Reviewing The Banner

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Two of the mainstay publications in our home while I was growing up were the daily newspaper and The Banner. One kept us up-to-date on events of neighbourhood and nation; the other helped us place those events into a larger context in a world that belonged to God.

I'm still a loyal follower of that daily newspaper (I even work there now), and I remain an avid reader of The Banner.

Like my newspaper, The Banner has become more than a print publication; it also is a presence online at thebanner.org and on Facebook and Twitter – multiple platforms that, among other advantages, make The Banner more accessible to real-time conversation among a wide range of world readers about matters of faith, culture and theology.

But two articles published last year led some to wonder whether The Banner had changed its message along with its medium. Did publishing a piece about theology and evolution diverge from The Banner’s mandate to “stimulate critical thinking about issues related to the Christian faith and the culture of which we are a part”? Did an article about singles and sexuality address a tough issue many are grappling with, or did it imply our view of scripture is wrong?

Weighty questions, and the topic of much debate online and in print, at dinner tables and at consistory tables. People expect much from their denominational magazine – they want it to offer comfort and challenge, to build the church and deconstruct societal norms, to be a voice for those who are assured of their salvation and for those who doubt. Did it stumble in its practice and mandate?

Synod in 2014 accepted an apology and regrets from editor Rev. Robert De Moor at the way the pieces were presented. Synod lamented the articles, saying they had caused harm and confusion, and called for a review of The Banner’s mandate.

A mandate review committee led by Rev. Kenneth Baker completed its work early this year and its recommendations (endorsed by the board of trustees) will be deliberated by delegates at Synod 2015.

They include an affirmation that the 1998 mandate is “fundamentally sufficient,” that the issues that arose were not the result of faulty policy but in how that policy was interpreted and implemented.

The recommendations that emerged after much discussion by the review committee ask Synod 2015 to bring more clarity to the mandate to help an editor discern how best the publication can build on our Reformed identity while continuing to connect with our society.

It asks that The Banner not just stimulate critical thinking about Christian faith but that it do so “in a way that encourages biblical thinking about these issues, in line with our confessional heritage.”

The publication, it goes on to say, should also equip us to make sense of the daily barrage of information and influences by “(offering) tools … to seek, learn, worship and serve as Reformed Christians in contemporary society.”

The committee also offered some observations it hopes synod would note: that regular consultation take place between the editor and Executive Director of the CRCNA – any hot-button issues can then be flagged for further discussion. It also suggests different formatting styles within the magazine help readers distinguish between official CRC agency reports and submitted columns and features and editorials.

Following those recommendations and suggestions will help The Banner – within a clearer framework – adapt to changes taking place in the church and in the world. Because we all communicate differently now, the committee notes. The Banner is still the paper-and-ink version that arrives in church mailboxes each month and it is the zeros-and-ones that give it a daily, interactive online presence, a presence that is likely at times to have a different structure and tone and function as it seeks to inform and grow the kingdom. The review committee asks that those interviewing for the position of new editor be a citizen of both the print and online worlds.

Lastly, synod will be asked to endorse and approve Rev. Leonard Vander Zee as interim editor of The Banner as Rev. De Moor is retiring after 11 years as editor to take up a full-time pastor position (which had been half-time while he was Banner editor) at West End CRC in Edmonton.

From 2006 until his retirement in 2011, Rev. Vander Zee shaped the denomination’s publication arm as head of Faith Alive Christian Resources, which produces our denomination’s curriculum and study materials for children and adults. His 44 years in ministry also include serving five CRC congregations as pastor. He is also the author of several books and articles.

Synod 2015 will be asked to set up a search team for a permanent editor, whose name would be put forward by the following year’s synodical gathering.

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The problem, it seems to me, isn't The Banner's mandate. It indeed should “stimulate critical thinking about issues related to the Christian faith and the culture of which we are a part.”

The problem arises when The Banner lives up to its mandate and actually publishes articles deemed to be controversial and designed to lead pew-sitting CRC folks to do some serious thinking. Those types are articles are the exception; not the norm.

As an avid and long-time Banner reader, I have grown accustomed to the USA Today style: church snippets and pictures of winning sports teams at local Christian schools. The Banner by its very design and content treats its readers as theological and ecclesiastical neophytes. The very fact that the editorial staff consistently needs to define what a synod or a classis are, reinforces that notion. I can't imagine any sports magazine worth its salt painstakingly explaining what a touchdown is, or a quarterback, hat trick or hole in one.

The Banner is mandated to stimulate critical thinking. Give us something to chew on. Challenge our long-held beliefs. But also give us some very basic information about our denomination. I, and probably thousands of others, bemoan the fact that our denominational publication no longer publishes information on ministers in transition from one church to another.

The blame for the apparent outrage over the publication of those two notorious articles falls squarely on the minds of ordinary Christian Reformed folk who have been spoon-fed light articles of church news for so long that they can't recognize a good potential debate when they see one. We can't handle controversy. We don't know what critical thinking really is.

We don't need a denominational publication to give us warm fuzzies about the state of our church. We need to be challenged to become more culturally relevant as a denomination. We need to look at the tension within the denomination between piety and Kuyperianism, the theology of our church plants, how we engage in mission, the demise (or is it a celebration?) of the second service.

I don't envy the new Banner editor. While he or she will be mandated to 'stimulate critical thinking about issues related to the Christian faith', the truth of the matter is that we who sit in the pew aren't prepared to hear it or to engage in it. The new editor will need to develop thick skin -- even thicker than Bob DeMoor's -- who will need to be backed by a strong board and a stronger synod.

The Banner is the only place where grassroots Reformed people (I hate that term) can wrestle with pertinent issues of the day as they relate to the church and our own spiritual journeys. Our pastors and elders have the annual gathering of synod where they can engage in that kind of discussion. We have and need The Banner.

We will hopefully experience a transition in the kinds of articles that will appear in future Banners. Here's the point: The Banner's editorial staff needs to expect more from its readers. They need to trust that CR folks can engage in a meaningful and thoughtful discussion on matters of faith. The Banner needs to push and prod and lead the CR constituency down a path of critical thinking.

We, the audience, need to open our minds and hearts as we hear our own preconceived notions challenged in our beloved denominational publication. After all, The Banner is mandated to engage us in that kind of critical thinking.