The Banner is the official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, but it is neither the CRC’s megaphone nor its independent critic; rather, it’s a semi-independent mirror and forum for the denomination with all their inherent accompanying tensions. In a 2018 editorial, I described The Banner’s mission as a mirror that reflects our collective stories, achievements and ministries, and as a civil forum for the diverse perspectives within the CRC. In this “Behind The Banner” post, I want to elaborate further The Banner’s overall mission.
Characterizing The Banner’s journalistic ministry as a mirror and a forum is not a new idea. As I understand it, this is a faithful rendering of Synod’s mandate and various guidelines over the decades. For the sake of transparency, we have published our guiding documents on our website: the Synodical Mandate with guidelines for accountability, Synod’s Editorial Guidelines for an every-household Banner, and our own internal Vision and Core Values that currently summarizes and complements Synod’s mandate and guidelines. In this Part One of a three-part series, I will point out some highlights from the Synodical Mandate. In Part Two, I will look at the Editorial Guidelines, and lastly in Part Three, our vision and values.
When the Christian Reformed Church bought over The Banner magazine back in 1914, it became its owner and ultimate “boss.” You also can read a brief recap of our history online. Therefore, we get our marching orders from the CRC’s Synod. And those marching orders are summarized in our four-fold mandate:
(1) inform readers about what is happening in the CRC as well as the church at large,
(2) provide articles that edify and encourage Christian living,
(3) stimulate critical thinking about issues related to the Christian faith and the culture of which we are a part in a way that encourages biblical thinking about these issues, in line with our confessional heritage; and
(4) offer tools to help readers find fresh awareness to seek, learn, worship, and serve as Reformed Christians in contemporary society.
This is our mission, why we exist, what we do day-in and day-out. Everything else that follows either elaborates, explains, supplements, or nuances this mandate.
I want to highlight the third point in the mandate—stimulate critical thinking. This point has caused some consternation among CRC folks evidenced by the fact that it was slightly revised and nuanced by Synod in 2015 after some controversies. Although working within biblical and confessional frameworks, it is still our job to stimulate critical thinking on issues the churches are currently grappling with. That means we can’t avoid controversial topics. We could try to be wise and prudent in how we deal with those topics, and within certain boundaries, but we cannot simply be just a “feel-good” magazine all the time. And I personally don’t see how we can stimulate critical thinking on controversial issues without at least pushing some readers’ comfort zones.
Synod seems to recognize this as well. In fleshing out the mandate, Synod lists out guidelines for both The Banner’s accountability and its editorial freedom. Synod gave us editorial freedom to publish articles that “represent the various views held within the church” and “permit people of the church to voice their views and reactions even though some of these views may be unacceptable to others in the church [emphasis mine].”
Of course, it is not an anything-goes forum. Other guidelines add layers and boundaries to the forum. It is a tight balancing act. Again, Synod recognizes this. In the same document, it acknowledges that the editor in chief’s accountability is realized in “a number of diverse, sometimes overlapping, and at times conflicting responsibilities to various groups and structures within the denomination [emphasis mine].” I hope readers understand that the Banner’s role is not as straight-forward, cut-and-dried as some might think.
By talking about editorial freedom, Synod is also establishing the Banner as distinct from being a denominational mouthpiece. Yes, we do have a section in the Banner called “Our Shared Ministry” that highlights the work of denominational agencies edited by Kristen deRoo VanderBerg, director of CRCNA Communications and Marketing. A future post will explain that further. But The Banner overall is not a megaphone for the denominational leadership. It has a semi-independent relationship. Although I am accountable to the CRCNA’s denominational leadership in some matters (as spelled out in the Synodical mandate document), I do not ultimately answer to them but to Synod. This is why Synod has to directly approve my appointment as editor in chief. An imperfect analogy might be the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which is largely government funded, with a specific mandate, and yet maintains journalistic freedom and integrity.
In 2005, Synod created a major change to how The Banner was distributed and this, in turn, initiated additional editorial guidelines for The Banner. We will look at that in Part Two.