John Schmalzbauer: Editors more important than bishops

Magazines play a key role in the ecology of faith in the US. For now.

“Disciples don’t have bishops. They have editors.” An old saying in the Restorationist movement, this ecclesiological aphorism is true for more than just low-church Protestants. In “Helping Theology Matter,” the late William Placher described Protestant magazines as a key resource in the theological development of clergy and lay leaders. Though editors have yet to replace bishops in every denomination, they play a vital role in the ecology of faith.

For starters, it is impossible to imagine the world of mainline Protestantism without "The Christian Century." As Elesha Coffman documents in “Constituting the Protestant Mainline,” the magazine united an influential swath of moderate-to-liberal Protestants around a common identity. Likewise, in "Building a Protestant Left," Mark Hulsether tells how Christianity and Crisis gave voice to everyone from Christian realists to feminist theologians. For neo-conservative Catholics and Protestants, "First Things" has played an equally important role.

On the conservative side of the Protestant house, "Christianity Today" functioned as a midwife in the birth of the “new evangelicalism,” going on to become the most widely read publication among American pastors. More recently, "Books & Culture" has become the house organ for a new generation of evangelical scholars, serving as an antidote for what Mark Noll famously called “the scandal of the evangelical mind.”

Similar tales have been told about "Commonweal’s" influence on an earlier generation of Catholic intellectuals. As the American voice of liberal Catholicism, Commonweal nurtured a highly visible network of Catholic public intellectuals, including the journalists Peter Steinfels and E.J. Dionne, Jr.

I call attention to religious press in the same way that environmentalists call attention to clean air and water. Though Christian publishing remains a renewable resource, it must never be taken for granted.

As Christian periodicals struggle to adapt to the digital age, there is a possibility they will not survive. In 2008 the United States witnessed the death of 613 periodicals. With the folding of "Gourmet" and other venerable publications, 2009 was just as bad. Though the republic will probably survive the demise of "Travel & Leisure Golf," I’m not sure North America’s religious ecology could survive the demise of religious publishing.

Back in 1993, progressive Christians mourned the end of "Christianity and Crisis." Since then, "The Other Side" and "Zion’s Herald" have ceased publication. Writing their obituary in “The rise and fall of Protestant magazines,” John Dart predicted a much rosier picture for the Christian Century, noting an increase in circulation since 2001 to 36,000 subscribers. According to Duke’s Pulpit & Pew survey, it remains the most popular periodical among mainline Protestant clergy.

Less certain is the fate of the fifteen year-old "Books & Culture." Never a profitable publication for parent company Christianity Today, its precarious future has been highlighted by increasingly urgent appeals for funds. According to "B&C’s" marketing data, its 12,000 subscribers purchase an average of 25 books a year and read nearly 15 hours per week. Such individuals constitute an intellectual leaven within the larger loaf of American evangelicalism. At a time when a “sullen, angry populism” is making a comeback among some evangelicals, it remains a precious cultural resource.

To be sure, many religious magazines have successfully made the transition to the religious blogosphere. From "CC Blogs" to "dotCommonweal" to First Thoughts, theological discourse has migrated into cyberspace. Yet without the print and paper versions of their sponsoring publications, it is unlikely such ventures would survive.

Until American Christians find an ecclesiology and a business model for the digital age, they risk becoming a people without editors or bishops.

John Schmalzbauer is a sociologist of religion teaching at Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri.