I learned that the Mennonite Brethren Herald has been given a reprieve – of sorts. It will not be discontinued as previously announced to be replaced by a publication that better fulfills the mission of outreach. The discontinuance message gave me pause for I have read the Herald for about half a century and to lose it would be like losing a friend, albeit one becoming more and more a stranger as we both age. A number of questions come to forefront about church publications as I think about the Herald:
Is it possible to send out a communication without communicating anything?
Is it possible for a church organ to be prophetic, to lead in areas of truth no one person can deal with alone and hang onto its readers when the push is aggressive to be glossy, sleek, with super-artistic layout?
Most of us call non-communicating communications junk mail or spam. It fills wastepaper baskets and garbage collection sites. We discard it because it is a one-way message. It may inform but does not communicate.
What does it take for a communicator to communicate to the churched as well as the un-churched? Too much of what we get these days comes laundered, sanitized, and wrinkle-free lest someone see the body of Christ as less than perfect. Surely most people know the church is not the flawless body it strives to be.
For a publication to succeed, I think it takes connectivity -- strong efforts at keeping ties strong between sender and receiver. In a church publication it means informing individuals about individuals, not just about committees and boards. It means listening to the reader. Two-way communication builds peoplehood. One-way communication builds the institution. I sincerely hope the new version of the Mennonite Brethren Herald will not become a one-way messenger in the interests of spreading the Gospel.
A good church-related publication shapes thinking about how God relates to real human beings, whether believers or non-believers, in a very real world of hurt, despair, disappointment and violent behavior. It also shows how to relate to God in a changing culture. It knows the difference between what readers want to know and what the top leaders want them to know to keep the image intact.
Having been involved in Mennonite journalism and institutions for a lifetime, I know how difficult it is for church leaders to be convinced the constituency can handle touchy issues such as criticism lest financial supporters or the uninitiated are offended.
How can this be achieved? Through columns, reviews of significant books both for and against new thinking, information about what is stirring in the church, and dialogue, lots of it, by means of letters to the editor and editorials in which the editor responds to the readers. And personal experience stories. The more personal, the more general I have often told writing classes, for people all have the same basic experiences.
A good church organ strengthens the faith of its readers whether they are new believers or seasoned elders in the faith. I recall the very first writers workshop I attended in the 1960s at which the editor of a prominent Christian periodical stated again and again, “I don’t want articles about what God can do. I want to know what God is doing.” No future tense, only the present. Where is God working in daily life? No preaching. This kind of faith-strengthening is best done through stories of people explaining how God worked in their lives.
Humans make mistakes and rationalize them, institutionalize them, and, as someone has said, give birth to sacred cows and then wander around in the messes they make while on the church’s mission. But the Bible is full of such people and we are blessed by the writings of the psalmist David without always immediately recalling his adulterous, violent life.
I have been a reader of the MB Herald since its inception and watched it grow, flounder, and rise again to become stronger. I pray that this coming change will take it to higher heights in strengthening both those within and outside the church.