Does your church have a long tail?


It’s one of the big theories about the Web.  Chris Anderson first outlined it in his book, ‘The Long Tail’, and the marketing guru Seth Godin riffs on it endlessly.  And it’s so nearly right it’s important to see that it’s completely wrong.


Does your church have a long tail?
Does your church have a long tail?

It goes like this: at one time the only way to sell stuff was to open a shop.  If I were into, say, 1950’s vinyl, then I’d find some premises, stock up, and advertise.  Then sit back, wait, and probably close in a year. Because not enough people round here share my passion.

So my bank manager would say, ‘You’re too niche.  Broaden out. Sell all kinds of recordings.  Become a general music store.  Then you might stand a chance.’

The old wisdom was, broaden out to the widest extent.  Occupy the middle ground.  Reach the mass average.

The new, Web, theory says: that’s all changed.  Now, unless you’re planning to beat Amazon, refine your niche.  You may only share your interest with 0.5% of the population – but 0.5% of the web-using population is enormous!  You can happily work, not in the mass, volume end of sales, but in the niche you’re passionate about (the long tail) because there enough people who share that passion to make you successful.

And Amazon knows that, because its resellers are all people who sell to the long tail, collected in one place.  Want a particular 1950’s vinyl recording?  it’s not in their warehouses, because like any big seller, Amazon only stocks to popular stuff, but they know where to go for it.

Now I deeply dislike and distrust marketing language about the church.  But there’s something to think about here.

A church which saw itself as a long tail church would try to occupy a distinct niche, reaching students, artists, or business people.  Many of us do that already.  But, following this through, we would turn to face that target group so exclusively that others would not feel welcomed. I’m not particularly interested in websites about quilting and so I don’t go there (though there are lots of them, I expect).  And so I would feel equally unwelcome at a long-tail church that was targeted at quilters. I don’t share that niche.

People who read about Mission theology will recognise this as a new and trendy version of the old Homogenous Unit principle, with all the built-in dangers of exclusivism and self-centredness.  But the Long Tail comes with new pizzazz: it shaves its head and wears a goatee, and it just happens to market to people who are hip, like we want to be.

  • But the gospel is not hip – it’s a scandal and an offence.
  • And the Lord Jesus is not interested in occupying a niche – he’s the Lord of the universe.
  • Nor is he only interested in those who like the ‘Religion and Spirituality’ niche.

So, what do you think:

Does the theory of the Long Tail help us, because it forces us communicate with identifiable groups?  Or does it poison us, because it denies the very nature of the gospel and its result?

Is going for the broad, mass average the best way of reaching most people? Or is yet another version of marketing the gospel?

Pitch in!

7 comments on “Does your church have a long tail?”

  1. This view was really pushed on IME4-7 last weekend. We were encouraged to start a new “fresh expression” for each niche, and expressly forbidden from attempting at any point to integrate them with each other, least of all with regular Sunday morning church which has (shock, horror!) old people in it. I couldn’t help reflecting that, whilst Paul was a Jew for the sake of reaching Jews, and a Gentile to reach Gentiles, his aim was to produce mixed churches of Jews and Gentiles together united in love. And when they found it uncomfortable being together, Paul’s solution was not separate churches, but sacrificial love on both sides.

  2. Thank you, Chris. I wholeheartedly agree. The gospel breaks down barriers between races and cultures (Ephesians 2-3) and unites believers from all kinds of backgrounds. That’s the power of the gospel and it’s countercultural. Short tail churches are God’s jewels and we can all enjoy them. If we can’t, how will we cope in heaven where we will sit down to a feast of rich food for (and with) all peoples (Isaiah 25:6-8)

      1. 1 Corinthians 9 (alongside Paul’s example in Acts) encourages us to contextualise the gospel as we present it but once a person has come to Christ he/she should be incorporated into a multicultural community where there is no Jew and no Greek….

  3. I spent years organising fellowship groups for a niche of “returnees to China”. We never called these church because they were too narrowly focused. We trained people up to join churches asap. Later we were able to persuade churches to adopt returnee fellowship groups of their own so the link for getting people accepted into heterogenous church is easy. Churches benefit from cells of mums and tots, pensioners lunch club, married men’s breakfast, students etc, but will benefit too from the diversity of a full church. Specialised evangelism and fellowship in a niche group is OK, but it is not a church.
    We will never achieve full heterogeneity in this world. Language barriers make it very difficult, but we can go a long way towards it.
    People should never feel unwelcome/unloved in a church, so a niche church aiming at a fragment of the population is going to often fall into the trap of being unloving. Churches should reflect the diversity of their geographical surroundings so a church in a council estate will have a different demographic to the church in the wealthy side of town.
    The thought of planting a monoculture church in a multicultural inner city area though seems to have no biblical basis. It is likely to come across as unloving, showing favouritism, and lacking in multicoloured, manifold wisdom of God.

  4. A few -not fully organised thoughts

    I’m not happy with the HUP principle and think that churches where all different types of people come together are a vital and fantastic witness in our cities. Is a group focusing on a specific group a church or a club. I’ve stayed clear of small groups based around interest or time of life in terms of our formal home group structure.

    At the same time -a smaller church may be tempted to run “events, clubs and activities to cover lots and lots of different interest groups. The result is that the same people duplicate therir energies and are simply exhausted. They don’t have any time to build relationships and actually talk about the Gospel. The church is seen as a community centre that offers a variety of tailored services. But the church thinks it has to run all of these things to be a proper church and to be doing outreach.

    This goes along with a point that seems to be being made here. If we don’t think through the cultural context then people will think of us as irrelevant and a bit rude. So planning things that relate to specific groups rather than assuming everyone will engage with everything we do sounds like it should be common sense.

    So this might be helpful in getting us to think about what we do. Do we take time to think through who we are expecting to come along to something? Also is a church only a church when it runs the full range of activities -or if it is of a certain size, stage, context, should it focus on one or two things,

    But then the other side of things is that a lot of the marketing language seems to link more to the idea of attracting people into our buildings and activities. What does this have to say to an approach to outreach which is simply about befriending people in our neighbourhoods, talking tot hem about Jesus, learning about what makes them tick, what problems they have, idols etc and simply sharing our lives. There will of course then be some naturally tailouring if a church is in a particular type of community where certain cultural interests predominate.

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