imagining ways to make it work even more effectively and eventually, I hope, finding the structures we need, the technical implementations, to make it function. I’d love for you to comment on this idea, and point me off to examples that might help me stretch it. Tell me what you think won’t work, tell me what you think might succeed! Better yet, if this exists out there already, help me find it so that I don’t have to reinvent it.