“Dear Missionary, Please Stop Sending Prayer Letters. Sincerely, The 21st Century”

Here’s a new year’s resolution for all missionaries:

Stop sending prayer letters. Switch completely to regular personalized electronic communication with your donors in 2011.

I know, I know. You have no time for communication while you’re in the field, etc etc. Older donors can’t use anything more electronic than a blender, etc etc. People treasure generic letters sent out with old news months behind schedule, etc etc.

These are all great reasons to stick to printed prayer letters, except for one thing:

They’re all based on data which is staler than the Christmas cookies still remaining on your counter.

Christianity Today ran a nice update piece on missionary/donor communication just in time to help you toss out old thinking about support raising and ring in the new. Among the insights:

  • A third of Wycliffe missionaries email daily from the field with supporters back home
  • Around 70 percent of those missionaries have 40+ hours of Internet access weekly from the field; 75% have high-speed connections
  • 50% of the missionaries Wycliffe surveyed are able to stay in the field longer and make furloughs shorter because of electronic communication

Those are staggering numbers with which most missionary communication strategies have yet to catch up.

Missionaries with older constituents may be tempted to disregard this data, consoled by the certainty of the incompatibility between the elderly and the ethernet cable.

But the times, they have a-changed.

  • Facebook use among those aged 65+ increased by 100% in the last year alone, which means a quarter of those in that age category are now Facebook active (half of those between the ages of 50 and 64 are as well)
  • 11% of adults aged 50 to 64 now use Twitter
  • Old people can’t read the prayer letters you send anyway because you always make the font so small so you can fit more in on a single page

OK, so the last one is just a personal rant. But as long as I’m indulging personal rants, permit me one final question:

Why is it that the missionaries who tell me that they’re too busy to communicate with their donors while in the field are the same ones whose Farmville and Mafia Wars updates are constantly clogging up my Facebook page?

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is also the International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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20 Responses to “Dear Missionary, Please Stop Sending Prayer Letters. Sincerely, The 21st Century”

  1. John Lee says:

    Loved that last question!:)

  2. I am conflicted over this issue…b/c for me it isn’t about an “either/or” rather it is a both. I think missionaries need a well rounded communication strategy…I do send snail mail letters to my “donors”. Friends of the ministry and prayer partners get weekly email blasts, Facebook updates to the group page and twitter updates. I still find value in the printed page, and I am so inclined to abandon it all together.

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  5. DK says:

    I would agree that it’s not an either/or, but a both/and… Another point, speaking from personal feedback that I’ve received: many of the older generation who do use email and social networks don’t necessarily know how to use them properly or understand all the links, graphics, comments, and mentions – a hand-written card and a printed newsletter is much less hassle on their end.

    • EFoley says:

      Good to have you subscribed, DK. I’d send you a hand-written card as a thanks, but I can’t remember how to handwrite properly anymore! I took the GRE (Graduate Record Exam) test for a PhD application last month, and the hardest part of the test involved writing a statement of confidentiality in cursive! (Oops–I hope I didn’t violate the confidentiality pledge by revealing that…)

  6. Al Stewart says:

    Email is great … if all supports/donors/interested people have email or even have internet. Amazingly there are still a lot of people who don’t have internet and don’t want it. Also, what I find amazing is the number of people who look at their email once a month, or worse.

    • EFoley says:

      Welcome to the comment board, Al! Good to have you visit and share your thoughts.

      Electronic communication has its limitations, that’s for sure. And yet perhaps a fair question we can ask would be this:

      Do our champion communication strategies reflect the present realities of electronic communication, or are they reflective of a previous era where print was dominant and electronic communication was less prevalent?

      Just googling the stats from today’s news, the consensus seems to be that 95% of Americans have access to the Internet, 71% of Americans have Internet access in their own homes, and two thirds have high speed Internet access. (For a conservative estimate, see, for example, last week’s story at http://www.tnr.com/article/politics/80824/unplugged-digital-divide-fcc.)

      And the issue is not simply the media we select–print versus electronic. It’s how we’re communicating with our champions in an era where technology itself poses very little hurdle or impediment to personal, one-to-one interaction. Yet I run across comparatively few missionaries that cultivate personal, one-to-one interaction with their champions, and typically they cite technological impediments as the reason why.

      I think the stats from my post and from stories like the one I referenced above reveal that our primary limitation in champion communication is no longer technological but personal. We don’t prioritize individual communication with champions compared to other uses of our time. We don’t always see why it’s necessary, or what we’d say that would be different than a prayer letter.

      This gets to overall development strategy, which is the topic of this blog: Is the purpose of development to raise money or to grow champions to fullness in Christ in relation to the cause of missions? I believe fervently that the Bible calls us to the latter and not the former. It would take a book or two and a bunch of blog posts to explain that, and that’s what I’ve developed here.

      So I hope you’ll stay and make yourself at home. Check out the posts and perhaps the book…which is available in BOTH electronic and printed forms. 🙂

  7. Statistics aside, there are those who are, or choose to remain electronically disconnected. Yes, those numbers are rapidly falling, but we cannot alienate, or discount those supporters. Many of those are older, and have more time to pray for us, and our needs as outlined in our prayer letters. Why would you not communicate with those who may be your best “prayer warrior” supporters?

    The time may come when snail mail is not necessary, but I have a feeling the Lord will return before then, and it will be a moot point. May we do our best, before the Lord, to spread the Gospel and see His kingdom enlarged before His soon return!

    • EFoley says:

      Good perspective, John–thanks for sharing! Yes, there are definitely some who choose to remain electronically disconnected–and there are many of us who feel tempted from time to time to join them! A central question for missionaries to tackle is this one: Should my communication strategy be built primarily around those who are electronically disconnected, with adaptations/extensions being added for those do connect electronically, or is it time for my communication strategy to grapple with the reality that most individuals ARE connected, and then provide adaptations/extensions for those who aren’t? None should be neglected, that’s for sure. But I suspect at times that our reticence to change as missionaries may not be completely due to our care for the electronically disconnected. I think more of that reticence than we would like to admit is caused by our uncertainty as to know how to do one to one champion coaching. Snail mail gives us an excuse for not doing such one on one coaching–our relationships can remain primarily one-way support relationships, i.e., I do the ministry and someone else prays for me and supports me financially. Electronic communication invites two-way accountability relationships, where both the missionary and the champion recognize their responsibility to minister in their sphere of influence. As I’ve noted in the comments below, in the end, the medium is less than issue than the relationship we are seeking to have with champions. Snail mail may indeed still be sufficient if what we are seeking is for people to support us; if what we’re seeking is to carry out the Biblical mandate of Ephesians 4–equipping others to grow to fullness in Christ in the causes God gives us to champion–then snail mail will quickly, I think, reveal itself as falling short.

  8. Shine4Him says:

    Great post!

    Actually, I’m coming from the other perspective. As a new worker (still in support-raising phase), I started out with ALL my communications in digital formats. Recently though, one of my best prayer partners decided that having email was a waste of time. I’m sure I’ll run into a few others who are disconnected as well, so now I’m trying to figure out how to work with them! My generation has gotten so used to doing everything digitally, that hard copy letters seem like a lot more work (and cost!) than we budget for.

    Another thing… as someone who also is on the receiving end of tons of prayer letters, both digital and mailed, I do tend to actually open the envelopes as they come in. PDFs usually get saved to my computer, where I may or may not remember to read them – and these are ministries I care about! It seems both formats have their good and bad sides.

  9. Shine4Him says:

    *sigh* WP ate my comment… again!

    Great post!

    Actually, I’m coming from the other perspective. As a new worker (still in support-raising phase), I started out with ALL my communications in digital formats. Recently though, one of my best prayer partners decided that having email was a waste of time. I’m sure I’ll run into a few others who are disconnected as well, so now I’m trying to figure out how to work with them! My generation has gotten so used to doing everything digitally, that hard copy letters seem like a lot more work (and cost!) than we budget for.

    Another thing… as someone who also is on the receiving end of tons of prayer letters, both digital and mailed, I do tend to actually open the envelopes as they come in. PDFs usually get saved to my computer, where I may or may not remember to read them – and these are ministries I care about! It seems both formats have their good and bad sides.

    • EFoley says:

      Good to meet you, Nicole–I commend you for posting such a thoughtful comment. I hope you will post again in the future and that WordPress will stop eating your comments!

  10. Pingback: From the Missionary Blogosphere | Missionary Confidential

  11. Angie says:

    I realize I am a few years late for this conversation but I’ll say my two cents anyway! I am 27 years old and my husband and I moved overseas a year and a bit ago as long term missionaries. Its 2014 and by now most missionaries have switched to e-mail updates, otherwise we have supporters who are frustrated we are spending so much money sending letters rather than e-mails.

    With that said I think one of the main problems that we missionaries have, whether we send snail mail or e-mails, is that our updates are TOO long!

    I have MANY missionary friends around the world today and I hardly finish any of their update e-mails because they take 10 minutes to read. I know, I sound shallow, but I’m being honest. We live in the world of quick access right now and long updates need to go. Long updates offend me. Just because we are missionaries doesn’t mean we need to expect people to want to know everything that is going on with us…we need to be respectful of their time. We can look a little self absorbed when we think people should read our two page updates every month.

    We used to send one page updates but we have changed our strategy. Now we send a SHORT (and I mean SHORT) update every two weeks to a month. The update always includes a large picture or two pictures with 4 – 6 sentences on one particular thing that is going on. For example, “Tommy wanted to enjoy the beautiful sunshine this morning so he went for a bike ride..well he got some sun but he also got more than he bargained for and broke his arm! We would appreciate your prayers as we head to the hospital right now to get a cast put on it. It’s been a hectic morning so far but we know God is good. Thank you for your prayers and have a wonderful day!” We add a picture and call it a wrap! We have been doing this for 6 months now and people LOVE it.

    We have had a lot of feedback from our supporters and they tell us over and over again how much they like our updates. They tell us that they are fun to read because they are short and they always have a picture. Others tell us how much they appreciate them because they feel like we respect their time…they like hearing from us but they actually read our updates now because they know they won’t take 10 minutes to read.

    In the case of updates these days, less is more. People can relate to pictures more than the words on the page. Keep it real, keep it simple, keep it short, keep it interesting and always have PICTURES! It’s not really about you…it about sharing what is going on and keeping your friendships with people back home alive. So don’t bore them…let them enjoy and “live” life with you.

    • EFoley says:

      It’s never too late to join the conversation, Angie. Thanks for your gracious post and your helpful thoughts from the field. May the Lord bless your ministry and use it to bring many to maturity in Christ.

  12. I get what you’re trying to say.

    “Make yourself available. Build relationships. Be in constant communication”
    And you’re right, but this article is a bit misleading..

    (btw I’m 26, was an MK from a closed country where security is an issue, and now help automate and refine support raising for organizations and their members – info @bottom)

    If you want to be in front of people use MailChimp with Auto Responders – I use that all the time. Don’t just ditch one piece of a marketing mix for no reason at all.

    Prayer letters work. Shouldn’t you use what works?

    Also…
    – There are SERIOUS security concerns with constantly being online and communicating with people overseas.

    – You’re unable to refine and refine and build something that is AWESOME and effective at telling your story and raising support, which is what a prayer letter does (or should do)

    – You’re confusing activity with results, just because I’m on Facebook doesn’t email I’m opening my wallet for you – print still has the highest Return on Investment even in 2014.

    You said stats are old…Here’s 2 quick stats from 2012 and 2009 respectively:
    1.) Paper based marketing leaves a “deeper-footprint” in the brain over digital media, and the physical act of handling paper feels more real to the brain and triggers more emotional response.

    2. ) Direct Mail generates an average of 34X the response rate over email campaigns.

    One more: among 12 to 24 year olds, 69% say they prefer print and paper communications to reading off a screen….I have stats for old people too don’t worry.

    Look, I work for a comprehensive marketing company that does every type of communication imaginable, video, web, social, digital, print, whatever – Agency level stuff.

    And I ALWAYS recommend printed prayer letters!

    If you’re a missionary or just need to raise support and want an all-in-one prayer letter solution…I’m shamelessly gonna plug my site here: http://www.envision3engage.com.
    …and my email: nrofkahr[at]envision-3.com

    Glad to help in any way I can.

    Cheers,
    Nathan

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