In the last couple weeks I have received about a dozen prayer letters via email from missionaries that I know. As a result of reading a wide assortment of these missionary updates, and after writing one myself yesterday, I came to the conclusion that there are specific ways to make a prayer letter more effective.
Now, obviously, just as many blog posts often are, this is mainly just my opinion. But I think anyone who regularly pays attention to missionary letters will notice that every missionary has their own style, and some letters are read more attentively than others.
Of course, there are some people who faithfully read every word of every prayer letter and pray multiple times for the specific requests of each missionary. These people are to be commended for their commitment.
Unfortunately, this is not the norm.
So as I seek to write a prayer letter that will both interest my readers and give a faithful representation of my ministry, here are some things I believe to be characteristic of effective prayer letters.
By this I am referring to visual appeal, not word choice (although word choice is also important and must appropriate).
As I write this, I happen to be sitting in a kitchen with menus from several local restaurants posted on the walls. The ones that interest me more are the ones printed in several color as opposed to just black ink on white paper (or black ink on red paper or something similar).
Just as a menu or a brochure or a poster or a website is more appealing when multiple colors are tastefully incorporated, a missionary letter with color is more attractive. Something as basic as a colored banner at the top of a letter can add a lot to an otherwise simple layout.
Closely related to the last subject is the usage of photographs in a letter. Pictures are part of that visual aspect that make people want to read the accompanying information. That’s why I include pictures in my blog posts. But they must be included in such a way that they are interesting rather than distracting or cumbersome.
First, people like to see what is happening on the mission field, especially since they usually cannot visit and see first-hand what takes place (although this is always encouraged when possible!). Pictures of Bible studies, medical clinics, street evangelism, and building projects give credence to a missionary’s ministry report.
Second, pictures of the missionaries themselves and their families are important. When I was with Jim and Julie Leonard in Brasil two years ago, they were thankful that I took several pictures of them so they could show their supporters what they were doing. Churches don’t want to just see the ministry- they want to see the missionaries doing it.
But family pictures are also important, especially for missionaries with young children. Every once in awhile, a prayer letter should include a picture of the whole family so people can see how the children are growing.
Third, include only a few pictures. Two or three is preferable. Too many pictures are overwhelming and can quickly become space wasters. After going to Brasil, I realized that a picture means the most to the people who also saw the real thing. So while pictures are good, too many can become meaningless because the readers cannot personally relate to what they see in the pictures.
Ministry takes place on a weekly basis on the mission field, even if it is not always in the form of big events. Sometimes ministry even seems to progress slowly with little fruit, but if a servant is being faithful, ministry is constantly happening.
Prayer letters should likewise be frequent. But how frequent?
I think it depends on the length of the ministry. During my trip to Brasil, I sent out updates once a week because I was only there for seven weeks. My schedule was intentionally packed full with as many ministry opportunities as possible so I could taste several different things.
During my 12-month internship here in Bennington, I am only going to write a monthly prayer letter. Some full-time missionaries write weekly, some write monthly, some write quarterly, and some follow other schedules (and some don’t have a schedule).
I think once a month should be the bare minimum. If supporters have to wait longer than a month to hear from their missionaries, that’s too long. People don’t like to receive a prayer letter and hear about a Bible school that took place two months ago. They want to hear what happened recently and what is going to happen soon.
Also, some missionaries are “busier” than the others, doing ministries that constantly require them to move from place to place or assist in a wide assortment of responsibilities. I personally appreciate the weekly updates from these missionaries so that I can more specifically for them.
Now, we may not all agree on how long a prayer letter should be, but I think it should be only one page, and if necessary it can be two pages.
We live in an age of short attention spans and full schedules. Many people will not take time to read a whole prayer letter if it’s more than a page long. The longer it is, the more prone they are to scan it than to read it. In some instances they may even choose not to read it at all if it’s not short.
Here are a few other reasons. When churches print prayer letters for bulletins, they don’t want to print several pages of a single missionary’s update for everyone. Perhaps they print it for a bulletin board or frame it and put it on the wall. They still don’t want to print several pages, and people in passing usually won’t stop to read it all anyway.
When people receive prayer letters by email, many times they may read it as they are going through rest of their emails. If it’s too long, they will skip it or read it quick so they can finish checking all their other mail.
This is one more reason to keep prayer letters frequent. Few people will take the time to read or appreciate a quarterly prayer letter that spans 5-10 pages.
Well, those are my thoughts in the matter. Since I want to do church planting, I hopefully have many years of writing prayer letters to come!
If you have any thoughts or observations regarding this topic or my opinion on it, feel free to share.
Also, if you would like to receive my prayer letters this year, let me know!