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Reading popular novels, attending moving picture shows, and owning radio and television sets have been either discouraged or forbidden by some Mennonite conferences in North America during the 20th century. In 1918, the Franconia Conference (MC) Ordinances stated that church members were not allowed to attend picture shows (Hostetler, 1987). During the 1930s, many Mennonite leaders warned against the dangers of radio. A tract printed in Virginia in the late 1930s concluded that radio "wastes time and hinders religious study and meditation. . ." ("The Radio Problem"). The writer argued that radio brought into the home messages that Christians could otherwise avoid; prize fights, sporting events, music from movies, dances and theater. Radio mixed business and religion on the Lord's Day for "worldly gain," cultivating irreverence for sacred things.

Later similar arguments were made against television. In 1949, the Lancaster Conference (MC) reiterated its rejection of television, amending the conference position to state that "Brethren or sisters who are responsible for the sale and or use of television forfeit their membership" (Bishop Board Minutes, Sept. 13-15, 1949). Not until the late 1960s was the Lancaster Conference prohibition dropped from their discipline. Old Order Mennonite groups today continue the prohibition.

In the midst of these warnings, tract writers often recognized that some good might come from the mass media. While church leaders were cautious, a number of individuals with strong vision demonstrated how the media might be used for religious purposes (see Broadcasting).

One such visionary was Eugene Graber of Kalona, Iowa. He dreamed of putting Christian reading materials in public places; waiting rooms, hotel lobbies, airports, and laundromats. With assistance from Urie Bender, then Secretary for Literature at Mennonite (MC) Board of Missions (MBM), he began to develop district-based, bookrack evangelism programs. In 1965, MBM transferred oversight of the work, called "Life Line Books," to the media Division. The program was renamed "Choice Books" in 1973, and its mandate expanded to include both the distribution and the publication of "wholesome and inspirational reading material to the general reading public," to assist persons in developing a better understanding of the gospel (Pellman, 1979). By 1988, Choice Books had sold its 10 millionth book through 18 locally owned and operated district organizations, MBM provided centralized ordering and distribution. Many of the local organizations were inter-Mennonite, i.e., involve more than one Mennonite denomination.


Mennonite perceptions of filmmaking early in the century were shaped by the worldly and decadent images of Hollywood. Religious leaders across many denominations of the day deplored the sex and violence of early motion pictures. Several Mennonite pioneers, however, imagined a different kind of motion picture. William Zehr, a General Conference Mennonite, developed his filmmaking skills as the Director of Audio Visual Services for a school district, and produced documentary films for the United States Government Housing Authority in the mid-1940s in Oregon. In 1946, he organized Better Films Library and Productions to provide evangelistic films and filmstrips, slides, and records to congregations. Later he worked with Evangel Films to produce several dramatic films with evangelistic messages. in 1953, he was appointed to a Film Committee of the General Conference Mennonite Church to help them produce films about their mission activities among the Northern Cheyenne. In the late 1950s, films on Japanese missions were jointly sponsored by Mennonite Brethren, Mennonite Church (MC), and General Conference Mennonites. The film library was turned over to the General Conference Mennonite Church in 1962 when Zehr's health failed, after he had completed nearly 30 films (Zehr, 1971). Zehr, by his conviction and his filmmaking, demonstrated the value of both documentary and dramatic audiovisual aids for teaching and inspiration in the congregational setting.

Two other pioneers demonstrated the ability of film to communicate compelling stories and to record events as they unfolded. Working for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), both Norman Wingert and Peter Dyck carried eight-millimeter film cameras with them on their travels to the Mennonite colonies in South America and to Europe during World War II. They did so out of personal interest, but their footage triggered the imaginations of missions administrators, ushering in two decades of institutional filmmaking during the 1960s and 1970s. Peter Dyck was an eloquent advocate for the power of storytelling. In 1968, MCC hired Burton Buller to begin an audiovisual department. Under his guidance, MCC became a leader among Mennonite institutions in the production of documentary films that interpreted MCC program activities around the world. The Mennonite Church (MC) and the General Conference Mission Boards sometimes joined MCC to produce films overseas. During these years, MBM retained a three-person team, headed by Harold Weaver, to produce missions films. Most of these films were produced for distribution in congregations and were documentary in style. Other films produced at this time captured special events. For example, Robert Hostetter produced Beyond this land, a film about the sesquicentennial celebration of the coming of the Amish to Ontario (1972). Several films recorded the sessions of Mennonite World Conference in the 1970s and 1980s. Later Burton Buller and John Ruth teamed to produce two award winning documentaries; one on the Amish, The Amish: a people of preservation, and another on the Hutterites, To care and not to care. Both of these films have received wide distribution in educational settings and on public television.

Mennonites, however, have produced fewer dramatic films for the general public. In 1973, I. Merle and Phyllis Good broke new ground with the production of a dramatic film for theatrical distribution. Hazel's people attempted to dramatize and interpret how Mennonites experience life and faith for audiences beyond Mennonite circles.

The production of dramatic films continued in the early 1980s when Sisters and Brothers, Inc. (SBI) was formed by a group of Mennonite filmmakers for the purpose of producing and distributing films and videos that examined the world through the eyes of faith from an Anabaptist perspective. Their first major project, The Weight, was the story of a young man turning 18 in the shadow of the Vietnam draft. The film dramatizes his struggle with questions of conscience and faith. SBI has also produced, among others, several children's films, a series of videos by J. C. Wenger on Anabaptist faith, and a full-length feature film, The Radicals, on the life of Michael Sattler for theatrical distribution. For a time after 1986, SBI operated a film and video library in Goshen, Indiana on behalf of the Mennonite Church, for the distribution of quality Christian film and video materials to congregations.


While Old Order Mennonite and Amish groups held to prohibitions against the ownership of radio and television sets, 87 percent of the members of other Mennonite groups owned at least one television set by 1972 (Kauffman/Harder, 1975). By 1987, over 93 percent of the Mennonite Church (MC) members owned at least one set (Elliott, 1987). Nevertheless, Mennonites had an ongoing concern about the impact on Anabaptist faith and values of mass mediated messages. In the 1970s Mennonite agencies formed several organized responses.

High levels of violence and sexual activity on American commercial television were one catalyst of concern. Another was concern about the potential erosion of Anabaptist theology in the face of exposure to religious ministries, first through radio and later television. Dubbed "the electronic church," religious television ministries flowered in the 1970s and 1980s, first with the introduction of UHF television channels, and later with the growth and diffusion of cable television systems. Both developments provided outlets for a growing number of television evangelists who purchased broadcast time or provided cable programming at a time when the appetite for programming expanded.

One response to concerns about erosion of values was to train leaders and promote media education across the church. Television Awareness Training (TAT), a program initially developed by the Church of the Brethren, United Methodists, and American Lutherans, consisted of workshops designed to help participants become aware of the values presented on television, to articulate their own values, and to become more critical and selective consumers of programming in their homes. TAT workshops and regular articles in denominational periodicals continued to be a part of media education efforts in the 1980s.

One tangible response to concerns about the electronic church came in 1980 when the Media Division (GCM) and Media Ministries (MC) participated in an Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Television Research, a broad-based coalition with representation ranging from the Old Time Gospel Hour (Jerry Falwell) and the Christian Broadcasting Network to the U.S. Catholic Conference and the Episcopal Church. The committee was formed to conduct research on who is reached, how many are reached, and how the electronic church affects local church participation. Among other things, the study concluded that the estimated audience for religious television is smaller than previously assumed (around 13.3 million compared to previous estimates ranging from 25 to 71 million). Furthermore, the electronic church reached highly religious people and served to confirm their points of view, rather than evangelizing the unchurched (Fore, 1984 and 1988; Umble, 1985). Heavy viewing of general television programming was seen as the greater threat to local church participation.

MBM Media Ministries responded to concerns about impact by becoming a member of the sponsoring group for Media and Values, a quarterly magazine designed as a resource for congregations in the areas of media awareness and education. Media and Values also maintains a center for speakers and resource materials.

Little research has been conducted to assess the actual impact of the media on Mennonite values and theology. Two studies completed in the late 1980s from contrasting theoretical and methodological orientations claim different findings. One argues that heavy viewing among Mennonites is associated with greater identification with the values of the cultural mainstream than with traditional Mennonite values (Umble, 1986). The other argues that Mennonite viewers are highly critical of television. They use viewing to test and reinforce their uniquely Mennonite conceptions of the world (Hague, 1988). Each perspective probably represents an aspect of the total picture. While research on effects remains inconclusive, a study of Mennonite Church (MC) members showed that Mennonites appear to consume television at levels comparable to members of the general population. Less than 13 percent were regular viewers of religious television programs. They tended to be moderate to light viewers, watching one to two hours daily. News programs were watched most regularly (Elliott, 1987).

Computers and Video Cassette Recorders

The 1980s and 1990s were hailed as the Information Age. Old boundaries separating the various media were blurred as broadcasting was supplemented with cable television services, providing not only entertainment but also informational and instructional services. Televisions, computers, and telephones were linked, creating new communications possibilities with specialized, rather than mass audiences. With the introduction of home video cassette recorders (VCRs), consumers had more control over what programs they watched and when they watched them at home.

Rather than rejecting these technologies, most Mennonite groups appear to have embraced them, but not without awareness of ethical concerns. Computers can be found in denominational headquarters as well as on the desk of the local pastor. They handle tasks ranging from sophisticated financial analysis to the maintenance of membership records to word processing. Church leaders grappled with questions about the proper role of computers: who has access to which data? What information is important or necessary? What is the appropriate level of investment in computer equipment at various levels of the denomination?

In 1985, the Council of Mennonite Computer Users (CMCU) was founded "to find ways to share information about computers among conferences, churches, and church agencies" (GH [Apr. 12, 19881). CMCU met twice yearly and represented more than 15 church institutions as well as individuals. CMCU promoted better communication in the church through "Mennonet" (a telecommunications system that connects church agencies, providing electronic mail and conferencing services) and "Mennonews" (an electronic service for the distribution of news releases among church organizations and church publications). CMCU had several advisory committees: a Congregational Software Committee, and Ethics Committee and a Data Dictionary Committee. All three committees provided information and guidelines on computer usage.

Like computers, VCRs presented Mennonites with new challenges and possibilities. Like computers, use of video crossed the traditional agency boundaries. While media ministries in the past focused on broadcast production in support of mission efforts, video had applications both within and beyond the church. Cable and broadcast distribution were options, as was distribution to congregations, Sunday school teachers, youth leaders, and to individual Mennonite homes. Video technology presented Mennonite publishers, educators, and public relations staffs with new ways of communication with their respective constituencies.

In 1984, the Inter-Mennonite Media Group (IMMG) hosted a two-day conference, Video-Com '84, to study the possibilities and problems presented by video in relation to the church. The consensus of the participants was that more education and advocacy in the area of new communications was needed. Media literacy was a priority both to cultivate Mennonite understanding of how new technologies can be used by local congregations and to educate Mennonites about the effects new technologies can have on societies in North America and around the world. (The Council on Church and Media [CCM] replaced IMMG in 1985. See Broadcasting.)

By the late 1980s, Mennonite agencies were producing a variety of video materials for a variety of purposes. And Mennonite congregations were using video in a variety of ways. For example, MBM Deaf Ministries initiated the production of a series of video tapes for deaf persons, involving deaf teachers demonstrating how they relate the teachings of Jesus to the every-day realities of deaf persons. Another video produced by MBM was distributed to every MC congregation in an effort to describe and interpret evangelism goals established for the period 1985-95. MBM, the General Conference Mennonite Youth Office, and MCC worked together to produce a video, Youth Serve, to present opportunities for service to youth across the church.

MBM Media Ministries produced its first video program, All God's People, in 1985. Designed for use in both congregations and on cable television or broadcast television, this magazine format program focuses on three or four Mennonites who share their personal stories of faith in action. The ninth edition of All God's People was produced in the fall of 1988. In 1988, captioned editions for the hearing-impaired were produced.

In late fall, 1988, All God's People became one of the Mennonite-produced programs to be featured weekly on a satellite network serving cable television systems. Vision Interfaith Satellite Network (VISN) was organized by a coalition of 20 religious denominations, including Mennonites, to provide alternative religious programming in the wake of the failures of several televangelists in the 1980s. VISN has a potential viewing audience of 18 million households.

Demand for video resources across the Mennonite church has increased. In 1988, a survey of Hispanic congregations showed that 90 percent were using video and wanted more resources. The topics of interest included family, youth, children, and Christian education. A 1987 survey of Mennonite Church (MC) congregations showed that one quarter of the members owned VCRs and another 10 percent were planning to buy one, a level slightly under averages for North Americans in general. Sisters and Brothers, Inc., has acted as a clearing house for video and film resources produced by Mennonite agencies. In 1986, MBM, the Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries and the Mennonite Publishing House developed and published Preview, a newsletter for congregational leaders that reviews video and film materials.

Ken Weaver, director of Media Ministries, in 1989 saw video as the shape of the future and the challenge of the 1980s and 1990s. As access to both secular and religious video materials increases, Mennonites will continue to need to exercise selective judgment with respect to the types of video resources brought into their homes and their congregations. Furthermore, more and more congregations around the world will be able to create their own video resources as video equipment becomes increasingly portable and less expensive.

By 1970, a generation of North Americans has grown up with television. They were increasingly visually-oriented and decreasingly print-oriented. In order to maintain communication among Mennonites themselves, denominational agencies will need to pursue visual forms of communication, not only print forms. In order to reach out into their communities, Mennonite lay people will also need to develop a repertoire of communications skills, both interpersonal and mediated. While most Mennonite colleges offer speech and journalism courses, audio and video production courses are limited. In 1989 only one Mennonite college, Goshen College, offered a communications major, while communications minors were offered on some other Mennonite campuses. Apart from an occasional seminar, Mennonite seminaries in the 1980s were not offering media training. Though training opportunities are limited at Mennonite colleges and seminaries, Mennonites have produced journalists, broadcasters and film and video makers. Some Mennonites work in denominational settings, and others work in commercial and public broadcasting or as independent producers.

In the future, educating Mennonites to be both producers and critical consumers of media materials will be a challenge, both in North America and around the world. Mennonites in developing countries will likely call for increased media education for their members. During the 1970s and 1980s, developing nations were concerned about the survival of indigenous culture in the face of massive doses of imported Western programming. They struggled to create their own media forms and structures, as well as programs and materials. As communications technologies become less expensive and increasingly portable and durable (e.g., audio cassettes and video recorders), local persons can begin to create their own communications messages, using their own voices instead of being an audience for someone else.

[At the time of writing this article (1988) the Internet was not yet the factor it became in the 1990s. Consequently the proliferation of web-based information services was not discussed.]


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Additional Information


Author(s) Diane Zimmerman Umble
Date Published 1990

Cite This Article

MLA style

Umble, Diane Zimmerman. "Mass Media." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 22 Sep 2023.

APA style

Umble, Diane Zimmerman. (1990). Mass Media. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 22 September 2023, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 545-548. All rights reserved.

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