The Secret to Restarting the Evangelism Engine

Each person leading just one to Christ can reach more than big events with “celebrity” evangelists.

Excerpted from “The Great Evangelical Recession: 6 Factors That Will Crash the American Church … and How to Prepare” (Baker)

The 21st century is just getting started, but we’ve already seen some game-changing bankruptcies—Blockbuster and Borders to name two. Forces greater than the recession tackled these behemoths. The Long Tail is one of those forces.

Four years before Blockbuster Video declared bankruptcy, Wired Magazine editor Chris Anderson wrote his book The Long Tail. In it, Anderson described a 21st-century phenomenon that many ministries still don’t understand. Here’s the gist of it.

Anderson refers to big hits in the retail market as “the head” of the sales curve. In media, this includes best-sellers like John Grisham, Stephen King, Madonna, Coldplay or blockbuster films like Pirates of the Caribbean and Jurassic Park. These are “the head” of the market, the high-volume big hitters. In the 20th century, companies could make money by focusing exclusively on these big hits—and ignoring everything else.

Blockbuster didn’t need to stock every movie—just best-selling new releases.

Borders didn’t need to stock every book—just the top few percent of sellers.

This model worked great in the 20th century—right up to the late 1990s. In the 21st century, however, it’s a model for bankruptcy, as demonstrated by Blockbuster and Borders, among others.

Viewed as a graph of sales volume, the head of best-sellers slopes downward. As you move away from the head, the sales decrease. There’s a very short neck of C-list type products. And then, there’s a very Long Tail, stretching away from the head.

The Long Tail represents the thousands of movies, books and songs that hardly sell. But when all those thousands of items are combined, they generate just as much revenue as big hits in “the head.” The mass (or profit) of the many small sellers in the tail is actually the same as the mass (or profit) of the few big sellers in the head.

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To visualize, picture a medieval dragon from a side, profile view. The mass in the muscular neck and head are about the same volume as the mass in the powerful long tail. Similarly, the money to be made in all the little nonhits is about the same as the money to be made in the few big hits in the neck and head.

Anderson observed that, if a company could learn to sell all the products in the tail, it would excel in the 21st century. That is exactly what Netflix, Amazon, iTunes and other thriving young brands have done. They’ve learned to sell the tail, and not rely exclusively on the big hits.

Before 20th-century juggernauts—Borders, Blockbuster and record stores—even realized what was happening, 21st-century upstarts capitalized on The Long Tail and put the old industry leaders out of business. Amazon, Netflix and iTunes annihilated established massive corporations by understanding The Long Tail.

In the 21st century, thriving companies understand the need to offer more than just the big hits. They operate knowing that there’s more money in the combined volume of all the nonhits than in just the hits. This is what Netflix has done (and it’s why you see so many nonhit movies that you’ve never heard of listed on Netflix). Netflix’s ownership of The Long Tail obliterated Blockbuster’s outdated head-dependent model.

While Borders has gone bankrupt, Amazon has capitalized on The Long Tail of the book market. Netflix, Amazon and iTunes are so good at selling the products in The Long Tail that they’ve incidentally become the go-to destinations for purchasing best-sellers from the head as well. Whether you’re looking for a niche product or a mainstream best-seller, you know these companies will have what you’re looking for.

In a sense, Facebook, Google and Wikipedia are also capitalizing on The Long Tail—in people and information. Instead of bringing us news about a few celebrities, as some struggling publications do, Facebook brings us news from all the nonfamous people who we care about—people from The Long Tail of society. And Google gives us access to The Long Tail of information. Instead of telling us what information in the head to care about, as struggling print newspapers do, Google gives direct access to all the information in The Long Tail—including lots of info that may not be best-selling, but appeals to us individually. Wikipedia offers tens of thousands more entries than old print encyclopedias. It’s a lot of Long Tail information.

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How does The Long Tail relate to evangelism? Just like industry, the 20th-century model for evangelism in the United States relied on the head. We relied on the big hitters like Billy Graham. Locally, we relied on inviting folks to big events like Christmas or Easter outreaches. That was a fine model in the 1900s, but it’s grossly outdated in the 21st century, because it ignores The Long Tail, the millions of other “nonhit” evangelical Christians. It ignores us normal people—and God’s plan to use all His people.

In business, relying solely on the head in the 2010s demonstrates ignorance about how culture has changed—how people are more individual, more selective, less of a herd and exponentially more informed. In ministry, relying solely on event-based evangelism in the 2010s demonstrates an equal ignorance about postmodern, post-Christian Americans.

Ministries that rely solely on big events and big personalities for evangelism are ignoring The Long Tail—and will continue going the way of Blockbuster, Borders and other bankrupt 20th-century behemoths. So long as we look exclusively to big personalities or even local big-hit events to get evangelism done, we will be irrelevant and outdated.