To My Missionary Colleagues

Dear Missionary (or “Believer Actively Working Toward Building the Kingdom,” for those of you who don’t like or use the word, “missionary”),

Although I like to think that my entire blog is written with you as its intended audience, I realize that my thoughts here can sometimes come across as talking about you rather than to you. With this post, I offer a word of warning, and I’d like to be clear that it is intended for you.

A broad base of spiritual, financial, and emotional support is vital to any missions endeavor. If you don’t have that support, you’re left alone, discouraged, and in potentially dangerous spiritual territory. I imagine that all of you know this, and most of you put the necessary time and energy into building and fostering such a support base.

Nevertheless, you must do more to communicate what God is doing in, through, and among you on the mission field.

In times past, most churchgoers only knew (or, at least knew of) one missionary. There simply weren’t that many people leaving home to live in intentional, incarnational ministry in a foreign context. If a Christian was thinking about missions, odds were that he was thinking about you.

But things have changed. The shrinking of the world, combined with a renewed emphasis on volunteerism and short-term service, means that many believers know many different missionaries personally.  It’s likely that you aren’t the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of international missions. Sure, you’ve faithfully sent out your prayer newsletter each month, but there are hundreds of other people/organizations with beautiful websites, custom graphics, and full-time content writers.

The truth is, there are just too many voices out there calling for the attention of the people in the pews for you to keep up with. Charities. Youth programs. Political causes. Social issues. Physical needs. The newest Bible translation and accompanying study guide.  You’re just another voice, asking for prayer, money, and a mention in the church bulletin on your birthday.

So what can you do about it? How can you possibly compete with powerful videos, gimmicky gifts, and flashy four-color brochures? Here are some ideas:

  • Be personal. I want to read about how hard it is, how you feel, and how you interact with people. If you only write about random people I don’t know, it’s hard for me to care. Tell us about your struggle to meet people, your doubt, and your loneliness. Chronicle your family’s adventures, your host culture’s traditions, and your personal interactions with God. (I know many of you are concerned about security, but this might be the motivation you need to work out your access platform.)
  • Use social media. Letters were okay when everyone communicated via letters. Now, a letter only serves to remind us that you’re not connected to “real life.” Real life for us is instant, interactive, and short.  You really need to be using using tools like Twitter, blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. If you want us to remember you and your work often, communicate often, and in ways that remind us that what you’re doing there isn’t disconnected from what we’re doing here.
  • Be creative in your communication. Post photos. Upload videos. Record a podcast. Publish a comic book. Produce a weekly online radio show. Make an iTunes music mix, print t-shirts, put together a desktop widget. Do something to insure that your relationship to the people who support you is interesting, relevant, informative, and encouraging.
  • Ask for input. If your communication with people back home is limited to sermonic Bible study notes and pictures of your kids, it’s hard to know what to say back to you. But if you ask for opinions, insight, ideas, or critiques, I’m more likely to respond and interact. If I respond and interact, I’m more likely to think about you every once in a while.
  • Speak prophetically into what’s happening Stateside. There is a broad conversation among churches and church leaders about being missional. (Missional, in case you’re not familiar with the term, refers to an intentional Christian lifestyle that incarnates the gospel into one’s cultural context. It’s the opposite of “attractional” ministry and “forays into the world” mission trips.) Of all the voices in the missional conversation, few (if any) belong to missionaries. If you’re not participating in the conversation, you’re missing a huge opportunity to speak into a massive and influential Christian movement. And the movement desperately needs the influence of those who are planting churches cross-culturally.

Also, the church needs to learn missiology. Where do they learn about missions? From you. But if you’re neglecting your duty as a teacher and advocate, they’re left with Joel Osteen, Mark Driscoll, and Al Mohler (none of whom are/were/think like missionaries.) In order to participate in what God is doing around the world, they need to hear what you’ve experienced.

Please, consider your strategy for communication with your supporting churches. You need them, they need you, and we’re all missing out on what God is doing when we aren’t unified. It doesn’t take a lot, but you have access to the tools that can connect you in real ways to the body of believers that sends you.

Thanks for reading. Please send me links to your streams of communication. I’d love to follow you!

20 thoughts on “To My Missionary Colleagues

  1. I agree with everything you write. However, my experience this time in the States has shown the least amount of interest in global missions than at any other time. Maybe it is just the region of the country we are in, or the distraction of the Presidential election, economic crisis, etc.

    I totally agree that we need to be much more intentional, but the opportunities and audiences to do what you suggest are much rarer than before. What I would like to see is specific training coming out of the IMB for M’s that help us address the very issues you mention. We need to be more intentional, and not as passive as we are sitting around waiting for the phone to ring with an invitation.

    My own feeling is that the current economic crisis will be one that forces people to carefully choose what they will be supporting. Since we obviously can’t do it all, I predict people/churches will be much more selective. Those they relate to in prayer and finances are the ones they know personally. I see institutions taking some major downturns in the coming months. Thanks for sharing these thoughts.

  2. Guy,
    I agree with you about the current (and coming) effects of the economic situation on our institutions and work. Good thing God isn’t ever tight on cash, huh?

    Over the last ten or fifteen years, missionary strategists worked hard to define missions as “reaching unreached people groups” and church planting. For the most part, they were effective.

    But over the last five years, things have changed. The church’s focus on a more holistic missional and incarnational understanding of Christianity, church, and ministry has affected its take on missions as well. Now, people see community development, microenterprise investment, social action, and awareness campaigns as missions.

    So now we have influential pastors like Mark Batterson putting together “tangible missions gift catalogs.” and churches adopting small business in developing countries through Kiva.

    I’m in the U.S. now, too, and I don’t think people are less interested in missions. I think they’re just not interested in missions as it’s been presented by the institutions.

    Maybe it is regional, though…

  3. I was glad to run across your blog. Great suggestions that I hope to pass on to the staff here at World Gospel Mission who help missionaries with their homeland ministry assignment (a more accurate description than “furlough”) and with communications from the field.

    I don’t know what region of the States that Guy comes from, but I think that an awful lot of believers sitting in the pews really yearn to be more significantly involved in God’s mission but are under-educated, under-challenged, and under-deployed. When we as missionaries or a missionary organization can show them how to take the “next step”–whatever that is for them individually or as a church–they respond! By God’s provision, we have just finished December with a 5% increase in gift income over last year (and it was up significantly in 2007). The number of short term ministry teams that believers arranged through WGM was at an all-time high, too.

    Similar to what stepchild mentioned, WGM is moving to more intentionally holistic ministry.

  4. I think that as we are personal and relational it transcends economic downturns and the like. As we live His love in our lives, our ministries, people are drawn to Him and Kingdom living. In the Kingdom there is no economic downturn.

    Great post and great words of encouragement.

  5. I’ve followed your blog activities for a few years now. My husband Jeff and I are former ISC’ers in Germany, now trying to get back to Europe through the usual avenues. (Hope to work with Derek W. in his new endeavor.) We are friends with Tep and I think you’ve met Jeff at an Upstream event in Atlanta. We are working with Upstream to connect our church and work in Scandinavia and hope to end up there soon. I write often about Europe, missional/culture type things and family stuff. Thanks for the blog…I link to yours on mine. I have great appreciation for creative communication and relational ministry and you seem to try to do both with passion.

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  8. As a missionary living in Niger West Africa for the last 4 years I’d like to add some perspective.

    I am tech support for SIM missionaries on the field of Niger. There is not enough time in the day to continue to have a growing relationship with my Creator, fulfill my ministry, be a good father to my kids, a loving husband to my wife, a caring member of my local church here, and be a professional communicator via a blog, twitter, facebook, web site, and newsletters. Where do I stop?

    For one thing, our internet access here is not U.S. or western. In fact we have just been through a 4 day outage on 2 different systems that have really put a crimp on my (and other’s) ability to communicate back home. Even when our connections work, “Upload videos. Record a podcast.” are going to be either impossible due to bandwidth restrictions or prohibitively expensive. Even then, we have done such a thing, but to do it consistently is probably not going to happen.

    We do have great core supporters, who allow us to be where we are called, and we own them a huge debt of gratitude for their support, but attracting new partners has been a very uncomfortable (not keen on “selling” ones self, tooting our own horn etc.) challenge, that I am not sure any measure of communication, outside of asking God to speak through us, could succeed. Granted, the Lord can and and will use our communication, but I am not sure sheer volume is the answer.

    I like the message of this article, we need to communicate with our partners, but am saddened by many western churches ADD attitude toward foreign / cross-cultural missions.


  9. Randal,
    Thanks for sharing your perspective. I don’t want to downplay the difficulties of communication without dependable internet access. I’m glad to hear that you are doing what you can to get the word out. Your comment here is a great example- by posting your thoughts here in a relevant way, my readers are exposed to your work. There are many other blogs out there (with greater readership) that would allow you the same opportunity.

    But good communication doesn’t require that you have broadband. It requires a compelling story and creativity in telling that story. Why not shoot short (1-2 minutes) “documentaries” of all the people you work with, and send them via mail to someone with a reliable internet connection who can upload the video for you. If you use a camera that stores the video file on an SD memory card, the cost of mailing is minimal.

    Another tool would be Twitter. You can post short messages (it only allows 140 characters per “tweet,”), and you can post from a sporadic connection or even a mobile telephone. Your Twitter feed can be posted to a blog or website, so updating it can still happen in real time. You can do all of this for free. The catch? You’ve got to be creative, and you’ve got to make the most of every KB of connectivity.

    You’re right- volume isn’t the answer. Targeted communication is. If you can connect with the people who are listening (and believe me, they’re out there.), you can mobilize and involve them.

    I wish you well in your endeavors. Keep up the good work!

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  11. So, if a missionary happens to be in a “R.A.N.” country & blatant communications might be dangerous or prohibitive, then what?

  12. Grace,
    You still have several options (and no excuses) for communicating through a blog.

    1) Blog anonymously. This is best for those who have unrestricted access to the internet (i.e., nobody’s monitoring everything that comes out of your ip address) but want to talk about Jesus. Just choose an alias and a free blogging platform (Blogger is you’re a beginner, WordPress if you’re a bit more savvy.) Facebook, too. I do this. You can too. If you want some people to know who you are, let them know via email and they can start following your blog.

    2) Blog innocuously. Just write about boring family stuff or what you ate for dinner or how long you waited in line to send a letter only to have the post office close before you made it to the front of the line. Send a “decoder key” to your supporters so they know what you’re really talking about. Let them know that when you talk about a “chatting with a friend,” you mean “sharing the gospel boldly.” Soon, they’ll get it and tell others about your wit and humor.

    3) Blog via proxy. Find a supporter, former co-worker, or college intern to blog on your behalf by transcribing phone conversations, letters, and messages through the grapevine. Get someone who’s really good at writing and design, and you could have a great website that you never have to visit!

    4) Blog via your mobile phone. In many places (not all), your phone is more secure than your computer. Use your phone to post to a blog (obviously the messages will be shorter), or use Twitter short-messaging service to the same effect.

    5) Get creative. Start a photo-only blog. Your supporters will know to pray for what they see in your pictures, the oppressive government will just see, well, pictures. Set up a video channel or vlog on YouTube (free, easy). Record your daily life on an inexpensive video camera (Flip Cameras are great). Again, photos or videos could be sent as email attachments to a partner/intern/friend/family member who then posts them online.

    As I said, lots of options.

  13. Ernest,

    Thanks for the tips. I do appreciate them. The humorous thing is that 2 of the social networking websites you mentioned(along with quite a few others), are banned in the country that I will go to. They also monitor all forms of communication.

  14. Grace,
    It figures I’d choose some that are banned in your country. There are others out there, and many countries have their own “versions” of popular social networking sites.

    What about the option of sending updates (carefully-worded/coded/encrypted) to a volunteer who then posts them to an anonymous blog?
    Are there any blog platforms allowed? I know of several workers who have photo-only blogs. Done well, these can be powerful communication tools.

    Hoping you find some good solutions,

  15. Good points. Thanks for the encouragement to make the effort to be fresh, relevant, and personal. The biggest issue we have found with attempting to follow suggestions like yours is that when you are with a large, established missions organization, there are numerous communication guidelines and restrictions
    (even if you are not in a sensitive country) that many people outside the organization are not aware of. Anything we “publish” related to our work must be checked and approved by three different individuals, and the turnaround for getting approval can take over a week. We are discouraged from using Facebook or blogs for anything other than personal social communication, and there are lots of rules about using them otherwise. I think it is similar to the problem many cutting-edge types serving in mainstream Evangelical churches run into when they think they are going to get to operate in this organic and spontaneous way and find that a three minute slot on a Sunday requires three months advance notice to get scheduled. Or using a room in the church requires submitting a ministry plan proposal to the elder board. It is much easier to join a church plant that flies by the seat of its pants than deal with the admin issues that come with ministry in more established institutional settings. We love our organization and they are the best at what they do, but sometimes being authentic, instant, and participating in some of the more immediate forms of communication is not as feasible as you might think, if we are to submit to the leadership that has its own, sometimes conflicting, goals for how members present themselves to the public.

  16. CJ,
    You make good points. Organizations have a tendency to develop policies and levels of leadership that can slow down the flow of information. I would ask what the organization gains by having tight control over communications.
    The broader conversation doesn’t wait for approval.

  17. Thanks E., I gained a lot from this passage:

    “If you’re not participating in the conversation, you’re missing a huge opportunity to speak into a massive and influential Christian movement. And the movement desperately needs the influence of those who are planting churches cross-culturally.”

    I often forget to think about what I have to offer. And that’s what my communications should be about–offering.

    One more thing. I’m a writer and editor for The Seed Company, an affiliate of Wycliffe Bible Translators. I work from my home in Minnesota. (I served a term in Papua New Guinea recently.) I think it requires extra creativity to make my job interesting to readers! Do you have any thoughts for those of us working desk jobs in our home country? Thanks!

    BTW, my blog of few followers is here:

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