Well done, good and faithful servant
The life and legacy of WORLD founder Joel Belz
Joel Belz, founder of WORLD News Group, died Sunday at his home in Asheville, N.C., from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was 82.
Those who knew Belz esteemed him as an exemplary son, brother, husband, father, grandfather, elder, teacher, journalist, and publisher. He saw himself as nothing more than a great sinner who had received great mercy.
“Just as it is for every sinner, mine is a story of what God has done for me—not what I have done for Him,” Belz wrote in 2021 in his WORLD Magazine column.
“Daily reading and Bible classes were assumed,” Belz wrote of his childhood. “We took notes on the sermons we heard. And we memorized Scripture—so that all these years later, 20 or more entire Psalms are still stashed away in my increasingly Parkinson’s-wobbly memory.”
Belz’s father was a third-generation grain, lumber, and coal dealer in central Iowa, though he later attended seminary and became a Presbyterian pastor. As a child, Belz joined his dad at annual meetings of the Bible Presbyterian Church, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod. Belz attended Cono Christian School, which his father helped found, and later graduated from Covenant College with a degree in English. He earned a master’s degree in mass communications and journalism from the University of Iowa. In between, he did research and traveled internationally for the Arthur S. DeMoss Foundation.
Belz taught logic and English at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Ga., briefly before helping to found Lookout Mountain Christian School across the border in Tennessee, which still operates today as Chattanooga Christian School. For decades, Belz served as a board member of Covenant College. Niel Nielson spent 10 years at Covenant as president and worked closely with Belz. Nielson said Belz, as much as anyone in his life, exemplified a key aspect of Reformed heritage: the interwoven strands of doctrine, piety, and witness.
“It's tempting for those three strands to become unraveled. Some people seem to be all about doctrine, or all about the spiritual life, or all about cultural engagement,” Nielsen said. “Belz held those together. So for the church, the denomination, and especially the Covenant community, he represented the best of Reformed faith and life and faithfulness.”
In 1975, Belz married Carol Esther Jackson, and the couple raised five daughters. In 1977, Belz moved his family to Asheville to work for The Presbyterian Journal, a publication for theologically conservative Presbyterians where he later became interim editor.
Belz believed Christian education was a key to the believer’s life. His involvement at Asheville Christian Academy lasted beyond his youngest child’s graduation. Evidence stands two stories tall at the center of the campus, a building that now houses a reception area, cafeteria, and offices. Head of School Bill George says Belz’s foresight saved the day years ago when other decision-makers wanted to drop plans to construct the space. Belz insisted they finish the outer structure but leave the completion of the interior and the fundraising to the next generation. It sat vacant for years, but now George sees the wisdom in Belz’s determination to forge ahead. He describes Belz, who also served as an elder at his church, as a great counselor and older brother type, one who kept his head on straight even as his accomplishments grew. “There wasn’t a saccharine sort of fakeness with Belz,” George said. “He was the same whether he was in front of an audience of a thousand or just sitting across the table having a cup of coffee with you.”
In 1981, Belz, as he continued to work for The Presbyterian Journal, combined his journalistic experience with his background in education to launch It’s God’s World, a newspaper for middle school students. He later added papers for other age groups. After the student publications received a warm welcome from many families and Christian schools, he received requests for an adult version covering news and current events. Belz then oversaw WORLD Magazine’s launch in March 1986.
“For the next five years, the goal was survival,” Belz wrote in a 1997 WORLD column. “Could we publish one more edition? Could we pay one more week’s postage bills? Could we meet salaries one more time? Yet, during a period when 80–90 percent of all periodicals flunk the test of durability, God let WORLD survive.”
But Belz didn’t know, during those first few months, if the magazine would last. With only 5,000 subscribers, The Presbyterian Journals’ board canceled the new publication in June 1986 after only 13 issues.
The board then decided to shut down the Journal and support WORLD instead. In April 1987, WORLD Magazine restarted.
Carol Esther Belz remembers the early demands of WORLD nearly consumed her husband. The family was on a tight budget, and he drove their only car to work. To spend time together, Carol Esther and her daughters would pack a lunch and ride the bus to the office for a picnic. She cleaned the office while the girls helped prepare WORLD publications for shipping. To keep them close, Joel also suggested other projects, like building a set of shelves.
Growing up, Belz’s family operated a print shop, and he and his brothers and sisters took turns helping out in the enterprise. In the early days of It’s God’s World and WORLD Magazine, Belz turned to his siblings for help. He recruited his brother Nat to help with design and layout. Nat’s wife, Mindy, not only wrote and edited for WORLD for decades but also helped train numerous journalists—some of whom now report news from around the world. Other Belzes, including Joel and Nat’s brother Andrew, have worked at WORLD in varying capacities. Nat died from cancer in March 2023.
WORLD continued to face financial difficulties after it restarted, despite initial subscriptions inherited from The Presbyterian Journal. In 1989, another prominent evangelical magazine, Eternity, closed its doors, leading to many new subscribers for WORLD. Belz later gave up his role as editor to serve as CEO of God’s World Publications (now known as WORLD News Group), which oversaw WORLD Magazine and the children’s publications.
WORLD became known for its hard-hitting news stories and investigative journalism. It reported on the horrors of abortion, the failures of public welfare programs, abuse scandals in churches, and theological drift in religious institutions. In 1997, WORLD reported on planned revisions to the New International Version of the Bible that would make the text more gender-inclusive. The publisher of the NIV filed an ethics complaint against WORLD with the Evangelical Press Association, of which Belz was president at the time. Belz responded to the publisher’s accusations with a column subtitled, “We stand by our story.” As he wrote later, “For those of us interested in the direction of our culture, few issues are more basic than how the Bible gets translated.” The EPA board later unanimously voted not to pursue any further action against WORLD.
In his regular magazine column, Belz updated readers on developments at WORLD and reminded them to keep all news in its proper perspective. In 1999, WORLD held its first journalism course for college students. World Journalism Institute has trained hundreds of students in Biblical journalism, adding classes for high schoolers, midcareer writers, and international reporters along the way.
“For those who have come to trust their future to the God of the Bible, there's no such thing as ultimately bad news,” Belz wrote in a 2001 column.
The Belzes also sometimes made family trips to the annual General Assembly meetings of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). According to Carol Esther, the most memorable one took place in 2003 in Charlotte, N.C. Belz would say the highest honor of his life was to be named the moderator of the PCA General Assembly that year.
In 2005, WORLD’s board asked Belz to step down as CEO because of concerns over the company’s financial sustainability. The struggling company needed to make cuts, but Belz was reluctant to close unprofitable product lines or lay off employees. He remained a columnist and was listed on the masthead of WORLD Magazine as its founder. He also continued with his efforts to raise money for the company.
In the 2010s, WORLD took advantage of new technologies to reach a larger audience. It covered daily news on its website. The company launched a weekday podcast, The World and Everything in It, that became a top 100 news program on the Apple platform.
Belz never appeared to despair over moral decline in the West and in the United States, in particular, but held on to his faith in a personal, loving, and sovereign God. In the months before the contentious presidential election of 2016, he urged WORLD readers to wait on the Lord, writing, “Does God seem a little slow right now getting to the scene of the breakdown? Are you frustrated because He hasn’t made clear yet (to you, at least) which candidate should get your support in this fall’s presidential election—and maybe some other offices as well? … So keep this in mind, please: If the God of the universe takes His time sorting things out, why should you rush to judgment?”
Then came 2020, with COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns, race riots, and an election dispute so hostile that it divided families—and WORLD readers and listeners. Tension between WORLD’s leaders over the company’s editorial direction came to a head in late 2021. At one point, Belz sent a message to all WORLD staff, begging them to seek the Lord and pray for the future of the company. He lamented the separation that followed between WORLD and some of its longtime magazine editors and reporters, including editor in chief Marvin Olasky and senior editor Mindy Belz. Through prayer and personal encouragement, Belz continued to support the mission, as well as the leaders and journalists who remained at WORLD News Group. Staff members who came to WORLD headquarters in Asheville for meetings tried to return the encouragement by driving to the Belz home for prayer and hymn singing.
Today, WORLD News Group has more than 100 employees and offers editorial products for students and adults in print, digital, audio, and video formats. WORLD’s content reaches an estimated 500,000 readers and listeners each month.
In October 2023, WORLD’s editorial staff of about 60 reporters, editors, producers, and designers met in Asheville for a retreat. On a Tuesday night, Joel and Carol Esther Belz joined them and the WORLD office staff for a worship service at the Cathedral of All Souls in Biltmore Village across the street from company headquarters. Those gathered sang, prayed, and reflected on our charge as Bible-believing journalists in a fallen world. Afterward, a crowd gathered around the pew where the Belzes sat, each person hoping for a blessing, a word of wisdom, or even just a hug from the organization’s founder. For a handful of young new hires, it was their first time seeing Belz in person. But it was still a reunion of sorts. Many of the recent college graduates just starting their journalism careers at WORLD News Group grew up reading the children’s magazines.
Belz is survived by Carol Esther, his wife of 49 years, five daughters—Jenny (Andy) Gienapp of Aragon, Ga.; Katrina (Eric) Costello of Astoria, N.Y.; Alice (Mark) Tucker of St. Louis; Elizabeth (Derek) Odegard of Astoria, N.Y.; and Esther (Brian) Morrison of Wilmington, N.C.—16 grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, 104 current employees of WORLD News Group, scores of former WORLD employees, and hundreds of thousands of readers, listeners, and viewers who didn’t know him but who, because of him, know more about God and His world.
In lieu of flowers, the Belz family has requested memorial donations be made to WORLD News Group, RidgeHaven Cono, or Covenant College.
We invite you, as members of our extended WORLD family, to visit our tribute page and share your condolences, memories, favorite columns, and photos of Joel Belz.