Ron Wilson’s Farewell Address to EPA

Editor's note: At the May 1, 2002, EPA business meeting in Colorado Springs, Ron Wilson delivered his final report as executive director of EPA. He and his wife, Mary, were beginning a new career as missionaries in Ireland. The following is the text from which Ron delivered his farewell.

During these last few months as I've approached my departure from this job, I've gathered together some thoughts, which I've expanded here under the title, "Ten Things I Very Much Want to Say to EPA Members Before I Leave."

Many of your publications cross my desk each week, so I have a kind of bird's-eye view of what's happening out there, and, frankly, some of it is not very encouraging. We're in the midst of a communication revolution, a sea change that has enormous implications for periodical publishers, and I suspect that many EPA members are falling farther and farther behind.

Not only do I believe that many of us don't have a clear idea of what we want to happen after someone reads our publication, but we don't understand how print works in our electronic culture. I know from our records that the aggregate circulation of EPA publications is shrinking. While the total number of EPA publications is about the same as it was 10 years ago, we're reaching fewer people.

Media experts today agree that books and magazines will not go away. In fact they'll flourish in the days ahead. However, they will change. Electronic media will transform them. They'll function differently, and they'll play a different role in our society. So, as someone said, either try to understand what a book or a magazine can or cannot do or else stop cutting down trees.

Writing is at the heart of what we do, and computers are changing the way we write. Endless flowing images are replacing orderly ideas. Experience in replacing reason. Feeling is replacing form. And while I have some deep concerns about this when it comes to communicating our faith, I can't stop it, and I need to understand the implications it has for me as I try to connect with this world in print.

So, what does all this mean for EPA? What do we have to do to communicate more effectively? Here are my suggestions:

1. If you want to communicate powerfully and effectively in this day of electronic communication, tell stories. Stories are fast becoming the thread that runs through the media of our day. Stories run through video games, advertising, television, film, the internet. There's something in the power of a story that resonates deeply with the post-literate culture in which we live.

2. Appeal to the senses in your writing. This is another way of saying the old writing dictum, "Show, don't tell." Help the reader see it, hear it, smell it, taste it, touch it. My favorite definition of good writing come from art critic, Sir Herbert Reed. He wrote, "Good writing raises images in the mind. It helps the mind to see." And, I would add, it helps the reader experience it.

So much of the writing in our publications is conceptual. We want to talk about love, redemption, forgiveness, reconciliation. That's good, except there is nothing there that sticks in the mind.

Stories, by the way, do raise images and stick in the mind. You want me to understand unconditional love, remind me of the story of The Prodigal Son, and I see in my mind's eye the old man in his rich robe running to meet the ragged son. And I feel the shame and guilt of the son and the love of the old man. You want to teach me theology? Tell me stories that raise a picture and the idea will stick in my mind.

3. Be vulnerable! We have a great need today for the kind of writing in which we don't pretend that we've got it all together. We need writers who will pull back a little of their mask and let the reader see the real self underneath the imposter. Vulnerability leads to authenticity which means believability.

Paul reminded the Corinthians each time he wrote to them that God uses the weak things of the world, the imperfect things, so that he can be glorified. His power if made perfect in my weakness. Personally I'm drawn to this kind of writing. Read Philip Yancey, Henri Nouwen, Brennan Manning, just to name a few writers who do this well.

And, related to this but slightly different, is my next point.

4. Serve your readers. The evangelical world has focused in recent years on developing leaders. But I think that what we need are servants. This may be our primary role in EPA. You'll find many conferences out there each year on leadership, but when was the last time you saw one on how to serve? Actually, we don't teach servanthood in so many words. We model it, and I believe that's a challenge for us.

5. Get out of your own backyard. Many of us are too parochial. Management loves it, of course, when we laud the organization. But most managers are so wrapped up in the success of the organization and it's so much a part of who they are, that they can't step outside of the organization and see that most readers simply don't care about the organization per se. They're reading your publication to get something out of it for themselves, not for your benefit. So serve your readers. Actually, this is the best way to promote your organization.

6. Be relevant! Not only does the world face some pressing issues but your readers are hurting. Many have relationships that need to be healed. They're facing a bleak future. They have little hope. They have cancer. Their children have AIDS. They're out of work. College costs are out of sight. They can't balance their budgets. This is where they live.

But in EPA publications recently, I've seen an eight-page spread on a 25th anniversary, an article pondering the optimal size of a church, a debate on whether all of our tithe should go to the local church, and an examination of the differences between hymns and choruses. This is not where our readers live.

I have a friend who often gets the urge in church during the sermon to stand up and shout, "So what?" This is what we need to ask. I trust your readers are not sitting at home leafing through your pages and muttering, "So what?" The gospel is relevant. Are we making it so in our publications?

7. Don't believe the lie that journalism is a high and holy calling. We're inoculated with that idea in journalism school. We're taught to think that we hold a greater responsibility than others in our society. And we hang on to this, even though our society has lowered its estimation of our profession in recent years.

Our calling as Christians is higher than our calling as journalists. At some point the Lord called each of us to Himself, and at some other point He called us to the specific task we have. But He also calls bankers, builders, teachers and lawyers to their place of service. Yes, we do have a calling, and it's a critical one in God's economy--to make known the gospel using words on a page. But let's not elevate ourselves in our own eyes above others who are also called.

8. Focus on the real battle, i.e., the spiritual one. When I travel overseas I'm very much aware that our material success here at home distracts us from the spiritual battle. Christianity in non-western societies has a sharper focus on the spiritual battle. We can take a lesson from them and increase our readers' awareness that our real enemy is not flesh and blood, but the spiritual forces of evil.

And, closely related to this is my last injunction:

9. Remember that your spiritual life directly influences your publication. We publish what we are. Our publications are a measure of our spiritual lives. If we're communing daily with our Father in heaven and living and growing as sons and daughters of the living God, it will rub off on our readers. If we're not, there won't be anything to rub off.

10. Number 10 comes under a slightly different heading. In closing I'd like to urge you to ask not what EPA can do for you, but what you can do for EPA. I often get inquiries from prospective members asking why they should join EPA, what will it do for them. Those are legitimate questions, and I have answers for them. But I also try to convince them that as an organization we help each other, and we take long strides toward improving evangelical communication when we focus on how we can do this. I've written several times in Liaison that from the first time I came in contact with EPA 43 years ago, it has been a family for me. I believe we still have that spirit, and I pray that EPA will be a family to you.

Having said this, I have great confidence in you that this association will continue to serve the evangelical world well as it has for the last 54 years. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for letting me serve you for 10 of those years as your executive director.

In closing I'd like to invoke a well-known Irish blessing:

May the road rise up to meet you.

May the wind be always at your back.

May the sun shine warm upon your face;

The rain fall softly on your fields.

And until we meet again,

May God hold you

In the palm of his hand.