What Does it Mean to Serve the Reader?

What does it mean for a journalist to have a servant heart?

I suppose, if pressed, most of us would agree that we want to serve our readers. Even if it’s not in our mission statement—and it’s not in many—serving is a good Christian idea to which we all subscribe.

One problem is that we work so hard to persuade readers, it doesn’t put us in a mindset of service. First we have to convince readers to buy the publication — “Save up to 47%. Five issues free.” Next we have to find some scintillating copy and good graphics to entice them inside — “Will the Y2K Bug Byte Your Family?”

Then of course we can’t just put articles out there and let the Spirit do the work. We have to use every rhetorical and journalistic trick we know to keep them reading and convince them with irrefutable logic and possibly an appeal to the heart. With that kind of thinking, we’re more apt to see ourselves as sales people than as servants.

We also live in a culture enamored with leadership. Our shelves bulge with books on leadership and success. The ones on serving and obeying don’t take up much space. Even our masthead works against us. We have editorial directors, editors-in-chief, managing editors, CEO’s and presidents. Everyone’s in charge of something. (Even the executive director.)

Servants, by definition, are lowly people. They put the needs and desires of those they serve before themselves. They do the things they otherwise wouldn’t do, for the sake of others. One writer recently put it this way: “Servanthood requires a level of humility and brokeness that is not conducive to self-promotion, self-protection, or self-preservation.” Only Christianity, I believe, exhorts its followers to wash someone else’s feet.

So what does it mean to serve your readers? What does service look like in the context of periodical publishing? (How can you be known as the Mother Teresa of the evangelical press?) Most of can’t get to know our readers personally, so we can’t help clean their floors or toilets or meet their everyday needs.

The Divine Conspiracy, “and allow them to make their judgments on the basis of our simple statements . . . We are not to attempt to drive, to control them, to manipulate them.” Our market driven economy easily leads us to treat readers as consumers, not brothers or sisters. We see them as units to move from one conceptual position to another or into some course of action we’ve determined is right. And when we do that, we no longer serve them, we use them.

Let me suggest several ways I believe we can serve our readers. We can begin by praying for them. It will take a little energy to think about them as a group—where do they hurt, where do they need prayer, what threatens them or thrills them. In doing this, however, I believe they’ll become a little more personal, more real. And the by-product will be greater respect for them. “We should respect others before God,” Dallas Willard wrote in The Divine Conspiracy.

Journalism has a kind of excitement that draws young people. It drew me many years ago and still does today. I find enormous satisfaction in the writing and creating part of editing and in holding up what I’ve created as it comes off the press and thinking, “I had a part in this.” But I pray that the desire to serve will also move young people today to join us, and I believe we can foster that as we allow God to make that a part of our mission, whether the words are in the written statement or not.

— by Ron Wilson

Wilson is the former executive director of the Evangelical Press Association.

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