by Luke Veldt
You’d like my mom. She’s committed to missions, and she’d be interested in your work. There’s no detail of your life too small to be of interest to her; to Mom, there’s no such thing as a boring missionary newsletter.
You’d like my mom. She’s committed to missions, and she’d be interested in your work. There’s no detail of your life too small to be of interest to her; to Mom, there’s no such thing as a boring missionary newsletter. She has the time to read every word of every letter she receives. She’ll pray for you, too—she’s what people are talking about when they refer to “prayer warriors.”
Sadly, I don’t think there are many people like my mother around. Yet when I read most missionary letters (sometimes my own), I get the feeling that they are addressed to her, or people like her: those who are spiritually mature, committed to missions and to prayer, eager to read any letter. Those who do not fit into this category—the vast majority of our readers—tend to find missionary letters boring.
I don’t think that news will shock you. It’s not exactly a well-kept secret that many missionary letters are thrown out with hardly a glance. Several books have addressed the art of writing better prayer letters. Mission boards have recognized the problem; for many organizations, effective letter writing is now a standard topic in the training of incoming missionaries.
Yet the problem persists. I think this is due in large part not from lack of training or effort from missionaries, but because the average missionary is writing for the wrong audience—he doesn’t really understand the perspective of the people who get his letters.
A lot fewer of our letters will be thrown away unread if we keep in mind three things about our readers:
1. They are busy. For most people, the pace of life is too fast. It seems that for every hour of the day there are 70 minutes of demands: mow the lawn, spend more time with the kids, clean out the closet, read the missionary newsletter. It’s easy to see how the missionary letter gets set aside. Once set aside, of course, a letter is no longer a letter—it’s clutter. And once it becomes clutter, the chances of it being read are slim.
2. They are impatient.Their impatience is due in part to the demands on their time, but it is also because of the way they process information. Americans (and people of other Western nations) are accustomed to getting their news fast, in sound bites. They want to know the score of the game and the chances of rain, and if they’re interested and have the time they’ll get the details later. They are bombarded by a thousand advertisements a day; it’s difficult to catch their attention, and harder to keep it. They have little tolerance for unprofessional work. Most wouldn’t consciously demand professional-quality writing or graphics from a missionary. Nonetheless, the missionary newsletter competes with the professionally prepared junk mail that arrives at the same time. If the letter doesn’t meet expectations at first glance, it may not receive a second one.
3. They often do not understand missions. A close friend of mine who had grown up in a Christian family and had attended church all his life once asked me why I would go all the way to Romania when there were plenty of poor people as close as Detroit. Another friend expressed disbelief that missionaries were still going to economically and socially advanced countries like France. Others don’t seem sure that the unreached are really lost—perhaps God in his mercy will find some way other than the gospel to save them.
And these are the Christians! Most mailing lists also include non-Christian friends, relatives, and acquaintances. We cannot safely assume that most of our readers are missions-oriented.
I don’t mean to imply that all of these characterizations are true of everyone on our mailing lists. But if they are true of most—or even many—then we’ll have to change the way we write newsletters in order to reach them. Our letters will be much more effective if we:
1. Consider our newsletters a vital part of our ministry. Too often we consider our work the specific tasks which our mission assigns us. Newsletters, then, are useful for raising prayer and financialsupport, for keeping supporters informed, and for maintaining relationships; but they are not part of our “real” work. Time spent in production of a newsletter is time stolen from more valid activities.
While there is a kernel of truth in this attitude (after all, none of our supporters sent me to Romania so I could spend all of my time writing entertaining newsletters), I believe it can blind us to the effectiveness of the newsletter as a ministry tool. A good newsletter can expose the readers to the gospel, remind them of the importance of fulfilling the Great Commission, give them a vision for their own friends and neighbors, offer a taste of the difficulties and joys of mission work, encourage them to pray, open their hearts to the possibility of personal involvement in missions—or all of the above. The potential for making an impact on missions and on people’s lives through our letters is immense; the time demanded by thoughtful preparation of those letters is merited.
2. Make our letters easy to read. Regardless of what we want to accomplish with the newsletter—to raise support, to maintain contact with friends, to inspire prayer—we will not be successful if the letter is not read. The missionary is handicapped because he has so much to say (I’ve been there) that he just can’t resist filling both sides of the paper with tiny print. “Oh, well,” we’re inclined to think, “they’re my friends—they’ll forgive me if I’ve put a little too much in this letter.” “Oh, well,” our friends think as they throw out the letter, “he’s a friend—he’d understand that I’m just too busy to read all of this.”
When it comes to what we read, appearance matters more than we often realize. Certain page layouts are just more attractive and easy to read than others. Lots of white space on the page (resist the feeling that you’re being a poor steward with that unused space) increases readership. The dollar bill test is helpful. If you lay a dollar bill anywhere on a page and it can cover a single unbroken block of text, you have too much text. Pictures and computer graphics can add a nice touch, as can a pull-out quote or even an interesting font in a heading. Ready-made templates for newsletters are available on many software programs.
One thing that has helped me is to page through a newspaper or magazine looking for ideas. If I see an interesting or particularly eye-catching page layout or advertisement, I may set up a newsletter the same way. My newsletter may not compete with a four-color toothpaste brochure, but I can make it visually interesting enough to draw the eye.
3. Stop talking so much. Making our letters easy to read involves more, of course, than creative use of white space. It means, among other things, that we can’t describe everything that’s happened to us since the last newsletter. It’s not possible anyway, so we might as well resign ourselves to picking out the most interesting, humorous, or significant events, and save the rest for our memoirs.
A long-winded newsletter is as annoying as a friend who doesn’t know when to get off the phone—except that it’s a lot easier to put down the letter than to hang up on a friend.
4. Remember our different audiences. What about those people who want to hear more? It’s possible to please them without alienating the rest. I always make the front page of our newsletter as easy to read as possible, but I sometimes pack the back page with extra information for those interested. I tend to think of the “front-pagers” and “both-siders” as two different audiences, and write to them accordingly.
Sometimes, though, one newsletter may not be enough. Years, ago, several friends told us that they wanted their families to get more involved in our ministry, to pray for us together, and to have their children write to ours. There were so many of these people that we decided to write a separate newsletter for families with young children. This quarterly letter, prepared by my wife, is geared toward families in a way our regular newsletter cannot be. (The parents receivethe regular newsletter as well.) The separate letter has not been much work for us, and the families appreciate the special attention.
5. Inspire our readers to pray. This is not the same as telling them to pray; it’s making them want to pray. This is not an easy task, and it’s not accomplished simply by providing them with a list of prayer requests. Like most of us, the people who read our letters struggle to find time to pray—and to actually do it when they have time. A list may help motivate them, but far more important is our honesty and creativity in presenting the situations and people which require prayer—the hopeless life of one without Christ, the struggles of a new Christian, setbacks in our work, dramatic spiritual battles, and daily frustrations. A good newsletter inspires people to pray, and gives them the insight to pray intelligently and effectively.
6. Stop preaching. We missionaries often assure people that we’re no different than they are—we’re not spiritual giants or anything—but every time we write to them, we quote Bible verses, tell them they need to pray, and offer a spiritual lesson.
Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s important for us to convey spiritual truths in our letters. I just don’t think it’s effective to hit people over the head with them. The average reader is not looking for a sermon. If he feels like we’re preaching at him, he’ll lose interest.
It’s possible both to entertain and to avoid superficiality; to amuse and to inspire prayer; to write of missionary work and yet not always to sound like Oswald Chambers. People want us to sound like ourselves. They enjoy a conversational tone—it makes the letter personal, even if they know that it was sent to 800 other people.
Before I went to Romania, someone advised me to pick out one particular person and pretend as if I was writing to that person instead of to a mailing list. It was good advice. I wrote several letters to . . . well, to my mom. I actually started the letters “Dear Mom.” We got more positive comments about these than about any other letter we sent out—even from those who thought I had mailed them the wrong letter.
But unless you’re as closely related to my mother as I am, please don’t write your newsletters with her in mind. Write to somebody busier, less patient, and less committed to your work. A lot more of your letters will be read. And don’t worry too much about the people who don’t fit into that category—I’ve asked my mother about it, and she assures me that she’ll keep reading missionary letters even if they start getting entertaining.
Luke Veldt is a missionary to Romania with the Evangelical Free Church Mission.
EMQ, Vol. 35, No. 2, pp. 200-203. Copyright © 1999 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.