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EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK: The Future Belongs to the Fruitful

The journalistic legacy of Joel Belz

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You would not be reading this were it not for Joel Belz, who died Feb. 4, at age 82, from complications of Parkinson’s disease.

Joel left a rich legacy as a churchman, a leader in Christian education, and in other arenas in life, but it is his role as the founder of WORLD Magazine that had the biggest impact on me and – ultimately – on MinistryWatch.

I first met Joel 30 years ago. I live in Charlotte and had started a little newsletter called “The Charlotte Christian News” to report on news I thought the area’s Christian community should know. I printed 100 copies of the first issue, dated November 1993. I sent one of those copies to Barrett Mosbacker, then headmaster of Covenant Day School, a prominent Christian school in the area.

Barrett called me and asked, “Have you ever heard of WORLD Magazine?” I had not. Barrett said, “I like what you are doing, but you might be able to learn something from WORLD.”

We met for lunch, and Barrett gave me all the back issues he had around his home and office. I devoured them. Barrett was right. Reading WORLD made me realize I had much to learn.

I discovered that WORLD was headquartered in Asheville, just two hours away, so I called Joel to ask for an audience.

I remember that first phone call vividly. I told Joel what I was up to, and that I had just discovered WORLD. I asked if I could come for a visit. What I did not know then was that Joel got phone calls like mine frequently. Most publications did not survive more than a few issues. So he said, “Add me to your mailing list, and I’ll read what you are up to. Call me in a few months. If I think I can help, we’ll get together.”

A few months later, I did call back, and he said, “I like what you are doing. I think I can help.”

And he did. He became a trusted advisor. I eventually changed the name of “The Charlotte Christian News” to “The Charlotte World,” in homage to what WORLD Magazine was doing. I wrote my first article for WORLD more than 20 years ago, and by 2009 I was a regular writer and – ultimately – associate publisher.

During my tenure at WORLD, I spent time in day-long strategy meetings with Joel, traveled with him, and – in short — got to see him operate up close, in unguarded moments. An old saying goes like this: “Never meet your heroes.” They inevitably disappoint. That was not my experience with Joel. The more I got to know him, the more my respect and affection grew.

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A couple of anecdotes reveal much about him.

The first one became legend within the halls of WORLD. While still in college, he bought a large and complicated Linotype machine, used to produce the metal type needed to print newspapers and magazines. Joel imagined that this machine would allow him to make enough money to get him through college and kickstart his career as a publisher. But as he was moving it, a chain broke, and the Linotype machine fell down a flight of stairs, reduced to scrap. He tried to repair it, but the highly engineered device never worked properly again. Decades later, pieces of the machine were on display in the offices of WORLD. Joel often told that story – and the lessons it taught him — to visitors and new employees. (Joel’s partner-in-journalism for more than two decades, Marvin Olasky, vividly recounts this story and others here.)

The other story I witnessed myself.

Soon after joining WORLD, we hosted a gathering of readers and donors in suburban Washington, D.C. More than 300 people gathered in a hotel ballroom to hear Joel, Marvin Olasky, and Mindy Belz talk about the future of WORLD. During the Q&A session that followed, someone asked Joel, “How can we pray for you?”

The question says a lot about WORLD readers, and the answer says a lot about Joel: “Pray that we would remain faithful.” He went on to explain that in his career as a journalist, he had seen many leaders begin well and end badly. He wanted to end well. His answer was itself a sign of faithfulness, humility…and a realistic, biblical understanding of the fallenness of humanity.

In the last years of his life, he battled Parkinson’s disease and prostate cancer. He got out less and less. We would talk regularly on the phone. He read MinistryWatch avidly and often had specific, insightful comments about our stories. He was pleased that MinistryWatch’s Managing Editor, Christina Darnell, got early training and journalism experience at WORLD. One of our reporters, Kim Roberts, is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute. I told him that MinistryWatch would look very different were it not for the work he did to found and grow WORLD.

And you can find Joel’s fingerprints not just on MinistryWatch. Longtime WORLD reporter and editor Jamie Dean is no longer with the magazine, but got news of Joel’s death while overseas on a reporting assignment for Radical, where she is Lead Writer. Other WORLD alumni include Michael Reneau, managing editor at the online powerhouse The Dispatch. J.C. Derrick is publisher of Mainstreet Daily News, a growing multimedia company based in Florida. Emily Belz (Joel’s niece), Harvest Prude, Angela Lu, and Sophia Lee are now doing great work for Christianity Today.

This list – incomplete though it is — represents a goodly legacy, by any reasonable measure.

An old saying teaches us: “The future belongs to the fruitful.” Joel’s life reminds us of the truth of that saying. His life also reminds me that God answers prayers – not least of which was his prayer request many years ago that he would remain faithful.

He was, to the end, and all who knew him were nourished by that faithfulness.

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Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine, and Vice President of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 25 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.