When Copies Are Free, What is Valuable?

Kevin Kelly, an influential thinker about all things digital, just posted an essay called Better than Free.

It’s quite good.

The gist is that technology is making copies easier and easier to create. In fact, copies of most things are so cheap that they’re essentially free.

In his words:

When copies are super abundant, they become worthless.
When copies are super abundant, stuff which can’t be copied becomes scarce and valuable

Well, what can’t be copied?

There are a number of qualities that can’t be copied. Consider “trust.” Trust cannot be copied. You can’t purchase it. Trust must be earned, over time. It cannot be downloaded. Or faked. Or counterfeited (at least for long). If everything else is equal, you’ll always prefer to deal with someone you can trust. So trust is an intangible that has increasing value in a copy saturated world.

Kelly identifies 8 similar difficult-to-copy qualities which add value to products and services:

  1. Immediacy: getting it now (as it is produced or created)
  2. Personalization: getting it made just for you
  3. Interpretation: having it explained in a way that makes sense to you
  4. Authenticity: knowing it’s the real deal or a copy of the real deal (as opposed to a song being done by a cover band or something)
  5. Accessibility: it’s convenient to experience
  6. Embodiment: it’s something you can experience on a uniquely intense level (you can shake the hand of the athlete who just scored the game-winning point, etc)
  7. Patronage: you believe that by consuming it you’re enabling more of it (whatever it is you value) to be produced
  8. Findability: it gets on your radar somehow

Kelly is mostly speaking about business in his essay, but it occurs to me that this is a pretty good checklist for ministry.

A sea of ministry copies is floating around your community. There’s Christian radio (carrying copies of some the best worship music and preaching to be found), there’s Christian television (carrying copies), there are Christian books and magazines (carrying copies of wise people’s opinions and Bible interpretations), and there are blogs that give everyone the opportunity to interact with any number of other esteemed Christian leaders. On top of that, there’s the multi-site church movement which at its heart is about copying ministry.

And this is to say nothing of the ministry clones that abound in every community. You know the ones I speak of. They are the Starbucks of churches, the McDonald’s of ministry. Each of them looks and feels the same no matter what community they nominally inhabit. They could care less whether they are in El Paso or Austin. They will treat Boston and Springfield, MO alike.

In this copy-laden context, what true value does your ministry offer?

There are certainly other things we need to consider than Kelly’s list. Some of them are of exceeding importance, such as whether we’re proclaiming the gospel clearly and faithfully.

But his list still nags at me. It seems to me to be a helpful way to examine ourselves from a purely pragmatic perspective.

I think ministries do well by these standards. For example, most ministries I know are strong at

  1. Immediacy: people are there while we preach it — live. Our worship team is performing — live. Our prayers are spontaneous. People are operating in the gifts of the Spirit — live and without rehearsal.
  2. Personalization: people are meeting with mentors who are showing them how to understand the Bible given their particular situation in life (although they’re not usually called mentors — they’re usually called youth sponsors, sunday school teachers, next-door neighbors, friends, co-workers, or something else that’s not very trendy to be callled)
  3. Interpretation: people are not only given a Bible, they’re given a whole learning environment with it — sermons, Bible studies, Sunday School, seminars, conferences, Christian media, websites
  4. Authenticity: it’s become cliche to knock around the established church for being inauthentic, but I just don’t see it. Most people love their pastor for a reason. Notable examples aside, most ministers aren’t hypocrites and are serving up the goods of a life lived in humilty before God.
  5. Patronage: giving in the offering pays the salary of the pastoral team and allows the ministries of the church to operate. Giving in offerings allows missionaries to take the gospel around the world.

I think a lot of ministries could use work on the other parts of the list, however.

  1. Accessibility: we too often make ministry inconvenient for the people we say we’re trying to reach. Our service times are funky. Our dress code is off-putting. Our lingo is difficult to decode.
  2. Embodiment: too many churches seem obsessed with making church as bland and palatable as possible. This is especially true of my Pentecostal comrades: we’ve become embarrassed about our spirituality. To them, I can only quote Curt Harlow: don’t tone it down, sincere it up. Make coming to church significantly more lively and rewarding than watching a church service broadcast on a big screen tv at home with surround-sound.
  3. Findability: not nearly as many people know about your ministry as you think. Existing is not enough to produce awareness.

So to my ministerial friends, I pose this simple question: in a world of copies, what makes your ministry valuable? Is it something that can’t be copied out from under you?

The things I find myself obsessing over are all too often the things that are the most copyable. Did my sermon sound like one of Rick Warren’s/John Ortberg’s/John Piper’s/etc? Does my worship team sound like they just rolled off the Passion Tour/IHOP Prayer Room/etc?

What I should be asking is: if Rick Warren set up on my campus, would I still be adding value to students’ lives? If Dave Crowder decided to lead worship for another ministry on my campus, would I still be adding value to students’ lives?

What’s not copyable about what I’m doing?

Anyway, just some off-the-cuff thoughts inspired by his essay. Read the article ladykillers the download free .

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