This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Mediaculture: Viral in the land?

Mennonites are a tiny percentage of the U.S. population and don’t usually get much attention from the wider media.

In November, however, a couple of stories brought Mennonites to the attention of at least some secular media.

In the December issue, Anna Groff writes about the explosion in social media and beyond of interest in the story of Chester Wenger, a retired Mennonite pastor and missionary in Lancaster, Pa.

Groff describes the piece as going viral, which refers to a post getting massive attention.

Elise Moreau, a trends expert, writes that “countless articles and books have been written claiming to teach anyone how to create viral content that takes on a life of its own after it’s sent out into the online world.”

But really, “nobody knows the secret formula.”

In this case, we’re left to guess what it is about this particular piece that drew so much attention.

Let me take a few stabs at guessing.

First, it’s a story. Stories draw people more than arguments or diatribes. Granted, Chester Wenger includes lots of his personal opinion in the piece and makes an argument. But much of the piece is a narrative of his life and what led him to make the decision he did, which is itself an act, a part of a story.

Second, it’s unusual, which is the definition of news. It goes against people’s expectation to have a 96-year-old speak out for same-sex marriage.

Third, it’s personal. It’s first about a family and the love shared by its members, particularly that of a father and a son.

But in the end it’s guesswork. You can have those elements in a dozen or a hundred other posts that don’t get nearly that much attention.

Another item that got the attention of the secular media in November was the work of Mennonite Disaster Ser­vice (MDS). On Nov. 6, the New York Times published an article by Helene Stapinski called “After Catastrophes, Mennonite Disaster Service Helps to Rebuild.”

The article tells the story of Karen Dougherty, whose home in Broad Channel, N.Y., was damaged two years ago by Hurricane Sandy.

To survive, she climbed into her attic crawl space. Now, two years later, MDS is finishing work on her house, making it livable again.

“People came and said they would help, took my money and then never came back,” Dougherty says in the article. “But these people, they didn’t ask for anything. These are strangers. And they’re like lifesavers. I want to go home with them.”

Mennonites have long been labeled “the quiet in the land”—and criticized for it, usually by ourselves. We want to make our faith known.

Here are two examples of that happening, to some degree. What are the elements of that witness?

One, again, is story. These two articles revolve around the actions of Mennonites. In one case, a man whose life exemplifies service takes an action that goes against church authorities and costs him something.

In the other, a group simply does what it’s been doing for many decades, offering loving, caring service to people in need. The unique element is that, while many other groups show up initially after a disaster, few stick around for years to make sure people are back on their feet. MDS does that.

Perhaps we can learn from these two examples of getting attention from the wider media something about our witness to Christ’s work among us.

Gordon Houser is associate editor of The Mennonite. This is from the December issue of The Mennonite.

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