Since the beginning of civilisation humans have been organising themselves into groups. We can't help it, it's a part of our psychological makeup. And we're really, really good at it, better than any other animal on the planet.
For thousands of years the groups we have organised ourselves into have been constricted mainly by geography. It's only in the last few hundred years that many people have had the chance to travel large distances from their birthplace. But things are changing, and in this ever-shrinking world we live in it's a common occurrence for many families, particularly in the western world, to be spread not just around their birth-country, but across the globe.
The advent of global communication channels such as the telephone and the Internet have also made the opportunity to create new groups easier than ever, and people are taking advantage of these opportunities. They are creating groups based not on geography, but on common interests, beliefs, skills and hobbies.
Humans as a species are complex creatures. We are infinite not just in size and shape, but in diversity of interests. We're all the same because we're all interested in something, but we're all different because we're interested in different things. People call them interests, pass-times and hobbies. And you don't get much more diverse than the world of hobbies.
Let's face it, some people are interested in some pretty obscure stuff. My secret love, in case you were wondering, is jazz trombonists. If the names Ray Anderson, J. J. Johnson, Mark Nightingale and Frank Rosolino mean anything to you then you're in the same niche as me. Lucky you.
You many have an interest that you share with just a few other people you know. Across the world there may be a few thousand or even only a few hundred people who are interested in the same things as you. Diversity of interests are more celebrated now than they have been at any other time in history; you only need to look at the magazine shelves of your local newsagent to see the massive range of interests that people have.
Let's look at an example: pop music. Traditionally pop music businesses have aimed to sell their music to the most number of people from the "fans of pop music" group. That's why modern music marketing is done the way it is, to make sure that the huge numbers of people who listen to pop music know about the latest albums and - hopefully - buy it in droves. It's been a good strategy, and some businesses have made huge amounts of money.
But the problem is that most record companies have the same idea of how to reach their audience. So if you want to sell the latest album from your pop artist to the masses, chances are that there will be dozens, even hundreds, of albums competing in that same market place. That is competition, and there's not many things worse for business than having a lot of competition.
But things are changing for business, and the changes have implications for the church as well. People have the freedom to reorganise themselves, group themselves into myriad collectives with hugely diverse interests. Suddenly the music market isn't just pop, classical and folk, but delta blues, thrash rock, heavy metal, electro-funk, acid jazz, slowcore, alt-folk, nu-metal and thousands of other styles.
It's now a world of infinite choice, and each choice available has it's own niche.
So what does this have to do with the emerging church? Well, for one thing we are a niche of ourselves. However because of the vast array of choices available to people in this modern world, it's highly likely that we are also parts of other niches as well. It's in those niches, among those groups that you are a part of, that real interaction is to be found. That's where the truth of human relationship makes itself known, and where we should be spending our time and efforts.
For instance, are you part of a cycling club? Do you meet certain people in the pub every Friday? Do you have a rapport with your neighbours? Do you use Flickr? All of these things are niches, and all of them provide you with opportunities to form relationships with other people.
longer do we have to reach out to huge segments of the community such
as "young men" or "single women" and hope for the
best. There is power in the niche, let's use it to forge new relationships.
Chris Taylor develops software for the web deep in the bowels of Yorkshire. He is happily attached to his partner Katharine, and they have several thousand children between them.
He can be found online at www.stillbreathing.co.uk