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!

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