The Long Tail of Ministry Revisited

One of my main evangelism quotes is "don't do it.  Do discipleship instead.  And so by doing discipleship, we evangelize."  Thus by focusing on how to make the current members better Disciples, they will attract new people.  By doing so, the mission fields are not the chaotic world, but the smaller more-manageable circles of relationships that you are already a part of.  This is called the Long Tail of Ministry: the aggregate of the circles of relationships your current membership already swims in...has an equal amount of opportunity as shouting from the rooftops and standing on soapboxes at the mall.

A few months back in the "What the Church can Learn from Wikipedia" series, in part 2 we talked about the "Long Tail of Ministry."  Missed it?  Wonder what the heck that is?  Read the link, but essentially I'll let another site explain the long tail effectively.

the Long Tail theory suggests that the dramatically lower distribution costs for media (such as music and movies) enabled by the internet has the potential to reshape the demand curve for media...Anderson argues that the internet's ability to serve niches cost-effectively increases the demand for items further down the "tail" of the demand curve, making the aggregate demand for the tail comparable to that for the head.
We talked about how focusing on the long tail of ministry (those smaller groups in your church) can revolutionize the church like it revolutionized the internet industry.  Great, right?  Well, then this is a follow-up.  Here's two points worth mentioning.

(1) Harvard released a study questioning investments in the long tail businesses.  While the article questions the long tail's validity based on empirical data, it also offers recommendations and suggestions to businesses.  In there, there's a recommendation to businesses that translates directly into supporting the long tail of ministry [bold emphasis mine]:
When producing niche goods for the tail end of the distribution, keep costs as low as possible. Your odds of success aren’t favorable here either, and they will probably become less so.  The extremely low demand for the large array of products in the tail means that simply recovering the costs of producing them will be challenging. Given that obscure products tend to be appreciated less than hits, it will be very difficult to earn any kind of price premium for them.
So a lesson here to keep churches from completely upending and turning their world upside down is to reasonably support the long tail.  Taking money and volunteers away from a structured Sunday School to support an unstructured movie club is probably not the best idea.  (This serves as a extension of the previous blog post on the Long Tail of Ministry).

(2) In a blog post response to the response to this column, the Harvard article author Anita Elberse presents another aspect of the Long Tail to consider:
[the Long Tail inventor] Anderson again makes the argument that online markets exhibit a long tail. I agree with that assessment, and have not claimed the opposite. However, I argue the data reveal two other important patterns. First, the tail is long but extremely flat—and, as online retailers expand their assortments, increasingly so. Second, compared with heavy users, light users have a disproportionately strong preference for the more popular offerings, while both groups appreciate hit products more than they like those in the tail.
Light users have a preference for more popular programs...this is true for the church, isn't it?  Well, statistically-true anyway...a paper by the GBOD (Lazy Christians = Low-Hanging Fruit) shows that "the fastest growing churches depend on the least involved, least motivated, and least engaged Christian believers.”  If you have the biggest and baddest Sunday School around, if your worship service has Amy Grant doing square dances, and if your soup kitchen feeds half of Philadelphia...then you might have the most shallow Christians in your ranks.  If that is your goal, you are well on your way.

But if you want niche Christians, if you want to reach those on the margins, then it won't be via a massive overhaul of sunday school, but it might be by the many small groups in your community and congregation.  By encouraging personal relationships and small groups, then you will engage the long tail of ministry while leaving the CEOs and Sunday Christians to the Christendom retailers.

So, in other words, if you are a smaller church in the midst of ChristoGiantChurches...don't play the same game.  Don't try for the same shallow pool.  Teach your members to talk while holding their spiritual breath, sink deeply into the relationship circles that are already at the margins, and by God's grace you'll bring fresh water, bread, wine, and breath to those who are in your midst already.


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David Morris September 30, 2008 at 7:24 PM  

I love the last paragraph. We are a small church in the middle of nowhere (or is it in the middle of everywhere?) and I have no intention of playing the game of shallow pool Christianity. There was a time when I lost sleep and soul cells about the latest idea from the Mega-Churches. Yet, no longer.

As a Spiritual Director as well as pastor, I seek to preach and live a deep end kind of faith. And so far, that is what is getting people excited about church.

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