Turning the microphone and part of the message over to parishioners is the concept behind a new worship model called WikiWorship.
Yes, that’s “wiki” like Wikipedia.
It was developed by Reverend Philip Chryst of The Anchor, a United Methodist mission in Wilmington. He created it as part of an evangelism course he took while finishing his degree at Duke Divinity School. Despite the term “wiki,” there are no computers involved at these events, a Lenten series at 9:45 a.m. each Sunday through April 13th in the downtown bar, Hell’s Kitchen (118 Princess St.).
The week before each WikiWorship, the public submit questions regarding religion, ethics, life or God to The Anchor’s website. Then Chryst chooses one to spur discussion at each service.
Releasing control of the pulpit without losing control of the message is the challenge, the pastor said. “WikiWorship, in many ways, is kind of evangelism but in a very post-modern way,” Chryst explained. “It’s scary, like those children’s preaching moments in church, because you don’t know what’s going to come out of a child’s mouth.”
To raise awareness or money in their communities, pastors across the country have lived as an atheist or biblical woman for a year, asked their congregations to commit to 30 days of sex with their spouses, or lived as a homeless person. But in some ways WikiWorship is less replicable than other evangelical experiments, said Chryst’s professor, Dr. Stephen Gunter.
“An initiative like this is highly person-dependent,” Gunter wrote in an e-mail. “By that I mean many or most ministers would not be able to do it well. It requires creativity, high energy, high intelligence, and lots of hard work every single week. Chryst has all of the above, and he has worked at this now for half a decade.”
Chryst likens the skills needed for WikiWorship to a stand-up comedian. He must be ready for whatever comments or questions the audience is throwing at him.
In Hell’s Kitchen on March 9th, with its Miller Lite sign glowing, band posters plastered to the back wall, and advertisements for the local St. Patrick’s Day Kegs and Eggs Bash, Chryst chose a difficult question about non-Christians and damnation: “Are Buddhists, Jews, Muslims and other non-Christians damned if they never claim Jesus Christ as their personal savior, even after they have heard about him?”
The pastor answered it first. He explained he does believe in hell, and some people will go there. “I mean, we’re in Hell’s Kitchen—let’s just state the obvious there,” he noted, reading passages from Matthew 25 and John 14. “All that being said, I don’t really have the authority to say yes or no. I don’t have the keys to the kingdom. God does. Let God judge the destiny of people’s souls. Ultimately, I’m suspicious of humans who try to decide others’ destiny. But the important part of WikiWorship is: I want to hear you.”
One-by-one, people at Chryst’s event raised their hands to offer their take on the topic. The pastor walked the microphone out to a crowd of about 50 people in the bar.
“What he’s saying is no one comes to the father but through love,” one person responded. “In the end, there is going to be a separating of the goats and the sheep, but in the end, I believe if you’ve got love, you’ve got Jesus.”
“I think words are powerful, and I appreciate the Bible,” another expressed, “but I believe actions speak louder. I think we tend to lack the ability to accept people on their level.”
Some responses led to more questions.
“I believe in the Trinity, so are they condemned in the Jesus part of the Trinity, if they believe in God, but not in Jesus?” another asked.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill student Christian Bennett told of a recent mission trip he took to Malaysia. After being mugged and losing his money, a Muslim man he met on the street fed him at a mosque and helped him get home.
“That was a huge testament in my faith,” he said, “and to have this man help me like he did and then to have someone say he’s not going to heaven, that doesn’t add up to me.”
Inviting the congregation’s opinions and even questioning of a religious teaching in worship is fulfilling a modern willingness to question faith. “[It’s] a great way to engage people who are disengaged with the church,” Gunter said. “Attracting them is only the first step, however. You have to then genuinely engage the newcomers by continuing to offer new questions and viable answers.”
Afterward, most of the people attending stayed for lunch and asked follow-up questions of the pastor. “That question could have been a shouting match really, really easily, but it didn’t turn out that way,” Chryst quipped.
The bar’s owner, Eric Laut, watched from a booth at the back of the bar. It was the first church service he’d attended in a while—and in his own bar no less. “I thought it was open and honest,” he said, “quite the dichotomy, church in Hell’s Kitchen.”
Chryst hopes one day to write a book teaching other pastors the lessons he’s learned from WikiWorship sessions. Chryst may also model his growing missional community around the concept.
“I think churches that have guts should be able to say, ‘Here’s the microphone,’” he added. “I’m not willing to say truth is all relative. I’m just proud to be around a group of people who have the guts to do that.”
The Anchor of Wilmington’s WikiWorship
Hell’s Kitchen • 118 Princess St.
Sun. through April 13th, 9:45 a.m.