Nothing new under the sun — or in the church press?

Sep 29, 2014 by

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Cleaning out old files, I came upon one marked “Controversy in the Mennonite Press” with stuff in it dating back 40 years and more. One thought came to mind: “What goes around comes around.”

Controversy in the church is not new. It just comes with slightly different issues.

The file contained papers, articles and clippings about sexual indiscretions, board secrecy, student lifestyles on campus, the power of large gifts to determine decisions, theology taught in Bible departments, who’s the boss of a church publication (editor or board?) and more. It also contained my notes from inter-Mennonite consultations about the church press, personal and public statements by set-aside editors (Rudy Wiebe of Mennonite Brethren Herald: negative depiction of a church leader in a novel; Maynard Shelly of The Mennonite: too much controversy).

In 1974 I wrote a paper stating that a church publication faces some unique dangers. Here’s a summary:

  • To promote institutional life instead of body life. Yet the dividing line is sometimes so fine, it is possible to slip from promoting body life to promoting the institution without being aware of what has happened. Suddenly, the publication has become not a voice but a public relations piece.
  • To believe that technical excellence — important as it is, and the lack of which religious publications have been chided for in past decades — can substitute for charismatic power.
  • To substitute an authoritarian stance (“This is the right answer”) for the more painful and slower consensus process of Anabaptist believers.
  • To forget that a publication must exist for its readers and not for a board or an institution or even to become mainly a successful business.
  • To assume that communication techniques learned 20 or more years ago suffice for a rapidly changing age.
  • To fear that controversy and unfavorable feedback and making oneself vulnerable before readers will destroy the publication. Yet feedback soon ends when content is predict­able and openness discouraged.
  • To think that what appeals to preachers and administrators appeals to all readers.

I ended with James E. Seller’s words in The Outsider and the Word of God that official church publicity “tends to view the church as a fellowship of worthies rather than as a corporation of sinners. The news is written in such a way that the reader sees the good and the large things about the workings of the denomination which build up the church as an institution . . . while the more profound aspects of the church are lost from view.”

I believe we need education on the role of communications in a high-tech society, especially as it relates to the church. In 1966 Kyle Haselden, then editor of Christian Century, said, “The problem is not to change the world. The problem is not to prevent change. The problem is to help control and direct change, to inform change, to give the vast sweep of it some Christian challenge.”

He was speaking to a large gathering of writers and editors, including many Mennonites, at Green Lake, Wis. He encouraged us to believe that the gos­pel of Jesus Christ was delivered “precisely for the kind of world we live in and that it is able to change the system as well as the souls of [people].” But that doesn’t happen over­night. It takes rethinking one’s theology, one’s worldview. Discussion about issues, including letters to the editor, is often the way this happens.

Well, what about an independent publication like MWR?

When I teach memoir-writing classes, I point out that a person, a business, an institution like a school, even a publication, has a character, a personality. In the case of a periodical, strip away all the layout and design. What stays, what has sunk in after reading it, is the publication’s character.

Many readers turn to the letters to the editor first. This is the lifeblood of any publication. Some editors would give their eye teeth to have the kind of response that MWR has. It shows that people are reading and thinking. Some agree. Some don’t. And that’s OK. What goes around comes around.

In the end, I decided to keep the whole file.

Katie Funk Wiebe, of Wichita, Kan., is the author of numerous articles in Mennonite publications.


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