by Allan G. Hedberg
The following letter was written to a missionary with whom I have a long-term friendship.
The following letter was written to a missionary with whom I have a long-term friendship. The names and circumstances have been changed to disguise the identity and ministry of the recipient.
Dear John and Ruth,
Your most recent prayer letter came yesterday. I immediately read it with great interest. Actually, it was timely as I have been giving thought to the entire idea of prayer letters. My interest in this topic was piqued when I recently reviewed a stack of prayer letters both from missionaries we support and from some we don’t. Indeed, prayer letters vary greatly in style and content. It would be meaningful to get your thoughts and comments on this issue. Please feel free to share my thoughts with your missionary friends as well. Their comments would be of interest to me. It is my hope that you and your missionary friends would glean information from this letter, and that it would be helpful in communicating with your support network back home.
As you know, letters from a missionary to their “home team” have been the lifeline of connection, encouragement, and ongoing financial support throughout the history of missions. Prayer letters also help reduce loneliness, discouragement, and loss of focus. Regular communication (and prayer letters in particular) helps build and maintain a committed and loyal network of family and friends who pray and provide the much-needed emotional and financial support, especially in tough times. Prayer letters serve as a team-building tool by which a missionary’s ministry can gain strength and thrive. To be sure, missionary prayer letters facilitate a vicarious participative experience in a missionary’s ministry on the part of their supporting congregations and individuals.
As we have discussed previously, prayer letters also provide a way for missionaries to contribute to their supporting churches and families. This is done through the sharing of personal stories and the results of ministry projects. Further, prayer letters encourage supporters to respond through letters, email, and phone calls. With that as background, I would like to address something that has caused me concern for some time. I have read many missionary prayer letters over the past twenty-five years and note that a definite change in style and content has emerged. For example, there seems to be a conspicuous absence of details specifying the results of any evangelistic or discipleship ministry activity. Also absent (or of limited report) are words of spiritual growth or increased maturity in the faith of the indigenous church membership. I think to myself, “What in the world are missionaries really doing?” As I study the prayer letters further I observe several emerging themes. Here is a sample of what missionaries appear to be telling their “home team”:
• Details of the social and developmental profile of the family since the previous prayer letter.
• Details about a hobby or the experience of buying and selling personal items and antiques on eBay and Craig’s List, without any apparent type of ministry benefit.
• Recent sight-seeing trips to historic landmarks in the area.
• The need for financial support due to an aging support base and various economic problems back home.
• Social activities in which the family has been engaged.
• Specifics of a ministry contact with one person, suggesting that the ministry breadth and impact is limited and narrow.
I am disappointed by the trends. It has caused me to consider what is important and of interest to me as I pray for and represent a missionary’s ministry to my friends, the mission committee, and the congregation of the church. Here are the following suggestions I have for the content of a prayer letter:
• Describe a specific people group, situation, and/or event for which to earnestly pray. Specifics, not generalities.
• Report answers to prayer and progress made in the ministry since the previous prayer letter. It is good when one letter builds upon the back of the previous letter and tracks progress.
• Outline ministry plans in the making for future evangelism and discipleship efforts.
• Relate personal and family needs and problems being faced for which I can pray and offer other types of help. I am willing to call and discuss a problem with a missionary. I also like to send articles, books, tapes, CDs and DVDs, and materials that may be of help.
• Tell how challenges of the current financial circumstances and ministry needs are being handled and processed. I respect those who try to prevent a problem or solve their own problems before calling out for more money.
To be thorough, I consulted the members of the mission committee of our church. They function as advocates. They use the experiences of missionaries to encourage others to consider a short-term mission trip. They encourage those who may be in a position to consider missions as a career and they pray for missionaries based upon the information contained in their letters.
Let me share some of their thoughts and suggestions:
• Letters are best when written sincerely and thoughtfully, not hurriedly sketched out to fulfill a time schedule obligation.
• Letters are best when they come regularly and frequently, a minimum of four per year.
• Letters need to be attractive and informative, but cost-effective in production and mailing.
• Letters are best when they are drafted utilizing current technology, as long as they do not lose the personal touch and warmth of the heart.
• Letters are best when they are relevant, provoke thoughtfulness on the part of the readers, and prompt a prayerful and/or rejoicing response.
• Letters are best when they express areas of mutual interest and provide for interactive opportunities.
• Letters are best when they reflect the “Pauline mindset” by expressing interest and concern for those in the church back home.
I read a recent EMQ article, “Five Rules for Writing Good Prayer Letters” (2008) by Ryan Murphy. He focused the missionary’s attention on the visual appeal or structures of a good prayer letter, by using word pictures, appealing designs, and vivid characters. While an excellent article to serve as a resource about letter writing, there was a conspicuous lack of recognition for the importance of authentically and emotionally sharing intimate concerns and topics through open communication. He spoke of drafting letters that would appear to come across as professional and superficial. I value the sharing of personal experiences, feelings, problems, and the changes that are taking place in the lives of the locals due to the impact of a missionary’s day-to-day ministry. A letter that looks professionally produced but contains superficial content does not cut it with me.
In summary, missionary letters are historic and systemic to the entire enterprise of missions. The gospel goes forth and is undergirded by prayer, as well as personal and financial support efforts. As missionaries, you serve because you answered God’s call for ministry. Those of us back home are your “home team.” Think of us as your loyal supporters and encouragers. Your letters provide the basis for us to have a close and meaningful relationship. Finally, be encouraged. Know that both of you are appreciated. I look forward to your response and input as I value your opinions. I also trust you have been receptive and open to the new thoughts and ideas in the writing of prayer letters. Your letters and communication style will largely determine the level of support and care you receive from those who committed themselves to stand with you. You have always been personally open and authentic in the many times we have talked over the years. This has meant much to me, and I assure you it will be equally meaningful to the entire “home team.” God’s continued blessing.
Your partner in ministry, Allan
Murphy, Ryan. 2008. “Five Rules for Writing Good Prayer Letters.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 44(4): 494-498.
Dr. Allan G. Hedberg graduated from Queen’s University in 1969. He has served as a clinical psychologist in Fresno, California, since 1974. He has extensively published, lectured internationally, and has taught at several universities. He is an active member of his church and mission committee.
Content AND Style: A Response
Different generations view communication differently. My sophomore English students have never lived in a world without email and Internet. My fifty-something father, on the other hand, is struggling to find a job because many employers now demand applications be filled out online—a skill he lacks. One generation prefers typing abbreviated sentences on their cell phones; another prefers reading a thick newspaper over morning coffee. As we seek to be “all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22), we sometimes need to adapt our styles to reach a different culture or generation. What we must never compromise is content.
Mr. Hedberg explains his frustration with the poor “spiritual content” found in some prayer letters he receives. In my opinion, his concern is of grave importance. If there are missionaries around the world simply experiencing a cross-cultural life while not making a significant spiritual impact for the gospel, then that is a monumental waste of important financial resources and even tarnishes the name of “missionary” for others. The reason I wrote my article was because it broke my heart to see so many wonderful missionaries (and the vast majority of people I’ve encountered in Africa over my first four years have been wonderful) do a poor job of communicating the value of their work. I longed for their supporters to more clearly see the profound impact they were making. My article focused on improving the style of prayer letters because I assumed missionaries would naturally put emphasis on the proper content.
Mr. Hedberg has come across letters where the content is sorely lacking. Perhaps he has been receiving letters from a bad batch of missionaries. My hunch, however, is that he’s come across good missionaries who are simply misguided in their understanding of the proper content for a prayer letter. I view Mr. Hedberg’s five personal preferences and seven suggestions for prayer letters as excellent “content” guidelines. Once the appropriate content is selected, then my article provides good guidelines concerning the style of the letter. We want our content to be read, and with many people today, the style is a vitally important vehicle for expressing content. I believe “whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31b), and since a relevant style matters to the younger generations, we need to write and create our letters professionally for the glory of God. But as Mr. Hedberg points out, what must never be neglected is the preeminence of the content—the glorious message of salvation through Jesus Christ going to the ends of the earth.
Ryan Murphy teaches at Rift Valley Academy, a boarding school for missionary kids in rural Kenya. He wrote All That You Can’t Leave Behind: A Rookie Missionary’s Life in Africa and produces a podcast with the same title.
EMQ, Vol. 46, No. 2, pp. 214-217. Copyright © 2010 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.