When Anabaptist winds blow in from who knows where

Last weekend, at the annual gathering of Mennonite Church Manitoba, I was honoured to have coffee with the British speaker, Stuart Murray Williams. Stuart is author of one of our current bestsellers, The Naked Anabaptist, and he has authored or co-authored three other titles that we have published. The latest, released this past fall, is The Power of All: Building a Multivoiced Church (coauthored with his wife Sian).


Stuart Murray Williams and Byron Rempel-Burkholder; photograph by
Evelyn Petkau, for Canadian Mennonite

Naked Anabaptist cover.inddWe were meeting in Winkler, a town where “Mennonite” still is associated with a mix of Anabaptist faith and a particular German-Russian ethnic culture brought by Mennonite immigrants in the last century and a half.

But here’s the thing that fascinated me as we talked: Stuart was invited by Mennonites in Canada to help rejuvenate them in their own sense of identity and mission. Isn’t it strange that a Baptist from the United Kingdom is given such a role? And this wasn’t the first time: Stuart has done this repeatedly in other Mennonite heartlands in North America.

On the weekend, Stuart preached about the need for pioneers like the apostle Peter who found himself opening the church doors to Gentile believers.  He spoke of the need for denominations—including Mennonites—to change or die.

Stuart’s books, along with his global speaking tours and his church planting work in the United Kingdom, all focus on what it means to be the church in a world where Christianity and the church no longer have a dominant influence in society.  Canada, and increasingly the US, seems to be following the UK toward a day when secularism dominates in the public square, and the church has lost members and influence.

Some of us who were raised in the Mennonite church find it gratifying that other Christians are discovering and promoting the Anabaptist theology that our congregations have stewarded for five centuries.  But some find it disconcerting that these same people are then looked to as resources for our own renewal. Why can’t cradle Mennonites be the source of that renewal?

Well, we can, and we are. We have good seminary programs and our ranks include influential leaders and thinkers. Our publishing activities are robust for our relatively small size. Yet let’s confess that no one has a corner on any movement of the Spirit. Today, as in the 16th century, an Anabaptist understanding of the church and Christian discipleship is catching hold among a whole variety of people. This is due, in part, to Mennonite academics like John Howard Yoder and social activists like Vincent Harding who have shared their gifts with the world.

Stuart is one of the leaders in the growing Anabaptist Network in Britain. The network has roots in the teaching and presence of North American Mennonites in Britain in the last few decades (Alan and Eleanor Kreider and others)—but the network has taken a life of its own. Today it is composed of people—many of them influential scholars and church leaders—who have been smitten by an Anabaptist understanding of faith, even though they remain in their own denominations.

A number of these folks have spearheaded the After Christendom series of books that we at Herald Press are currently releasing for the North American audience.  So far, we’ve published Worship and Mission After Christendom by Alan and Eleanor Kreider, and Reading the Bible After Christendom by Lloyd Pietersen.

These books join a cluster of Herald Press titles that come from people who love Anabaptism and yet are grounded in other traditions. Keep an eye, for example, on our Challenge to the Church series of John Howard Yoder writings compiled by three editors, two of whom are Christian Reformed.

I find it refreshing when new perspectives and new energy come from groups that aren’t so encrusted with the religious traditions that we’ve inherited—precious and instructive as they are. Sometimes the new winds blow in from Britain. They often come from the newer churches of the global South, in the Mennonite World Conference.  They also waft in regularly from North American Christians looking for theological alternatives, for authentic New Testament faith, and even a new denominational “tribe” to belong to.  We are only enriched when we welcome them with open arms.

Learn more from excerpts from The Naked Anabaptist.

—Byron Rempel-Burkholder, managing book editor


Some Lessons from the Tools of Change Conference 2013: Connect/Explore/Create

This was my second time at the Tools of Change conference in New York City, hosted by O’Reilly Publishing, which fancies itself as the cutting edge of the digital publishing revolution. This conference is attended and resourced by publishers, programmers, start-ups, serial entrepreneurs, writers and web developers, among others. Some of the plenary sessions and some of the workshops I attended included the following titles:

  • Book Sprints—Zero to Books in five days
  • Upfront XHTML for workflow, not just the web
  • The challenge of distributing digital content to multiple channels
  • UX Design—user centric—for the web
  • The Direct to Consumer cycle: From Publisher and Reader and back
  • Present shock
  • Lean Publishing: The future of Publishing, for Authors and Publishers
  • Booksellers and Change
  • Information wants to be shared

The emphasis was still technology, but I also learned a lot about processes and workflow, including the fact that the best content can be created when individuals collaborate and are open about sharing their work and passions. I also recognize that as the information age becomes more sophisticated, discoverability, or the ability to be heard among a rising clamor of voices, becomes harder and requires greater sophistication to target particular groups and communities.

As I experienced last year, all media are becoming internet-centric, meaning that the primary way of creating, discovering, consuming and developing media (including feedback to creators) in the future will be on the internet. Video, visual and print are all merging in new technologies and formats, some of which will survive (“get traction”) and some of which won’t. Web pages will become book pages, will embed video and be interactive. All forms of media are blending.

Some key concepts that stood out to me over the course of three days:

  1. Booksprints. I wrote about this in my blog post last week. I feel that we at MennoMedia have much to gain from the concept of concentrated collaboration.
  2. Publish early, publish often: listen to what your readers say. More and more content creators, authors especially, are using this concept to allow readers to read their work in segments, even as they create it, allowing for instant feedback. Charles Dickens actually wrote and published this way a century and a half ago: his major novels were serialized first in periodicals. He wrote them as they were being read and even changed his plot based on reader feedback. (Downton Abbey fans take heart: imagine Matthew didn’t really die…) This process is called “iterating” and is central to “Lean Publishing” or also what they call “Real-time Publishing.”
  3. We are living in an “always on” age. We used to be told to have a dictionary at arm’s length when reading. Now the assumption is that search engines come embedded in readers and have links embedded in the content.
  4. It has to be dead simple. In the future, consumers will want to access their content on any device, at any time and place. They don’t want to have dedicated devices with dedicated uses (such as a Kindle or Nook) but want a single device (Smart Phone or Tablet) and want to own or access their content whenever, wherever. They also want to be able to purchase it easily, quickly and seamlessly. This also ties together with the concept that “access rather than ownership is the new paradigm in publishing.” So, for example, I would rather pay to stream movies via Netflix, than sort through shelves full of DVDs.
  5. “Walled Gardens” are what they call proprietary devices like the Kindle or Nook, where you are limited to particular formats of you content. The public does NOT like these.
  6. Crowd-sourcing to create content—this is not just a “wave of the future.” Doris Janzen Longacre’s wildly successful More with Less Cookbook was actually created this way 35+ years ago when she solicited and received hundreds of recipe ideas for the book.
  7. Design is visual rhetoric: we say as much through how we design and present content digitally, as what it is we are saying.

A couple more interesting facts I heard:

  1. Thirty percent of all book revenue last year came through Amazon.
  2. eBook revenues surpassed hardcover revenues last year.
  3. Print book sales seemed to have stabilized. Sales at independent bookstores were actually up (may have been a result of Borders’ demise.)
  4. Reviews read on social media sites where the users have a non-commercial purpose (such as Goodreads) are trusted above the reviews on commercial sites, such as Amazon, where there are too many “fake” reviews.

And finally, a quote from Stuart Brand, who wrote Information Wants to be Shared:

“On the one hand, information is expensive because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting each other.”

The challenge of the digital age is a matter of figuring out how to create and curate high quality content for a public that has access to more and more, with the expectation of minimal or free costs.

DSCN0625      ~Russ Eanes


Connecting with your audience

Publishing is no longer just about putting out a great product. It’s about connecting with your audience.

In Michael Hyatt’s bestselling book, Platform, he writes that good products (such as books) no longer stand on their own because:

  1. Competition has never been greater.
  2. People are more distracted than ever.

So how do writers connect with readers today? Last week in New York City I attended the Tools of Change for Publishing Conference, an annual gathering of innovators and thinkers to discuss the future of publishing.

One of the panels I attended offered fascinating insights about some of the new ways that writers connect with readers. These suggestions came from panelists including Jacob Lewis (Figment), Amanda Barbara (Pubslush), Scott James (Red Hat Project), Mark Jeffrey (Glossi), and Allen Lau (Wattpad). Make sure to check out the creative things their companies are doing in the publishing world.

But first, some of their ideas:

  1. Curate and maintain relationships. This is the first and foremost way to connect with your audience and build your platform. Yes, it’s a way to do marketing but it’s also a way to build relationships and meet people. This connecting doesn’t have to be about your book. It can be connecting with people about life and everyday events. Make sure, though, that you are being authentic during all this connecting.
  2. Be voracious about connecting with readers via social media and make sure to respond to readers’ comments to keep communication a two-way street.
  3. Use pictures to connect with readers. Panelists encouraged authors to put out not just pictures of themselves, but pictures of a book’s cover, pictures of books arriving, and pictures of book signings.
  4. Give readers updates along the way. For example, “I’m in the middle of writing chapter five right now.” Giving regular updates ensures that readers are connected with each stage of the process.
  5. Continually create content beyond your book that appeals to your audience. If an audience is buying your book because they like your wit and charm, keep them engaged with that wit and charm on your blog, through social media, and in other ways.
  6. Seek out reviews. Sure, you can give away 100 copies of your book to friends and family and get them to write positive reviews. But does that really further your cause? Push yourself to get reviews from people you don’t know—and people who may not say nice things about your book. This will do more for your book than seeking out 100 positive reviews. One panelist said, “You haven’t really gotten your book out there until you get a negative review. Managing your emotional state through that can be really hard.” The panelists agreed that negative reviews can lead to better writing in the future.

And finally, a word about taking things to the extreme and listening too much to the audience: Always remember that you are the writer. The crowd or the audience is not the writer. Yes, readers will give you feedback, but the choices about which direction to go in a manuscript are yours to make as the author. It’s important to write for your audience, but not to your audience. Otherwise your writing comes off as not authentic.

Amy Gingerich
Editorial Director

Amy Gingerich