Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Long Tail and the Missional Movement

Chris Anderson in the Long Tail explains some things that I believe help explain why missional thinking is spreading like wild fire. The following is taken from pages 52 and 53. I’ve added my commentary about how this applies to the Kingdom and the church in italics.

Anderson starts with this:

The theory of the Long Tail can be boiled down to this: Our culture and economy are increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of hits (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve, and moving toward a huge number of niches in the tail. In an era without the constraints of physical shelf space and other bottlenecks of distribution, narrowly targeted goods and services can be as economically attractive as mainstream fare.

In an era, when theological ideas that we have access to, is no longer limited to Billy Graham, a few radio teachers and your local pastor. We now have access to a much wider number of perspectives. Those perspectives are no longer limited to a local building or traveling to another building. They now cross space freely and interact with each other in an instant.

But that’s not enough. Demand must follow this new supply. Otherwise, the Tail will wither. ( Absolutely, the hunger in many Believers is driving them to seek something more.) Because the Tail is measured not just in available variety but in the people who gravitate toward it, the true shape of demand is revealed only when consumers are offered infinite choice. (Hence Barna’s book Revolution) It is the aggregate sales, use, or other participation of all those people in the newly available niches that turns the massive expansion of choice into an economic and cultural force. (Which is driving the missional change that is changing the church.) The Long Tail starts with a million niches, but it isn’t meaningful until those niches are populated with people who want them. Collectively, all of this translates into six themes of the Long Tail age:

1. In virtually all markets, there are far more niche goods than hits. That ratio is growing exponentially larger as the tools of production become cheaper and more ubiquitous. (Can you see this in the church? Post –evangelical, emerging, post, pre etc etc)

2. The costs of reaching these niches are now falling dramatically. Thanks to a combination of forces including digital distribution, powerful search technologies, and a critical mass of broadband penetration, online markets are resetting the economics of retail. Thus, in many markets, it is now possible to offer a massively expanded variety of products. (You no longer need to buy a spot on TBN or cable TV, try to get news coverage, none of those traditional things)

3. Simply offering more variety, however, does not shift demand by itself. Consumers must be given ways to find niches that suit their particular needs and interests. A range of tools and techniques – from recommendations to rankings – are effective at doing this. These “filters” can drive demand down the Tail. (This filtering process is going on now. It’s the filter of the web and our teaching institutions.)

4. Once there’s massively expanded variety and the filters to sort through it, the demand curve flattens. There are still hits and niches, but the hits are relatively less popular and the niches relatively more so. (More choices for the gathering of the Body of Christ.)

5. All those niches add up. Although none sell in huge numbers, there are so many niche products that collectively they can comprise a market rivaling the hits. (More and more smaller church groups who gather based on their commonalities.)

6. Once all of this is in place, the natural shape of demand is revealed, undistorted by distribution bottlenecks, scarcity of information, and limited choice of shelf space. What’s more, that shape is far less hit-driven than we have been led to believe. Instead, it is as diverse as the population itself. (The big names of the Church now have less impact and things become driven by those small groups who seek out true relationship with Christ.)

Bottom line: A Long Tail is just culture unfiltered by economic scarcity.

Can you see? The Long Tail of the church has happened because the web has allowed for those of like mind to connect. Not just missional minds, but emerging minds and traditional fundamental minds, denominational minds and wanderers, they all have a place to connect. Once they connect they network and the tail becomes more powerful.

Missional will continue to spread because God has brought it about at a time when those of like mind from around the world can instantly connect and gather to form a powerful force of change for the church.

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