Last summer I traveled to St. Augustine’s House in Oxford, Michigan for the first of what I hope will be many visits. For fifty years, St. Augustine’s House has been tending the thin flame of Lutheran monasticism, a phenomenon marginal at best within Lutheranism and practically unknown outside of it. Yet the monastery has fine facilities and grounds, a robust daily prayer life, and an extended community of hundreds who support its work through the Congregation of the Servants of Christ and its lay oblate association, the Fellowship of St. Augustine. At Sunday’s high mass, twenty or so people from the area were in attendance. I wondered, though I did not ask, whether St. Augustine’s house served as their parish—that is, whether their primary affiliation was with this unique monastery rather than with a local congregation of a national church body.
Before and after my visit to the House, I did some brief Internet research on the world of Lutheran monasticism and on the evangelical-catholic tendency generally. Within minutes, I had seen dozens of web pages designed by pastors, lay people, and crepuscular Lutheran bodies. It occurred to me that I had found, both online and at St. Augustine’s House, a whole world of people who were interested and invested in that tiny sliver of religious expression, Lutheran monasticism. It takes very little time to identify and locate a virtual community centered on just such a phenomenon, and it’s easy to imagine how that community, rather than the church as a whole, could become the focus of one’s devotional life and identification.
In a recent book called The Long Tail, business journalist Chris Anderson argues, “the future of business is selling more of less.” That is, the marketplace for many goods, especially cultural goods like music and movies, will increasingly be divided into niches rather than based on mass-market appeals (the “long tail” is the tapering end of a graph—imagine a bell curve shifted to the left to create a longer, thicker tail to the right). He cites examples like Netflix, which unlike a bricks-and-mortar video rental store can hold and distribute a vast catalog of classics, foreign films, documentaries, and independents along with the usual new releases and blockbusters. Since my wife and I signed up for Netflix, we’ve rented a huge number of films unavailable in most rental stores and relatively few big-name recent releases. Mr. Anderson’s thesis is that this kind of marketing—already apparent at Amazon, iTunes, eBay, and Google—will eventually spell the end of the blockbuster film, the book everyone has to read, and the album that a whole generation knows by heart.
My visit to St. Augustine’s House and my exploration of the online communities that embrace its vision of liturgical life left me wondering whether increasingly fluid religious identification and the rising prominence of online communities would lead to a “long tail” effect in American Christianity. After all, if I can find an institution and a group of believers who share my rather specific theological and liturgical concerns, why would I identify with a much larger body that reflects my niche so much less precisely? If I favor contemporary worship-and-praise music, gender-neutral language for God, and a strong emphasis on social ministry, why would I settle for a community that provides only one or two of those when I can easily find a community that provides all three? There are, of course, valid answers to these questions, which in some sense go back to the earliest years of the church. But it is worth asking ourselves how and under what conditions a deliberately broad-based denomination will evolve and survive in a society where most of the social forces are centripetal.
The ELCA has given something of an answer with Evangelical Lutheran Worship. It is, among other things, a deliberate attempt to stretch one big tent over the various long tails that have emerged or gained strength since 1978: charismatic worship, Spanish-language music, African-American gospel, high-churchism, and traditional worship. It is hard to imagine many congregations using more than a quarter of the staggering 700 hymns and pieces of service music. Megachurches show a similar trend, as the vast auditorium-style sanctuary is replaced more and more by small theatres specializing in different types of music and prayer to which the sermon is broadcast. The evolving appeal of the megachurch, according to some who have studied the phenomenon, is not the vastness and anonymity but rather the ability to provide a wide array of activities, worship services, and affinity groups so that as many niches as possible may be captured.
My hope is that the ELW, whatever its flaws, will succeed at this task of keeping an increasingly varied church literally on the same page. At the same time, it is hard not to imagine that a worship life that is designed to preserve the fact of breadth and unity does not, at some level, undermine the rationale for that unity. What we call, and rightly praise, as diversity on the national level is usually just an aggregation of particularity. In the world, and the church, of the long tail, it is particularity above all that we have to grapple with.