This September, the Herald solicited the opinions of a cross-section of its readers about how well the magazine is doing in its mission for Canadian Mennonite Brethren.
We carried a questionnaire that asked readers to respond to 28 questions and, if they wished, to give additional comments. Many did. The Herald now sends out some 16,000 copies; we got 245 responses. That response rate is low, but not surprising given that readers had to initiate the response. Nonetheless, the answers and comments do provide some helpful insights.
To set the scene: more female readers responded than men (54.6% to 45.4%) and the ages of the respondents was clearly skewed toward an older age group: nearly 60% were 56 years and older, 32.7% were 31–55 years old and 7.8% were under 30. In fact, 21.6% said they were 76 years and older. Not surprisingly, a large percentage of the respondents (46.3%) had been members of the church 40 years or longer. A lesser number (28.7%) said they had been members for 21–40 years, and 16.4% said they had been members 11–20 years. Only one respondent had been a member five years or less.
The respondents replied from almost all parts of Canada and followed roughly our church membership in those provinces, though B.C.’s responses were about 10% below their proportion of our membership.
The respondents are clearly readers: 48.5% said they read the magazine “cover to cover,” while another 46.9% said they picked out “items of interest” to read.
“Feature stories” got the highest readership, followed by “Letters to the Editor,” “People and Events,” “Intersection of Faith and Life” and the “Editorials.” Several other areas of the paper got somewhat less readership in this order: “Crosscurrents/reviews,” “Family News (births, weddings, obits),” and “Transitions.” Trailing these were what is known as “Homepage,” “Baptisms,” “Monthly inserts” and the “Pastoral” and “Classified” ads.
I can add that 85.5% of the respondents found the Herald “a valuable source of information” about Canadian MB churches and their ministries, but half or fewer found it to be a similar source for news about the wider Mennonite community or Canadian Christianity. Interestingly, a significant percentage (36%) were either unsure, disagreed, or strongly disagreed that their geographical area was “adequately represented in the Herald.”
Asked about controversial issues, similar numbers wanted “clear answers” as those who preferred “asking hard questions,” and the highest percentage thought both “were equally important.” Close to 64% of respondents said the Herald helped them think “critically about the culture” while the rest said they were unsure (21%) or disagreed. To a question about identity, 6% thought the Herald too Anabaptist, 4.7% thought it too evangelical, and 71.9% thought it a “good blend of Anabaptist and evangelical.” Another 17.4% were unsure.
One final area: 54.6% of the respondents either agreed or strongly agreed they wanted see more “local or congregational news,” while 46.9% said they wanted to “read more about Canadian conference ministries, initiatives, and news.”
It was clear from the responses that most readers see the Herald editors as doing good work. Despite the affirmations, survey respondents included many critical comments, as well as many suggestions.
The largest number of suggestions had to do with more writing that might address Christian living and speaking to current issues. Another large group wanted more testimonies, some asking specifically from missionaries. Another significant group wanted “outreach ideas.” In terms of bias, more encouraged the Herald to “write with an MB bias” than those who said they didn’t want the MB bias. Similarly, more said they wanted to see a stronger Anabaptist emphasis than those who said they wanted a stronger evangelical emphasis. It was clear the respondents wanted the Herald to reflect the church well, telling its church and denominational story with integrity and zeal.
A significant number lamented that the Herald dropped its baptism pictures. They were “a way to connect with other congregations across Canada and gave the magazine a personal touch,” wrote one. Several respondents encouraged the Herald to try to appeal to young people more. Not surprisingly, given their age, a significant number of respondents commented on the use of glossy paper, the expense of high quality paper, the difficulty of reading print on a tinted page, etc.
Criticism and affirmation
Some respondents were very critical. Here are samples: “The Herald is boring, irrelevant to anyone under 40. Too focused on touchy-feely spirituality,” wrote one. “I weary of the ‘hype’ around church planting and evangelization,” wrote another. “The editor of the Herald at times has questionable theological views,” said still another. Or another: “I find the Herald a bit parochial in its approach.”
But others responded very differently. “Editorials, articles, and letters to the editor provoke reflections that help shape my views,” one wrote. “Our Herald stays on our coffee table for the month and at the end of the year we collect the copies and pass them on to a college library of another denomination.” “The Herald keeps me connected. I am so grateful for the information on partner agencies and world news as it pertains to our Christian faith.” “Reading the Herald…made me feel…my belonging to our spiritual and theological family.”
“I enjoyed the debate on creation and evolution.” “I came from a Baptist background and found the magazine very instructive.” “Keep the editor – she grapples with relevant and fresh ideas, has her finger on the pulse of culture and Christianity and maintains focus on Jesus.” “I like the way the MB Herald has stretched my theological thinking and made me more a person of the book…and not only a person of the book, but totally infused with Christ, which is what it’s all about.”
The survey, while limited by the way it was conducted, clearly indicates the importance the Herald plays for Mennonite Brethren in Canada. There is nothing like it to keep us connected to our common life as a community of believers.
–Harold Jantz, a member of River East MB Church in Winnipeg, is a former editor of the MB Herald and founder of ChristianWeek. He prepared a similar summary for our 2002 reader survey.