Remembering Cornerstone Magazine
by Chris L. Rice
The Washington Post recently carried a story titled “Liberal Journals Wither Despite Rising Christian Left” by G. Jeffrey MacDonald on “why progressive magazines and journals have been dying just as the broader movement seems to be gaining traction.” Later that month John Dart wrote a follow up piece for the Christian Century titled “The rise and fall of Protestant magazines.” Some of the publications listed as having “bit the dust” since 2003 include: The Other Side (since 1965), Christian Social Action (since 1975), and the Witness (since 1917). MacDonald’s article offers a theory for the demise of these veteran mags “People who regard themselves as religious progressives expect something different from their religious communities than they did a generation ago.”
Perhaps what was most shocking to me was that Sojourners magazine, long held to be an Evangelical voice, (and indeed Jim Wallis began as a graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School here in the Chicagoland area) admitted that Evangelicals actually now make up 17 percent of the readership and that that is up from less than 5 percent in 2002! That’s truly discouraging news from where I sit! It turns out that most of Sojourners’ readership falls into the Mainline Ecumenical realm.
These articles go on to discuss the realities of the changing publishing world and what it takes to continue in the face of rising printing costs, “lackluster fundraising,” and a change in expectations. John Dart concludes his article with what seems to me like shameless advertising for Shanley & Associates, the consulting firm that handles both the Christian Century and Sojourners.
I’d like to take some time to offer some reflections on the life and passing of Cornerstone Magazine, which also disappeared in print form after Cornerstone Festival’s twentieth anniversary year in 2003.
In the thirty-plus years that JPUSA published Cornerstone there were a lot of ups and downs financially, more down than up to tell the truth, but the focus of the magazine was never the money or a need for notoriety. You could almost say that Cornerstone served as a diary of the lived experiences and issues folks at JPUSA were facing. It was sad that our way of life was so shocking to many Christians, even Christians on the Left, but as Dawn put it to me once, the magazine was a gift that we offered up to the Lord, the first fruits of our service. Cornerstone was blessed over the years to receive much acclaim for its art, writing, and investigative journalism. More important, though, were the folks who said they’d clung to Jesus as a result of something in the magazine.
From National Jesus Paper to “Not for the Faint of Heart”
It is fascinating to peruse through back issues of Cornerstone from its days as the National Jesus Paper and then into the changes that took place to where it’s motto became “Not for the Faint of Heart.” When the paper began as an evangelism tool for the Jesus People USA Traveling Team (the traveling team for JP Milwaukee) the articles and information it contained served as sort of a map and diary of the group’s experiences. This picked up steam until the paper was so well known that it was able to sell advertising and function as a clearinghouse for the music and news relating to the Jesus Movement. Its clear that Cornerstone at that time was not a magazine for its own sake. It was an important ministry tool of JPUSA. Some issues had print runs of up to two hundred fifty thousand copies that were mostly given away.
What happened was that Cornerstone then became a significant voice within the Evangelical world, a very different kind of voice. Jon Trott, former editor-in-chief of Cornerstone remembers that when he joined JPUSA in 1977 it was something completely different from the Evangelical subculture he knew as a student at Gordon College. The magazine became the voice of an inner city Evangelical community whose evangelism involved daily identification and advocacy with the poor and homeless. By issue 84 (1987) the magazine’s masthead finally contained a mission statement:
“to communicate doctrinal truth based on Scripture, and to promote the cultural freedom to participate in the complex world of today while taking up the responsibility of impacting the world around us. We aggressively challenge our readers to look out the window of biblical reality and break the “Normal Christian” mold with a stance that has cultural relevancy. If you have questions or need help in any way, we encourage you to write or stop by.”
I can’t think of another Christian magazine that has ever offered its audience “help in any way” and with the invitation to call or stop by. As submissions editor for Cornerstone Press (the book publishing offshoot of the magazine) I know what kind of havoc an open invitation to call or stop by would cause to a publishing schedule. But this simple statement in the masthead reflects a very important part of the ministry of Cornerstone. The mag staff were as equally concerned with counseling and discipleship as they were with getting print on a page. Eric Pement who headed the Cults Awareness Research Team for Cornerstone is one example of a writer who was not bound to a nine to five schedule when it came to writing or counseling! It was a regular occurrence to find Eric talking ‘til all hours to someone many of us would most likely have quickly walked away from. Where many Christian magazines (whether known as political Left or Right) have become known for their unconversational approach to truth, Cornerstone regarded conversation as an important part of getting to the truth.
By way of description for anyone who’s never heard of Cornerstone, I’d like to give a list of some of Cornerstone’s qualities that should not be forgotten:
-Nonprofessionals who were not unprofessional. “Remember, it was amateurs who built the ark and professionals who built the Titanic.”
-Faith-based economic model (as God provides we print) with money never as the bottom line.
-As artful and image oriented as typographical. (Which drove print costs way up!)
-An Issues mag
-Political, but always with the original human element in mind rather than a lofty idea.
-The diary of a changing church
Where did we fit?
When Cornerstone Magazine printed its last issue there was no fanfare. It did not make the wider Evangelical news, even though JPUSA has friends in news services. Essentially the writers and editors of the mag went about doing in a fuller capacity what they’d been doing for years: serving in Uptown Chicago, counseling, running a homeless shelter, raising children, and working for Cornerstone Festival. Jon and I continue to put words into type in blog form. We would hope that the same spirit behind Cornerstone still infects our writing now. We still believe in offering snapshots of the Kingdom of God with all of its chaotic, self sacrificing and magnificent spontaneity. We never fail to be surprised by the new ways God works in people our culture calls losers. As for whether Cornerstone was a magazine of the Left or Right (or not even on the meter) we’ll let God be the judge. We hope our politics and ethics involved following Jesus where he led, whatever that looked like.