The Value of the Long Tail in Ministry

Mention “the long tail” to most pastors, and they will think of the familiar caricature of the devil: spiked horns, pitchfork, and a long tail. The truth is, the long tail is a concept that has proven a very valuable resource for the church, and something that pastors should diligently work to employ in their own ministry settings.

What is the Long Tail?

The long tail is a concept that first emerge in business models. Perhaps the most recognizable “long tail” business model is Amazon.com. Prior to Amazon.com, the book publishing industry lived and died on the success of a few bestsellers. Like many industries, book publishers saw 80 percent of their revenue from 20 percent of their books published. Most books are not bestsellers and lose money in the end. Publishers can afford to publish these books because they make so much money from the few books that become bestsellers. The books that get published and don’t become bestsellers become “remainders.” You will find these on the sale tables at bookstores priced at unbelievable discounts. It’s not uncommon for a book that has a $19.99 cover price to end up on the sale table for $5.99 or less.

Amazon recognized the opportunity here and harassed the emerging power of internet commerce to create an entirely new business model. The focus of Amazon’s early business was not bestselling books, but the remainders. By making access to these books accessible, Amazon was able to start making the bulk of their revenue off of these cheap, throw away books.

Chris Anderson was one of the first to articulate this concept well in a 2004 Wired article appropriately titled, “The Long Tail.” As we know today, the long tail has revolutionized modern e-commerce when it comes to information products. Services like Netflix, Rhapsody, iTunes, and countless others have made a ton of money by providing access to a broad, diverse catalog of products.

Consider, for example, the music industry. When I was in college in the 1980s, the place to go for music was Tower Records. At the time, Tower Records seemed like a music superstore. There were literally thousands of records, tapes, and eventually CDs available at Tower Records. The small retail record shops in the malls seemed minuscule in comparison.

Yet, today, we would see Tower Records as minuscule. By subscribing to Apple Music or Spotify, I can access millions of songs and tracks in every conceivable genre. Do I want to listen to some Glenn Miller music from the 1940s? No problem. Do I feel “kind of blue” and want some Miles Davis? No problem. Chase from the 1970s? It’s there. A little Chariots of Fire and Vangelis? Tap “add” and I’m running on the beach with a dozen young men.

The truth is, because of the easy access the Internet provides to these recordings, artists like Glenn Miller and Miles Davis can live forever inside of Apple Music, exposing a new generation every few years to their musical magic. This is something Tower Records could never have imagined. Yes, they may have stocked one or two of each of Miles Davis’ albums, but if I wanted something more obscure, I would have to go hunting for it at second-hand record shops. Not so today.

How does the Long Tail Benefit the Church?

John Seely Brown (JSB) was one of the first to recognize the benefit of the long tail to educational institutions. (The church is one of the great learning organizations in the world. One of its primary objectives is teaching/preaching.) Building off of the foundation Chris Anderson described for business, JSB saw the revolution this could bring to the world of education. By the late 2000s, technology was beginning to impact the world of education. More and more educators were experimenting with Web 2.0 applications and how they could be used for teaching. Moreover, the interconnectivity that was emerging through social media showed how learning could become more of a social experience rather than the traditional instructor-talks, student-listens approach. In his article, Minds on Fire, published in the January/February 2008 issue of Educause, JSB described the future:

As more of learning becomes Internet-based, a similar pattern seems to be occurring. Whereas traditional schools offer a finite number of courses of study, the “catalog” of subjects that can be learned online is almost unlimited. There are already several thousand sets of course materials and modules online, and more are being added regularly. Furthermore, for any topic that a student is passionate about, there is likely to be an online niche community of practice of others who share that passion.

We have seen the fulfillment of this vision in today’s online learning communities. From Udemy to iTunes U to a multitude of smaller niche applications, we can access learning on almost any topic from some of the world’s most prominent and influential teachers.

Clearly, the benefits to the church are obvious, and, given today’s technology, simple to harness. When I first entered the ministry in 1990, we recorded every sermon preached at our church. All of these sermons were made immediately available via cassette tape. You could walk out of the service and purchase a cassette recording of the sermon just preached. We would keep a couple of months of tapes available but then throw away the unsold tapes to make room for new sermons. The master tape went into a file system stored in a closet. After 15-20 years, we had hundreds of master tapes. If someone wanted a copy of a sermon preached 10 years ago, we could go to the file system, pull the tape, and make a copy, and it was available. Obviously, not very efficient.

Starting in the lates 90s and early 2000s, digital delivery was starting to emerge. By this time we were recording sermons either on a mini-digital recorder or directly to CD. Cassette tapes eventually died, and we now copied CDs. Storage of master CDs was much simpler, and by going through some wonky processes, we eventually arrived at a point where we could offer a digital audio file available via the Internet. The initial technology didn’t allow streaming, but that soon arrived.

Today, you can go to many church websites and access years worth of sermons in an instant.

That, in essence, is the long tail.

Pastor’s spend a considerable amount of time developing sermons and teaching materials. Twenty years ago, most of that work would have died a week or two after it was delivered live in front of the church. Today, that same sermon series can live forever on the Internet and is accessible by anyone. Interested in learning apologetics? Not a problem. There are dozens of resources available (many for free) from some of the church’s top teachers. Want to study the book of Daniel or Revelation? Not a problem. You can access dozens of sermon series on any book of the Bible or any topic of biblical teaching.

How You Can Start to Develop A Long Tail At Your Church

The most important initial step in developing a long tail at your church is to become intentional about recording everything. If you teach a class on Wednesday nights on 10 Steps to Witness to Mormons, be sure it gets recorded and posted on your church’s website. If you write an article going into greater depth on an aspect of your sermon, be sure the article gets posted.

Over time, this becomes the long tail. At the two churches where I have served at during my career, you can see the long tail by visiting each respective church’s site on SermonAudio.com (the streaming service I opted to go with for archiving our recordings). Grace Church’s sermon archive is available here, and First Family’s sermon archive is available here. In both cases, there was some initial work to go back and put online as many of the church’s older sermons as possible.

For example, at Grace Church, where I was responsible for the cassette ministry in the early days and for recording and distributing sermons for 20 years, I started building the long tail in the mid-2000s (before I even knew I was building a long tail). This required going back a few years to rip audio sermons from their master CD and upload them to SermonAudio.com. In some cases, I went back as far as 1991 and digitized some popular sermon series that lived on cassette tape. Once the initial library was started, it became an easy process of uploading each week’s sermons. Today, when you look at Grace Church’s online sermon library, there are more than 1000 sermons online.

While it can seem overwhelming if you have hundreds, perhaps thousands of recordings of your life’s work, don’t strive for absolute perfection. Start today. Become intentional about building the long tail. You will be surprised how valuable this can become for you personally and for your church. Imagine the next time you are preparing a sermon and you come to an issue that you would like to expand on, but time will not permit. Yet, you remember teaching an entire sermon on this issue four years ago. Imagine how easy it would be to mention in your sermon that there is an entire sermon on this one topic and you will provide the link in their notes or via the church’s website.

Start today to grow your church’s long tail.

    Chris Eller is a Christ Follower, Husband, Father, Pastor, Geek, Writer, Photographer, and Church Technology Consultant.