When I sit down to write a prayer letter, I often feel like I need to come up with something new and exciting to tell my supporters. After all, they are giving lots of money and praying for us, so I should have something significant to report, thereby justifying my existence. But I often have trouble figuring out what to write. Most of the work we are involved is in the category of “slow-and-steady-wins-the-race” and not in the category of “awesome-ground-breaking-pioneer-ministry-look-what-we’ve-done-now!” Thankfully, the vast majority of our supporters seem to understand that fruitfulness in ministry is a long-term, Holy Spirit wrought endeavor, not just a list of man-driven activities. Nonetheless, I would feel bad just writing, “Same as last month. Keep praying. Thanks” and then sign off. So I need to write something. It needs to be accurate, informative, interesting, and not overstate the what we are really doing. On slow months, when not much new is happening, that last one is difficult.
The tendency to overstate the importance and influence of one’s own ministry is something many missionaries struggle with (or should struggle with). How do I tell people about what “we” are doing without making it seem like I am more important and significant than I really am? Undoubtedly, there are many significant and strategic works that missionaries are involved in today, but many ministries are not all that unique or ground-breaking. This is especially true in places where there is an established church. In Thailand, Protestants compose only 0.6% of the Thai population, so in many cases it is easy to think that whatever one is doing has probably never been done before. The reality is that the Thai church is doing a lot to evangelize and disciple its own people, although not on the scale that you’d see in a country with a higher percent of the population Christianized. I’ve been in Thailand eight years and I am still learning about the ministries and resources that are available in the Thai church. However, some missionaries don’t seem to familiarize themselves with what is already going on and thus have a warped, over-inflated sense of the uniqueness or importance of their own ministry.
Either through ignorance or the desire for supporters to think well of them, it is not uncommon to for missionaries to paint themselves as doing something that no one else is doing. Or someone else is doing what they are doing, but they choose to ignore that and focus on how awesome and unique their own work is. It just doesn’t sounds as support-worthy to say, “Maybe there are other people are doing the same thing that we want to do, but we’re not going to take the time to find out because it is easier to do our own thing in our own way.” If you ask some of these missionaries, missionaries-to-be, or “non-residential missionaries” about contextualization and point out that their plan might not be the best one, they reply, “Sure. Of course contextualization is important. But we think that our pre-packaged church planting / evangelism / discipleship program is trans-cultural and can be used effectively worldwide without much modification.” It was awesome in Southern California or Seoul, so why would it fail to be awesome here?
But is what missionaries write in their prayer letters an accurate reflection of themselves and the situation on the ground? Would the work of God come to a screeching halt in such-and-such a location if the missionaries writing the letter were not there?
Writing an accurate prayer letter is an act of humility and faith. It is an act of humility because it means that we have taken the time to view ourselves and our work in the context of the larger work that is happening in our area. God has been at work before we arrived, and He will be at work after we leave. We are just one piece in the larger puzzle of how God is expanding his kingdom. That is not to say that we should put on some kind of self-deprecating false humility that understates the value or impact of what we are doing. To write like that is just a veiled attempt to solicit human praise. We should write truthfully but not overstate our own importance or significance. If what we are doing is really valuable, then supporters will see it and continue supporting us. That is why writing an accurate prayer letter is an act of faith. We need to trust God that writing truthfully will bring in enough support for the work we are doing. It is tempting to embellish the truth to make it sound brighter and shinier than it really is. Every missionary wants to be involved in something significant that furthers the kingdom of God, and every missions supporter wants to contribute to a ministry that is making a difference. If we make what we are doing sound a bit better than it really is, won’t that make a good impression on the folks back home? It may indeed impress people and keep the support coming in, but it does not honor God to falsify and exaggerate our missionary prayer letters. And it doesn’t advance the kingdom of God.
Writing a good, faithful, humble, and accurate missionary prayer letter is something that I struggle to do. And I imagine that other missionaries struggle with this too. Or they should struggle with it. There may be some ministries out there where something awesome and ground-breaking is happening all the time that makes writing prayer letters easy. But for the rest of us, we need to remember that God honors faithfulness and truthfulness in communication, even if we don’t look like a superhero every month.