by Jean Baird
Some stories make great prayer letter, but should we tell them?
Sometimes when I send a prayer letter I really don’t know whether it is helpful to people at home or not. Sometimes I think that they are too long and vague. But I don’t really feel comfortable about writing more specifically about national believers. And in another sense it is like emotional blackmail for my prayer partners.
Let me give you an example: If I wrote, "K. B., a national Christian, was tied to a pole and whipped with stinging nettles in an attempt to make him recant, but he refused to deny his Savior," it would be completely true and it might make people pray more enthusiastically for K. B. But writing such things about people being persecuted for their faith is a kind of exploitation of man and his faithful stand. The prayer partners should not need sensational stories about persecutions in order to pray for the national believers.
I have the same feeling of exploitation when writing things like, "On Sunday, in such-and-such a village, so many people were baptized," or "In various remote areas people are turning to the Lord." As if the remoteness of the village and the numbers of people make it a more valuable experience. It is a matter of wondrous grace when anyone turns to the Lord, whether in Philadelphia or Timbuctoo.
The Lord is more interested in individuals than in numbers of people, but we have a bias towards big numbers. Why should we rejoice more when we read "500 were baptized" than when we read, "in 18 months we’ve seen only one baptism"? Is that less valuable than the 500? Before I write a prayer letter, I pray myself that what I write will be helpful and not harmful to the local believers and to the praying people. I pray that my own motives for writing certain things (and not writing other things) will be clear and not tarnished motives. In my opinion, indulging in the numbers game usually comes from tarnished motives; it sounds more impressive or more important if there are more people involved. The emotional blackmail that I mentioned earlier is also a tarnished motive, I don’t want to write things that make people feel guilty, because of the sensational aspect of a report.
It is true that we are in a battle, "not against a physical enemy, but against spiritual powers," and one of the few weapons that we have is prayer. The purpose of our prayer letters is to keep that weapon sharp by informing people.
Because of widespread concern among missionaries about not using their prayer letters to exploit and manipulate, we invited others to respond to Jean Baird’s dilemma. Their comments follow.—Ed.
Vergil Gerber, Conservative Baptist missionary for 3 1 years before his retirement in 1981: Should we not rejoice that 500 were baptized as well as the one? When God gives a great harvest, we should rejoice in it. Of course, everything we do can be out of wrong motives. Even reporting that only one was baptized can be presented in a way that will get supporters to feel sorry for the poor missionary in that hard field. Let’s have balance.
Clyde Hiestand, missionary with the North Africa Mission for 19 years: Jean raises three issues: 1. What turns people on back home? I wish I knew. I aim for variety: a letter about an issue, followed by one about a local situation, followed by a personal one. 2. Reporting of numbers and motives. Be honest. Check your motives. Tell it like it is. If you’ve been honest about the "downs," you can be honest about the "ups." 3. What to report about national believers? This is the hard one. Our world is increasingly a global village where our letters get back to them, or to their enemies, or both. Write the letter. Then imagine the local police reading it. And the person himself. Then decide what to change, delete, or soften before mailing it.
Bill Reed, chairman of the missions committee, Evangel Baptist Church, Wheaton, III.: When members of our missions family, and those among whom they work, experience joys or sorrows, difficulties or successes, it is important that the home team hear about it. If believers in foreign lands are being persecuted for their faith, we need to know that, in order to pray intelligently. Certainly there is reason to rejoice when one person turns to the Lord, anywhere, but that surely leaves room for us to be literally overwhelmed when we hear that 500 people have come to know him.
David Andersen, pastor, Troy (Mich.) Baptist Church: Intelligent and meaningful prayer must be based on honest information. This information can only come via the missionary. It is not the sensational stories, or the lack of them, that motivates the prayer partner to pray, it is the information. It really doesn’t matter to the prayer partner whether the information is specific or general, just so it is current and honest.
Margery Hageman, missionary with SEND International for 10 years: Jean Baird’s caution and concern are well taken. We should be wary of exploiting or counting in order to make "good copy." How many old prayer letters have we reread, only to realize that our enthusiasm exceeded our wisdom in identifying new converts, or in assuming someone was well on the way to spiritual growth? I favor restraint in reporting.
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