Bob Little



Bob Little provides a brief history of church magazines - exploring not only their origins and uses but also their place in the churches and local communities of tomorrow.

From there to the future

In the beginning - as we all know - was the Word. But it was not in the form of a church newsletter. That came much later.

What constitutes a 'church newsletter' or a 'church magazine'?

Some people might argue that Paul was writing church newsletters when he writing about the regular activities that went on in various churches. After all, chronicling a church's regular activities is one of the key purposes of a church newsletter.

Indeed, the first things that are actually called 'church newsletters' are rather more like Paul's letters than the newsletters we know today. Two fairly recently published books are: 'Newsletters from the Archpresbyterate of George Birkhead' (Camden Fifth Series) (Hardcover), published by Cambridge University Press, 1998, and 'Newsletters from the Caroline Court, 16311638: Volume 26: Catholicism and the Politics of the Personal Rule: 26' (Camden Fifth Series) (Hardcover), Edited by Michael C Questier and published by Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Birkhead's book contains a series of Jacobean newsletters written, between 1609 and 1614, by members of one of the most important Catholic clerical factions of the period.

These newsletters shed light primarily on matters which most immediately affected the English Catholic community:

  • the strife between different Catholic factions;

  • the conflict between Catholics and the State (especially over the Jacobean oath of allegiance), and

  • the possibility of obtaining some form of toleration.

The newsletters also give us Catholic 'glosses' on other news which could be taken to have a bearing on the prospects of English Catholics, such as Court politics, the conduct of Jacobean foreign policy towards European Catholic states and controversies within the Church of England.

The newsletters printed in Questier's book were written by Catholics who had access to the Court of Charles I and Henrietta Maria during the 1630s. The letters' principal concern was the factional strife among English Catholics, particularly over the issue of whether they should be subject to the authority of a Catholic bishop appointed by the papacy to live and rule over them in England.

But these letters also contain Court news and gossip, information about foreign policy issues, and comment on the contemporary Church of England controversies over theology and clerical conformity. They are an important source for the study of the ideological tone of the Caroline Court, and of the ambition of certain sections of the Catholic community to secure a form of legal tolerance from the crown.

What we would begin to recognise as 'modern' church newsletters and magazines started to appear after about 1860.

According to Suffolk's official website - - the earliest parish magazines that exist for Anglican churches in Suffolk date from the 19th century. The site states that these record events connected with churches, including changes in the fabric.

Other churches - from St John's and St Peter's Church with Ladywood ARC, Birmingham, to Tabernacle Congregational Church, in Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, record having church magazines from around 1889.

The earliest surviving edition of the church magazine for St Mark's Church, Gillingham, in Kent, is dated 'December 1866'. This edition advised that 'a banner of less startling character is in preparation for Christmas and the lion will not leave the guardianship of the vestry on that festival'. (Apparently, many people had been distressed that the Lion of St Mark 'has not a more amiable countenance').

The magazine of St Paul's Church, Wood Green, Wednesbury, was published regularly between 1876, the year after the formation of the parish, and 2006, when the publication went 'digital' - being published only on the church's website.

So 'parish magazines' as we now know them have been around for some 140 to 150 years.

The impetus for them came from the movement towards mass education - and mass literacy - that characterised the mid-Victorian era. As more people could read, so more things were produced for them to read - including church newsletters.

My personal involvement with church magazines is, of course, much more recent than the mid-Victorian era! My father was a Baptist minister and, as a boy in the 1960s, I remember going with him, more than once, to an office - it happened to be in Hemel Hempstead's Bank Court block of offices. There, my father handed in an envelope containing typed stencils of our church's newsletter for the women there to put on something called a 'Gestetner' machine, which would then produce the 200 or so copies of our newsletter. It began as a quarterly publication but soon became monthly.

That was almost the sum total of my experience with church newsletters until the cusp of the 21st century.

In the intervening years, I'd grown up and become a freelance journalist and an editor of trade publications. Latterly - in 1990 - I'd started a public relations agency ( I'd written some articles for various church newsletters but I'd never become involved with editing one.

Then, in 2000, the church where I am in membership - Marshalswick Baptist Free Church, in St Albans - was looking for an editor for its monthly magazine. My wife and I took on joint responsibility for editing it and we've been doing so ever since - so we've just (this month) produced our 100th edition.

The content of church newsletters may not have changed a great deal over the years.

There are always lists and rotas; people to pray for; points to ponder, and so on. But the way these newsletters are produced has changed out of all recognition in the last 40 years or so.

In the 1960s, we had special typewriters that cut letter spaces out of stencils. Those stencils were then put on a machine with a drum which rotated and produced often imperfectly inked pages - which could be a bit difficult to read. There was no opportunity for using different fonts or sizes of type. Pictures were only available on the cover - perhaps because the covers were printed in bulk and wrapped around each edition. The result was a publication that looked like a letter - albeit a long one.

Nothing much changed but, by the end of the 1980s 'new technology' was beginning to have an impact of church newsletter design. Pictures and other illustrations were beginning to appear throughout an edition. This was not just because of improvements in production - the growth of photocopying on plain (not chemically treated) paper - but also because of developing skills with the art of 'cutting and pasting'.

You could now subscribe to church news services which produced articles and devotional 'snippets'. You could cut these out, paste them on a piece of paper and then 'Tippex' around the edges, so that, when the page was photocopied, the dark edges disappeared. You could now fill pages in the way of 'real' magazines and newspapers, rather than leaving gaps on the page if an article fell short. It was the beginnings of 'page make-up' for church newsletters.

By the mid-1990s, the personal computer was beginning to make its presence felt within the church newsletter editing community. This allowed not only for some variation in font and type size (perhaps following the Guardian's style of headlines in one font and body copy in another) but also - in theory - it reduced the number of 'typos' because a page could be read as a whole on computer screen before being printed.

The spread of computers was followed by a plethora of 'desk top publishing' software packages. These allowed newsletter editors to include pictures - not just grainy photocopies but actually 'scanned' pictures - in their publications. Today, in their desktop computers, church editors have all the production capabilities of a specialist typesetting house and printers of the 1980s at their disposal.

Whether they have the skills to use these capabilities is another matter but, in theory, today's church newsletter could - in production terms if not content - be compared with any magazine found on a newsagent's shelf. We've come a long way in terms of the technology available to us to produce our newsletters.

Production technology changed little from the days of Paul, through the church newsletters of the 17th century, until the middle of the 19th century. Demand for more reading matter for more people from the 1860s saw more pressure put upon the existing production technology. Even so, nothing much happened in technology terms until after the Second World War - with the advent of duplication technology which had a lower unit cost than that associated with 'traditional' sheet fed printing.

It is only really in the last ten years that production technology has accelerated at an astonishing rate. While we're still catching our breath after the amazing technological breakthroughs of the last ten years, we need to give some thought to the future of the church newsletter.

We need to be clear about what the church newsletter is, what purpose it serves - and what it competes with for its readers' attention. As production techniques have developed, and technology advanced, so the audience for any kind of 'produced material' has become more sophisticated in its tastes. We wouldn't dare to give our readers a church newsletter that looks like a newsletter of the 1970s - regardless of its content. They would laugh at us! And the purpose of the newsletter would be completely negated.


  • Will the future for newsletters be purely online, as St Paul's Church, Wood Green, Wednesbury, has decided?

  • Will it be a combination of hard copy (for church members or parishioners) and online (for those further afield - including people living thousands of miles from that church)?

  • Should the newsletter's content be 'pushed' to readers' mobile phones, PDAs and BlackBerrys?

Your decision will determine the content of your newsletter and the way that you structure and present that content.

My view - as a career journalist and editor who has tried to apply many of the lessons of that career to producing a church newsletter - is that, whatever you decide about the production and distribution technology for your newsletter, it is vital that your newsletter's structure is appealing and its contents are relevant to its readers. It must be able to compete: visually; in terms of content, and in terms presentation with anything else that your readers' read, whether that be in hard copy form or online.

People don't read church newsletters because they have to. They read them because they want to. That argues for church editors who are skilled in journalistic, sub-editing, editing, picture editing and, perhaps, advertising sales skills.

Just as people judge organisations, products and services by the quality of their marketing material, the church is also being judged by these criteria. To be effective, it needs not only to make its time-honoured point on an interpersonal level but also via the (relatively) mass communication medium of its newsletters.

Church newsletters are a vital part of the church's 'marketing mix' or, if you prefer more 'theological language', they're a vital part of its outreach and witness activities. They have been around for 2,000, or 400 or 150 years - depending on your definition of a church newsletter - and should be around for many more. To misquote Shakespeare's Sonnet number 18: 'So long as men can read and eyes can see, So long lives news to, Lord, illumine Thee.'

By Bob Little


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