HARRISONBURG, Va. (Mennonite Mission Network) – In 1998, Bill Clinton was still president. The Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. Google had not yet come on the scene. Gas was about $1 a gallon. There were still two mainline Mennonite Churches in the United States. And only 24 percent of U.S. households were even connected to the Internet.
That fall, Third Way Café, the Internet site designed to help the general public understand and know more about Mennonites and Anabaptist history, first went on line with six topics and 100 or so early pages.
Who visits Third Way Café?
A special survey seeking feedback from Third Way Café users revealed:
• 39 percent identified themselves as Mennonite/Anabaptist, 26 percent as Protestant, 6 percent as Catholic and another 30 percent as “other” including one self-described “independent fundamental KJV-only Baptist.”
• Half listed “Sip of Scripture” as the most helpful resource at Third Way Café.
• People from 151 countries of the world visited in the first 6 months of 2008, including 44,000 visits from U.S., 7,000 from Canada, 1,200 from the United Kingdom and 1,000 from Australia.
Ten years later, Third Way Café now hosts more than 3,000 pages of Mennonite information, audio files, video clips and downloadables, essays, reviews, scriptures, and conversation. Mennonite Media, the site’s producer, has created seven additional ministry Web sites on specific social issues since then.
Todd and Andrea Grotenhuis are two young adults who, a couple years ago, liked what they found not only at Third Way Café, but at a local Mennonite Church.
Todd, an information security specialist, and Andrea, a chemist, both in their mid-20s, did lots of research on churches over a period of years. Both of them have Protestant roots but became interested in finding a local church that more closely matched their beliefs. When they were looking for a new church home in Indianapolis, Ind., Todd Grotenhuis checked out Third Way Café.
“Sometimes it is hard to get basic beliefs out of a denomination,” Grotenhuis said, because “beliefs are a touchy subject and groups almost ‘hide’ them.” But at Third Way, he was delighted with what he found, particularly “a clear statement about what is commonly believed. I appreciated the honesty and openness. It is hard enough to look for a church, but this was a good resource and I found it matched my beliefs.” *
Grotenhuis said while the introduction included a general disclaimer that some churches are different than others, “It gave me a starting point.” The Grotenhuises are now both active participants at First Mennonite Church in Indianapolis
, even though Andrea also maintains membership in her home Presbyterian congregation.
Other early finders were Paul and Sarah Hebblethwaite who in 1998 were a young couple desiring a church home and committed Christian discipleship. After finding Third Way Café, they also found Mennonite Voluntary Service
and served a term in Fresno, Calif. Later, they both ended up being employed by the organizations they served there.
Eventually the Hebblethwaites found Pasadena Mennonite Church. They learned from the leadership style and enjoyed the incorporation of liturgical worships styles. While Paul is heavily involved in the physical needs he encounters through his work at the HIV-AIDS family facility of the Salvation Army, Sarah has completed seminary studies at Fuller Theological Seminary and is currently in discernment for Holy Orders in the Episcopal tradition. Sarah Hebblethwaite identifies herself as Anabaptist from a theological perspective and continues ties to the Center for Anabaptist Leadership of Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference.
Third Way Café was launched in the middle of the early years of the Internet revolution – the “dot-com” bubble which ran roughly from1995 to 2001. Third Way was not the first Mennonite Web site. Mennolink started as an e-mail list in 1992 and Mennonite Connections on the World Wide Web began around 1995. By 1998, most Mennonite organizations had fledgling Web sites.
Meanwhile, Mennonite Media, led by longtime director Ken Weaver, consulted widely in 1997 seeking to establish a Web site which would “help the church be relevant and effective in carrying out its mission using the contemporary media of the age.”
The original two-fold purpose was:
• To inject Anabaptist Christian perspectives into society’s marketplace of ideas, providing a prophetic witness at the intersections of faith and contemporary issues.
• To present content from the bias that following Jesus Christ impacts all of life and that following is often an alternative to current culture.
Today many people first turn to the Web when there is breaking news or tragic events in our communities. The biggest days ever for Third Way Café hits were the days following the Nickel Mines Amish school tragedy, when many people were looking for information on Mennonites and Amish. Currently, Web counters tabulate about 8,000 visitors a month (See sidebar.)
Randy Spaulding, pastor of Covenant Mennonite Fellowship in Sarasota, Fla., says he uses material from Third Way Café when making informational presentations on Mennonites and Amish in the Tampa Bay area.
“Third Way Café has been God’s helper to us in several ways. We consistently list the Web address on our church informational brochures. For persons looking to know more about Mennonites/Anabaptists in an emerging perspective, I always refer them to Third Way Cafe," Spaulding said. "You are helping to dispel some of the vintage views of who Mennonites are in the 21st century (buggy-driving, strangely dressed, German speaking, outrageously high-carb restaurants).”
Third Way Café plans to continue to grow, tapping into current trends on the Internet even with limited staffing and budget, also producing many other media resources.
“The foundation of the site is solid but the Internet is an ever-changing, fluid place where technology changes in months, not years,” saids Buller. “We can’t even begin to write the history for 10 years from now and can only imagine what technology will be like then.”
Jerry L. Holsopple, a producer at Mennonite Media in 1998 and now a professor in the visual and communications arts department at Eastern Mennonite University, led much of the early development work and proposed the name, reflecting the “third way” of Anabaptism that is neither fully Protestant nor fully Catholic.
Sheri Hartzler leads the team that now works on the Web site, which includes Russ Neufeld, Craig Welscott, Wayne Gehman and Melodie Davis. The overall work of Mennonite Media and the website has been directed by Burton Buller since 1999.
* See what Todd found at: http://thirdway.com/menno/faq.asp.