Three and a half years ago, four of us — Barth Hague and Hannah Heinzekehr of The Mennonite and Paul Schrag and myself of Mennonite World Review — met one Saturday morning in Newton, Kan., to talk about the future of our two publications.
We talked about the challenges both were facing: Declining and aging readership, falling revenue, rising costs, the need to do more online. We tossed around some ideas for how we might collaborate to reduce expenses and support each other.
Then Paul asked: “What if we merge?”
That question changed the conversation and led to where we are today — at the cusp of the launch of the first issue of Anabaptist World.
It wasn’t an easy process. There were several major bumps along the way. At one point, due to complications from Mennonite Church USA, the merger almost died. Some supporters of MWR had questions, too. But ultimately everyone showed faith in the vision of a new and stronger way of doing Anabaptist journalism.
Fast, noisy world
If the merger process was challenging, the future will not be any less so. The world of communications and journalism is rapidly changing and evolving.
This was underscored for me in June when I surveyed communicators from other Anabaptist-Mennonite organizations about the challenges facing communicators today.
A major concern for all is the fast and noisy world of communications we live in.
“The volume of news and information is staggering, and the speed with which it just keeps arriving can be overwhelming,” said one.
“We are living in a data smog today,” said another.
For communicators, capturing and keeping the attention is hard these days — something made harder by lack of resources, especially now during the pandemic as organizations tighten budgets.
Said one: “An ongoing, and now amplified, challenge is to produce quality content that is relevant to our audience with next to no budget.”
Added another: “There is a need for increased and varied communication in a time when financial situations would suggest cutting expenses — but communication is disproportionately important right now.”
No monolithic way
Then there is the growing racial and ethnic diversity of the North American Anabaptist-Mennonite world.
“With Mennonites worshiping in so many languages today, we need to think more about translating materials. We need to do a better job creating connections with different racial and ethnic groups,” said one.
But diversity also includes different ways of being an Anabaptist-Mennonite Christian — things like how to interpret the Bible, engage the world and think about justice issues such as LGBTQ inclusion, Black Lives Matter, climate change, poverty and more.
There is no one monolithic way to be an Anabaptist-Mennonite today, in other words. Maybe there never was. Anabaptist World needs to recognize, explore and celebrate this diversity.
A big question facing all organizations is how to engage younger people. One person’s advice was simple: “Ask them. I ask my daughters all the time to suggest pieces that I should read or listen to or watch. I ask them to describe their media diet and how it is changing.”
Whatever is done to engage or address younger people, it’s important to be open and honest. As one person said: “The threshold for fake by young people is zero. Messaging needs to be real and honest.”
Other factors identified by the communicators include falling attendance at services and declining denominational loyalty. For many today, being Mennonite is not about membership or even attending a Mennonite church. What’s more important are the values and ideals it represents.
While that is a challenge, it’s also an opportunity. As one person put it: “As Anabaptist communicators we have a chance to explore and model a third way. But I don’t think this third way is going to be based on traditional ways of knowing and being and doing as Mennonites-Anabaptists.
“I think we’re going to need to reimagine what our identity, behavior, language and communication patterns will look like and redefine ‘Anabaptist.’ We’ll need courage and creativity to take risks.”
And, whatever is done needs to happen digitally since that’s how many people today get their information. In the U.S., 43 percent of American adults say they get their news through Facebook — often from a friend posting a link to a story. As for how they access information online, it is increasingly though mobile devices. Half of visits to websites today come from phones and tablets.
Continuity and change
Although the world of communications is changing, one thing that won’t change for Anabaptist World is the importance of sharing solid and trustworthy information. And it will still share stories about people who are engaging the world as people of faith.
As one person said: “Telling stories disarms people and opens us up to the world of the ‘other.’ Stories can be effectively told in words, photos, videos, tweets, poetry and artwork. Focusing on the storytelling will take us far.” That is the goal of Anabaptist World.
So farewell, Mennonite World Review! And thanks, The Mennonite! Those two publications, and all who worked for them, served well. And welcome, Anabaptist World, as it continues the legacy of Anabaptist journalism by sharing the story of God’s people in the U.S., Canada and around the world.
John Longhurst is president of the board of Mennonite World Review Inc.