Welcome to The Long Tail of the Church!
If you think that this is a strange title, or even that I’ve made a spelling mistake with the word ‘Tail’, then all will shortly become clear.
This is a book about the church. Yes, it will contain some history – going back as far as the First Century and beyond, but that is not what the word ‘tail’ represents – if so it would be a ‘Tale’. The clue is in the subtitle of the site, “Why the Future of the Church is in Much More of Less” – an idea inspired by my reading of Chris Anderson’s book, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More. But more of this later.
For a long time I have been convinced that the Christian church in the Western World has generally lost the plot. Oh, it’s not all bad, and it’s not all wrong. But I seriously doubt that those who were first inspired by being with Jesus and took to heart his charge to them – what we now call The Great Commission – would recognise much of what we call church today as related to their first communities of faith.
Of course, I’m not alone in thinking these things. There have been numerous reformations during the past two centuries, and many, including myself, are convinced that a new reformation is getting under way. The conditions for a reformation to begin include a general dissatisfaction with some of the major doctrines and/or practices of the church of the day. We are in a time when such dissatisfaction is certainly common. Surveys show an increasing number of those who call themselves Christian no longer “go to church” (itself an anomalous concept).
However, one difference between earlier reformations and the one we might be entering are that ours is not being sparked mainly by doctrinal problems, although such exist, nor by the general practices of the church, because these are so widely varying that almost any preference can easily be met. Rather, the main source of dissatisfaction is the recognition that by almost any criteria one chooses to measure it, the effectiveness of the church in meeting the purposes and goals given to it by Jesus is simply abysmal.
Another lesson we can learn from previous reformations is that each had an enabling technology, whether that was the Roman Road in the First Century, or Gutenberg’s printing press, leading to relatively inexpensive and more accessible books in the Fifteenth. There are reasons to believe that the enabling technology of today’s reformation is the Internet, and in particular its ability to facilitate rapid and low-cost communication between people, to help establish relationships that would otherwise be unlikely, and to widely and quickly disseminate huge quantities of information.
As in the case of the printed book, and now also with the Internet, the institutional church has usually had an ambivalent relationship with these technologies.
One often reported phenomenon in science and technology has been that when the time for an idea has arrived, it typically springs up in numerous places and through different people almost simultaneously. An obvious case is the development of the calculus through both Liebnitz in France and Newton in England. There might be something said for the idea that God drops an idea into the world for people to take up and develop when he sees the time is right. Those who think that this makes God too interventionist will probably have difficulty with this idea, but God clearly does involve himself in the affairs of humans. After all, we were created for the purpose of having a relationship with God, and that means now, not just in some future, heavenly realm. If the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ was not an intervention then I don’t know what was!
It could be said that the arrival of the Internet has been one of those kairos events, and the initial general resistance of the church to its use does not negate this idea. I believe there have been many such gifts from God throughout history, which God expected the church to use in their mission of leading humanity into his ways. Paul’s approach (1 Corinthians 9:22) was to become all things to all men so that by all possible means he might save some. On some occasions the church has dropped the ball, but the gift is to all of humanity, not just the church. So it should not be a surprise when society adopts the idea and develops it in sometimes less than helpful ways, while the church then feels compelled to fight a rearguard action against any undesirable results.
Of course, when such unfortunate effects occur, the church often takes an attitude of superiority over secular society. It treads the moral high ground, all the time oblivious to the fact of the problems being the fault of the church for being unable to listen to the voice of its God, and missing his purposes for the gift. The church can be so distracted by its own affairs that the true blessing it is meant to be to the world is not achieved. It easily looses its mandate to be a leader of social change and settles for the role of a disgruntled and reactionary social policeman.
Millennia ago the same thing happened through the nation of Israel. In this case of the very first reformation, Israel was itself the blessing that God seeded into the world, but they became self-obsessed and forgot that their purpose for existing was to bring the Living God to the nations. Could there be a clue in this as to why, for most of its history, much of the church has drawn its ideas about God more from ancient Greek pagan philosophers than from the true self-revelation of God to the world?
Perhaps about now the reader is beginning to think, “But my church isn’t like that. You just have a down on the church!” I would venture to suggest that they honestly examine the difference between the way their church talks about itself, and what it actually does. Or, better still, what do the unchurched say about it? As for my own feelings, I love the church, and this love compels me to take an honest look at its performance and compare it with what I believe are Jesus’ expectations. The early church turned the world upside down within decades, with millions of conversions by the time of Emperor Constantine. But once the church was officially established the growth by conversion rapidly declined.
For at least 99% of the institutional, established church today the picture is even less encouraging. Some denominations even believe they are successful because they are diminishing at a lower rate than that of some others! Is this not bizarre? What would you say to your investment adviser if she recommended a portfolio because it was only losing 1.5% per annum? You’d rather put your money under a mattress. The measures for success we tend to use for the church would look like abject failure if compared to those used for a business, not to mention the spectacular growth considered normal in the first centuries before things began to go wrong.
Even many of the newer forms of church appear to be just brighter, more socially acceptable versions of the old, with little real increase in the true fruits of discipleship and mission. Many lessons have been learned from marketing and applied to the church. However, a major theme of this book is that the business world is itself in the midst of a major, Internet driven reformation. Those same marketing methods, while still tenaciously clung to by the old school, are being resoundingly rejected by a new generation of customers. Interestingly, as has been its tendency down through history, the church has only recently begun to implement the very systems that the rest of society is finishing with. It is perhaps not surprising that these same methods do not cohere very well with the purpose of God for people to live in true relationship with each other and with him.
Lest I appear in these pages to be too evangelical about the new networking and social media approaches to relationship building, I do recognise that there are dangers. I suspect, however, that if the church had taken its rightful role earlier in this technological revolution, it could have helped to shape it in healthier ways. Being prophetic does not primarily consist in railing against evil, as much of Christianity seems to think, but more in speaking into being the future that God plants in our hearts.
In the early parts of this book I will look more closely into the early decline of the church and how the Western church has arrived at its present situation. Following that, inspired by what the world is learning from God’s latest technological change enabler, we will examine some ways that the church can reform itself into the effective leader of societal transformation that it was always intended to be. This will certainly involve the wholesale acceptance of new (or very old) ways of being church. But, rather than the abandonment of the more familiar institutional forms, I do believe there will also be a path for the transitioning of much of the old into more effective forms. Such transition will not be without difficulty, and even pain, but this is a birth after all! I see the future of the church to be in a wedding of the very small with the very large, and probably not much in between, but more of that later.
Who am I to be writing such a book? While much of what I do could be described as analysis, I also strongly see myself as a synthesist. I have always enjoyed taking things apart (‘deconstructing’ would be the clever, postmodern word to use here) to see how they work, or fail to work properly. Throughout my various careers in mathematics and electronics as an electrical and electronic engineer, as a robotics and vision systems researcher, as a lecturer in computer technology and artificial intelligence, and in theology and counselling as a Baptist pastor and prayer counsellor, I have watched, examined, listened, learned, and then tried to innovate. The best purpose of deconstruction is to enable those analysed parts to be synthesised into a new form, bringing into being something that was not existing before.
Having been born into an independent, fudamentalist, evangelical, protestant church, then moved through Methodist to a Baptist church, where I ‘graduated’ through youth leader, organist, deacon, secretary, and now pastor, I believe I have some insight into how at least one part of the church family operates. In 1983 the Lord said to us that he wanted to do a new thing, so after five years of prayer we sold the large, 120 year old church building. Since then we have been exploring different ways of being church, arriving some 12 years ago at its present form of a cross between constituted Baptist church and house church. Recently we decided to begin to develop a network of simple, organic, house style churches, with our present Beth Tephillah Ministry Centre as a resource and a hub for the network.
All through this journey my wife Diana, also a pastor, teacher and prayer counsellor, and I have found ourselves acting as a catalyst for others to discover, be released into, and engage in various ministry movements. These have included the intercession, prophetic ministry, spiritual warfare, healing, prayer counselling, and now the simple and organic church movement. We have organised and taught seminars and training courses, and brought gifted speakers and practitioners to Melbourne.
We have always worked cross-denominationally, and our Beth Tephillah Ministry Centre could not function without trained volunteer staff from many different churches. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, would probably call us connectors. In the church we have other names for people with such a function, but it is not yet generally safe to make such ‘claims’. Part of the present reformation will be in the recognition of the foolish ideas about ‘office’ and ‘authority’ that have attached themselves to the so-called ‘five-fold office’, and the re-establishment of the true apostolic-prophetic leadership band. Unfortunately, there is at present another movement, calling itself a ‘reformation’, run by highly influential people who should know better, that is bringing the true functioning of such leadership into even deeper dysfunction.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s I studied theology at Whitley College in Melbourne, with a double major in Systematic Theology and Church History. My honours thesis was An Evangelical Approach to Postmodernity. Clearly, even then the Lord was pointing me in this direction.
I have a business called Roaring-Mouse.com, the name being inspired by Leonard Wibberley’s story The Mouse That Roared, and Peter Seller’s classic film adaptation. My idea, as in the story, was to provide “power for the little guy”, in website hosting, development and promotion, and Internet marketing. I tried, and failed, to make a living from Internet marketing affiliate schemes, many of which turned out to be suspiciously akin to pyramid schemes. I soon cut my losses and went elsewhere, and am still surprised at church people who use their covenant relationship with other church members to push pyramid selling schemes for their own advantage. I now use my own membership of conventional affiliate systems to pay the costs of the 50 mostly ministry websites that are now part of The Roaring Mouse Network.
I have long had a passion for the church to use technology effectively, probably stemming partly from my involvement in computing from back in the 1960s, and my designing of my first computer in the early 1970s, before the Apple II and IBM PC were invented. I’ve always been an early adopter, and have been a member for over 40 years of the world’s first technology based social media network – amateur radio.