November 2006


Reader lukepop left an excellent comment to my Embracing Crisis post that I’d like to respond to here. Here is what he wrote:

a ’slave’ to revolutionary love? I thought it went, ‘the truth shall set you free’?

what’s the difference between this alleged slavery to music and your current admitted slavery to religion? as a former Christian, I fail to see how that is better.

addiction to music may be bad, but dogmatic religion is worse, regardless of how ‘revolutionary’ it is branded by modern evangelists to be.

Sorry, lukepop, that’s “Christianeze” irony. Let me explain.

Just like Muslims, I believe that “true freedom is surrender to God.” How? Well, it works something like this. God designed and created humans, and then he told us the best way to live (he gave us the owner’s manual). When we live in opposition to God’s recommendations (and do the opposite of the manual’s “Warning! Do not use this product to…” statements), we actually become less human, and our free will becomes captive to things like addiction (to drugs, music, praise, routine, etc.), living under increasing deception, etc. But when we choose to trust that God knows how we should live better than we do, and when we obey him, that is when we can truly be alive and fully human. Surrender to God isn’t surrendering to a dogmatic system of religious rules, it’s surrendering to a mindset wherein we are totally free to be who we really are, rather than some shadow of who we were meant to be that is corrupted by sin and brokenness and addictions.

Consider, for example, the pursuit of wealth. It might seem that a capitalist society has given me great freedom to work however I want and make as much money and get as much stuff as I want. But in the pursuit of wealth, and happiness via wealth, I actually become a slave to my possessions. I constantly worry about how I am going to keep all my stuff, how I’m going to get more stuff, how I’m going to keep up my standard of living, etc. My free will is imprisoned by my stuff and my wealth, and it keeps me from acting in total freedom. But if I surrender to God and submit all my possessions to his purposes, I am free from any hold my stuff could have over me, and I can act in who God really designed me to be.

The above case is also an illustration that “true power is having nothing to lose,” which is not a Christian principle but it does explain why Osama and radical Muslims may have more power than George W. Bush. And it explains how Christians could be the most powerful force on earth if they chose to live with the revolutionary love of Jesus Christ. What if all Christians gave up their excess wealth to feed the poor and combat AIDS? What if all Christians took to the streets, found the homeless and the abused and the prostitutes and invited them into their homes to love and care for them? What if all Christians responded to hate and violence not by destroying their enemies (in the Iraq war, for example), but by laying down their lives as Jesus did? What if all Christians focused on winnowing away the sins in their own hearts instead of judging the sins of others? What if all Christians ascribed unsurpassable worth to everyone they met instead of being critical on petty matters? If Christians actually loved the way Jesus did, they would be the most powerful force in the world; and not the type of force that comes over people and forces a change in their behavior but not their hearts, but the type of force that comes under people and encourages a transformation of the heart by way of relentless, sacrificial love. There is nothing more powerful than agape love! But it is so rarely used.

Thanks for your comment, lukepop. Let me know if it helped.

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Like these two agnostic church hoppers, I like to sample different churches whenever I can to broaden my horizons and keep myself open to a variety of views, models, and styles.

When I first moved to Minneapolis, I visited Solmon’s Porch. Its pastor, Doug Pagitt, is a leader in the emerging church movement. The congregation meets on couches facing a center stool, from which Pagitt leads his sermon/discussion each Sunday, spinning constantly to address everyone. Solomon’s Porch is very artistic, and unfortunately their worship time was basically a performance concert for one young composer. But Pagitt is a good speaker and leader, and the community seemed genuine.

Next up was Missio Dei, not so much a church but a missional order: in this case, a small group of people authentically submitting to the lordship of Christ and loving and serving people in the West Bank neighborhood. Because their beliefs and mission – and in particular those of leader Mark van Steenwyk – so resonated with my own heart, Missio Dei has become my home community of believers in Minneapolis.

I joined my friend Brandon on a Substance Church men’s retreat, and later visited their Sunday service in St. Paul. They are mostly youth-focused, and in fact I wonder if many of its members attend because they are lovesick youths seeking a “safe, Godly” mate (which I found to be a common motivation for youths to join YWAM). Pastor Peter is energetic, loving, and genuine. Substance Church operates under free market church government, a structure that especially empowers the church body to advance the Kingdom of God, not the elders and their programs.

Because I so loved Greg Boyd’s downloadable sermons, I visited his home church, Woodland Hills. Their worship wasn’t my style, but Boyd’s preaching was as impacting as ever, and I was impressed by Woodland Hills’ commitment to prayer. Volunteers prayed silently for people as they entered the building, and volunteers prayed throughout the service.

Next came Spirit Garage, a mostly non-liturgical Lutheran church of about 50 people featuring hard rock worship (including a rockin’ electric blues version of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”). The service wasn’t my style, but it was thankfully brief.

That’s all of this episode of Church Hoppin’!

The Long TailIn October 2004, Chris Anderson (editor of Wired) wrote a distillation of one of the most important business concepts of the 21st century: The Long Tail, which he later expanded into a blog and a book (which may be today’s The Tipping Point). Succinctly, The Long Tail refers to the economics of unlimited selection, a seismic shift from a model of hits to a model of niches. For example, best-sellers still account for a large portion of Amazon‘s book sales, but selling relatively few copies of a bajillion titles adds up to huge profit when overhead is negligible due to unlimited, nearly-free “shelf space.” Many organizations have learned to exploit The Long Tail in their own fields: Netflix (DVDs), Ebay (merchandise), YouTube (video), iTunes (music), Google (advertising), Wikipedia (knowledge), Salesforce (software), etc.

Everything originally existed in niche markets of geography; ideas could only travel as quickly as a human. But the advent of the train, the industrial revolution, and mass media created a culture of mass-produced, mass-marketed hits that dominated the 20th century. And though The Long Tail has its origins in the 1897 Sears catalog – which brought massive selection to rural shoppers otherwise limited to the selections of their local general stores – the personal computer and the Internet really kicked things into high gear. Why? Because they provide the three forces that create The Long Tail.

long tail graphicFirst, personal computers (and other, increasingly inexpensive technologies) democratize the tools of production, lengthening the tail of selection. Now, millions of people can cut their own albums, shoot their own films, publish their own books, make their own important astronomical discoveries, etc. Second, the Internet democratizes distribution, fattening the tail. Anything produced can be distributed over the Internet for a fraction of what it would cost for shelf space, staff, and overhead at a typical retailer. And if the product itself is digital (like music, films, or writing), distribution is essentially free. Third, Internet software connects supply and demand, driving business from hits to niches. Advanced recommendation engines, blogs, customer reviews, and collective wisdom algorithms match consumers to niche products with scary accuracy. We consumers no longer need to rely on the hits marketed to everyone: Last.fm will analyze my playlist and recommend an obscure artist I’m likely to enjoy far more than Coldplay. Etc.

Niches are back. And this time, they’re not determined by the scarcity forced by geography, but by the abundance supplied by diverse interests. But what does this have to do with Kingdom living?

We could consider the “markets” of Kingdom ministries, Kingdom resources (teaching, music, etc.), and Kingdom people – along with more specific Kingdom markets – each as existing under a curve, with potential for more development in (and traffic to) a Long Tail that holds a wealth of niche ministries, resources, people, etc. that can better meet needs and advance God’s kingdom than can generic “hits” like megachurches, James Dobson, or The Purpose Driven Life. Not that these “hits” don’t have their place.

Resources for the “big hits” of Christian need (say, Christian counseling or pornography addiction) are easy enough to find. But what of the niches? How can a recent Somali immigrant be met with the love of Christ and learn to run a successful business to provide for his family? How can a Korean-speaking woman in Colorado plug into an effectively discipling community? Etc.

One answer is the Internet. Secular sites with well-constructed aggregators, filters, and searches (like Amazon) already help Christians meet their niche needs, along with their smaller Christian counterparts (like CBD). But the Internet is a highly under-utilized tool of Kingdom ministry, which I will discuss later.

Also, just as the dense populations of major cities can support Long Tail niche markets for everything from Eritrean food to clothing for young Japanese professionals, major cities also have enough Christian diversity to support Long Tail niche markets of Kingdom life. For example, in the Twin Cities one can find niche worship like the hard rock worship at Spirit Garage and a techno worship service hosted by Woodland Hills Church.

Another answer is the small group explosion encouraged by free market church government. Free market churches shift the leadership of a church from the pastor & elders to the congregation. For example, Substance Church‘s programs are invented and led by members, not by the pastor. Volunteer section leaders train, encourage, and supervise lay leaders in developing their passions and gifts for Kingdom ministry. Substance Church even funds many startup groups, from Bible studies to guitar training groups to basketball groups. If a group fails, the section leader lets it fail rather than expensively propping it up, and then they discuss with the lay leader lessons and opportunities. And Mosaic immediately trains all new members for ministry and calls them “staff”. All this doesn’t necessarily detract from the “hits” of Sunday morning service and company, but it does lengthen, fatten, and drive traffic to the Long Tails of Kingdom living at free market churches. In fact, New Life Church in Colorado Springs actually has a Korean Bible study for women.

But isn’t this all just consumerism, except that now we are eating at Old Country Buffet rather than all eating the same Happy Meal of Christianity? No. In fact, the most successful Long Tails in business actually grow from engendered producerism. Wikipedia has far more articles than Britannica not just because it isn’t confined by the limits of paper, but because millions of people around the world are happy to contribute their tiny segment of expertise. LEGO.com sells thousands more plastic brick kits than you can find at Wal-Mart not just because its online site has unlimited shelf space, but because millions of fanatics use LEGO’s free software to design their own creations and LEGO.com sells actual kits of the best ones (and pays tiny royalties to the original creators). And of course nearly all of EBay’s vast inventory is provided by millions of individuals and small businesses.

The “producers” who edit Wikipedia, provide customer reviews on Amazon, upload homemade videos to YouTube, code free software, write niche how-to guides on their blogs, and endlessly scan the skies for cosmic events do it for free. Why? As Anderson writes: at the head of The Long Tail, production and marketing budgets are necessarily large, and business considerations dominate. But in the tail, where distribution and production costs are nearly nil, business considerations are often subordinate to desires for expression, fun, experimentation, or reputation. And these producers don’t care that their work never reaches a million people: they’re happy that their work reaches much smaller audiences that share their unique passions.

In the same way, the Internet can harness the collective passion and knowledge of millions of Christians around the world. And urban Christian communities and free market churches not only feeds niche Christian needs, but also encourage Christians to be active “producers” of loving community, Christian discipleship, teaching, counseling, art, etc.

But we need better Christian filters and aggregators on the Internet. For example, thousands of churches now offer their sermons for free download (even my parents’ church of less than 150 members does), but there’s no way to sift through them all for something specific. It wouldn’t be hard to create a website that allows churches to contribute links and metadata (sermon title, speaker, etc.) for their sermons, which could then be filtered by categories or tags (“divorce”, “Matthew 6”, “Sermon on the Mount”, etc.) or other means to provide listeners with easy access to content that specifically addresses their needs and interests.

Today, here are a few places I see probable Long Tails of Kingdom Living forming:

1. Free market churches like those listed by an association of free market churches called Association of Life-Giving Churches. These small group driven churches move Kingdom people to niche groups for everyone from violinists to software engineers to rock climbers.

2. Urban ministry in general, which can be seen as a larger-scale free market “church”, has the population density of Kingdom people to support niche parachurch organizations and non-institutionalized ministries like Missio Dei in Minneapolis.

3. A Christian YouTube is being built (news). This could help people to find videos of useful skits, presentations, and teachings beyond the “hits” of marketed DVDs and megachurch sermon videos.

Not much, I know.

I’ll wrap up by listing some very practical Internet ideas for producing Long Tails of Kingdom Living. But first I need to address the question, “Why do we need Christian-specific sites? Can’t Christians just contribute to Wikipedia, join Myspace, etc.?”

First, there are advantage to Christian-specific sites. Such sites can focus their searches/filters/aggregators to Christian entities, they can be built to promote Kingdom living, and they can focus the online community’s focus on Kingdom thoughts. Second, there are disadvantages to non-Christian-specific sites. Non-Christian Internet sites have more potential to distract from Kingdom Living than to call attention to it, and many of them prominently feature directly destructive content, for example semi-pornographic ads on Myspace. Using existing networking tools may be good (even I have a Myspace page), but I think Kingdom-centric Web 2.0 sites that could promote Long Tails of Kingdom Living would be even better. Here are some ideas:

1. Ministries databases. Most ministries have a website, but for the most part your only way of finding them is Google. A centralized database of millions of ministries, sortable and searchable by category, region, tags (“soup kitchen”, “gay”, “emergent”, “urban”, etc.), and more, would be very useful for connecting needs to resources and for connecting servants to ministries. A small, underdeveloped example of this might be Urbana’s MSearch.

2. Small groups databases. Few churches could offer the variety of groups available at New Life Church, but what if there was a website similar to their group finder for entire regions of small groups? A small group seeker could narrow their focus to within 30 miles of their home, and then search for small groups offered by dozens of churches in his or her area by keyword or meeting time.

3. Contemporary Christian music. The Nashville hits of CCM dominate the industry, but not everyone is satisfied by cookie-cutter pop/rock songs that would’ve been hopelessly derivative 20 years ago. There are no Internet services to help Christians find edifying Christian music that caters to their tastes. The Blackthorns play CCM that sounds like a cross between Third Ear Band and Nick Cave, but if that appeals to you, the only way to find them is to stumble across their Myspace page. Something like a Christian liveplasma, Pandora, or last.fm would be nice.

4. Google Maps API church locater. There are hundreds of great tools that use Google Maps to locate Wifi hotspots, USPS mailboxes, coffee, beer, recent crime, or even a sunrise/sunset. Christian coders could build one to help people find local churches, perhaps color-coded by type or size. (There is some progress being made in Connecticut.)

5. Sermons and teachings databases (as described above).

6. Christian Wikis. Christian researchers, teachers, and Kingdom persons of all types could benefit from better community-created databases of information, including articles, public domain writings, and more. Many Christian wikis exist (1 2), but they are so poorly supported by the online Christian community that their articles serve only “hits” of information that are easily available elsewhere and not the Long Tail of potential niche data, such as articles on Arminian election or the complete translated works of John of Paris. In fact, I haven’t even found an article on free market church government.

7. To drive traffic to the Long Tails of Christian discussion, perhaps someone could develop a Christian forum or network of Christian discussion and editorial sites modeled after glorum.

Many other writers have applied Long Tail theory to Christianity, and you should read them: Suburban Christian, Paddy-Anglican, Bronson Taylor, Mark Wilson, Rick Presley, and more.

I should note that I don’t have any expertise in business, economics, or Kingdom ministry (yet!), but maybe some people who do will be inspired by these thoughts to do something useful. Maybe some of them will even comment. Anyway, sorry for the long post!

Wow. This is an amazing video presentation of myths about the developing world, on the level of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. The presenter’s website, GapMinder, is also very impressive.

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies is a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of human societies that refutes the belief that Eurasian hegemony is due to intellectual or moral superiority inherent to Eurasians. We are told that Eurasian domination is not due to inherent superiority (that would be racist), but we are not given a compelling alternative argument, and so silent racist wondering continues. Diamond provides that compelling alternative argument. By the way, none of his arguments are new, but his particular fusion of arguments is.

Diamond argues that power and technology gaps between societies exist because of many environmental differences amplified by positive feedback loops. Though his argument is as complex as history itself, here’s the gist of it:

Eurasia has more domesticable plants and animals than many other continents, and thus had a leap on food production, an excess of which allows for non-subsistence producers like scholars and inventors who provide technology advantages. Furthermore, Eurasia is the only major inhabitable landmass whose dominant axis is east-west rather than north-south, which allows for more natural spread of ideas and technology than, say, the Americas, which has a totally different climate (and therefore, different technology and idea needs) every few hundred miles of latitude. Also, Eurasia’s population density (again, allowed by its advantages in food production) increased the transmission of disease, which led to impressive immunities among Eurasians not present in other continents’ peoples. So, Eurasians easily infected other peoples with devastating diseases wherever they encountered them. Furthermore, Eurasia’s geography promotes adjacent, competing societies whereas most geography of other continents promotes monolithic, isolated empires that stagnate. It’s not quite environmental determinism, but it is an argument of environmental empowerment.

Naturally, the above points are not convincing without Diamond’s supporting arguments, and if you think this is an important issue you should definitely read the book yourself. Give the prologue a try. If it doesn’t hook you, I’ll… eat a bug or something.

Nor is the environment. Full story.

I wish I could say this wasn’t true of the church in general.

BTW, I changed my design template to something slightly more readable, I think. Unfortunately, WordPress.com doesn’t give me much freedom to personalize my blog, but making my site more presentable and personal just isn’t a priority right now. I’ll get to that later. Thanks for being curious enough to stick around anyway.

As usual, someone said it better than I can: 11 Reasons Why I Don’t Like The Term “Christian” and 12 Reasons Why I Prefer The Term “Jesus-follower”.

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