As new forms of electronic communication continue to raise doubts about the future of print, one Anabaptist-Mennonite periodical is defying the odds. Every two months, several trucks line up outside a warehouse in Clarkson, Ky., to distribute 270,000 copies of Beside the Still Waters to faithful readers throughout the U.S. and Canada and at least 30 other countries.
The 64-page booklet of daily devotionals started nearly 20 years ago as a vision of the Cedar Springs Amish Mennonite congregation in Leitchfield, Ky., to promote free Christian literature consistent with their conservative Anabaptist principles. To their surprise, interest in Beside the Still Waters soon expanded far beyond their expectations. Today, only about one-third of the 170,000 postal subscribers are members of plain groups; the rest — including more than 40,000 prison inmates — represent a broad range of diverse readers.
One reason for the success of Beside the Still Waters, according to editor Henry Yoder, is the simplicity of the format and writing style. Each one-page devotional begins with a Scripture reference and verse on a theme. Next is a 300-word reflection on the theme, followed by an inspirational aphorism or a line from a hymn, and a few additional biblical references for those who would like to read through the entire Bible in a year. The themes are simple — temptation, trust, hypocrisy, nonconformity, integrity — and usually combine a short story or illustration with a biblically based admonition.
The devotionals are written by volunteers who must be members in good standing of congregations who affirm the statements of belief listed in every issue. That includes general claims regarding biblical authority and salvation, some familiar Anabaptist convictions such as believers baptism, nonconformity and nonresistance, and several more specific strictures regarding the women’s head covering, divorce and remarriage, radio and TV, and an affirmation of men as the spiritual leaders of the home and church. The last point is reinforced by the expectation that all the articles in Beside the Still Waters must be written by men. Women occasionally author the poems that sometimes appear on the back pages.
Beside the Still Waters reflects a challenging balance between a clearly defined nonconformist identity at the heart of the Amish Mennonite congregations who edit the journal — known as the Ambassador group — and a desire to reach out to the world in missions. The editors acknowledge that “many of our readers will disagree with some points of this statement of belief.” But they follow that with an encouragement “to enjoy the devotionals even if you don’t agree with all of the list.” The focus of the devotions rarely turns to controversial issues — the head covering, for example, or nonresistance. Yet, the deeper themes of nonconformity, daily discipleship, an emphasis on the teachings of Jesus and a view of the church as a true community are unmistakable.
All costs to produce Beside the Still Waters are covered by donations. Still Waters Ministries, the board that oversees the work of the devotional, also distributes “pocket sermons,” a cappella choral CDs, sermon CDs and several books in Russian and Spanish.
The group has no email or website, but two-year subscriptions are available at no cost by contacting: Still Waters Ministries at 285 Antioch Road, Clarkson, KY 42726 or 270-242-3529.
John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College and director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism.