5 Tips for Newsletter Writing

Last night at dinner my friend asked me if I had always loved writing.

Ha! I was a math person. Math came easily to me. My lowest scores on standardized tests were always in English. For the life of me my brain cannot crack the code of

If milk is a liquid, then a car is a ___________ (solid, vehicle, drink, or a chance to bash your head against the wall because you have no idea.)

So, no, I did not “always know I would love writing.” I paused before answering, “I don’t really love writing, I love story telling.”

The main form of writing I did for years was newsletters and to this day I love writing my monthly updates. But I found out I was an anomaly, many people dread writing newsletters and there is much shame and uncomfortableness around newsletters overall; instead of adding to the shame with more “you shoulds,” my hope is that we can all feel empowered and (dare I say it) a bit excited about writing newsletters when you finish reading this post.

Here are my five tips for you today:

One: Make it easy for supporters—This first one is born out of my own personal experience this year as a supporter. I started supporting Leslie (not her real name) and she moved to the field a few months ago  . . .  at least I think she did since I have not heard from her.

Recently I was meeting with a young man who is in the process of raising support himself and I told him this very tip: make it easy for supporters. “Take our mutual friend, I haven’t heard from her.” He looked at me confused, “But she blogs.”

Clearly I am a fan of blogging, as you are reading this ON A BLOG. A blog can be one tool in communicating with supporters, but here is why I believe it cannot be the primary tool: you are putting the responsibility for communication on your supporters. Now that I know the gal I support has a blog, guess who is a tad annoyed that I have to track down the info to hear about her? Yup, the person she wants not to be annoyed over something trivial, like tracking down a url.

If you use blog posts as your primary way of communicating, may I offer two additional tips? First, still have an email list and quarterly send out an email with links to the blogs. Deliver the news to them; put the onus for communication on you, not them. Second, blogs (unless password protected) are public, very public. This is a neutral fact. You can share more when you know the whole world is not going to be reading it.

Two: Show, don’t tell—Telling informs the brain, showing involves the heart, moving you in some way. Too often we communicate as if we are writing a grocery list.

I went to Bigiwawa. I gave seven presentations. I renewed my visa (PTL!!).

My brain is tracking with what you wrote, but my heart? She does not care and is now thinking about dinner or a sporting event or the kids homework or about anything but you and your ministry. She is not moved to pray for you.

Having taken a seven hour bus ride (complete with a crate of chickens who didn’t know they were supposed to stay in the crate!), Jason and I  . . . now, as a supporter, I am more engaged and therefore, more likely to pray for you. I can also picture you amongst the free-range-bus-chickens.

Three: Use strong verbs—Let’s be honest, weak verbs are easier to write. They just are. So, instead of stressing over your verbs and getting all in your head, write your newsletter and then go back. Go back and look for two weak verbs and make them stronger. Don’t strengthen every verb. How to kill the joy. Right? But over time, slowly, your verbs will get stronger.

What am I talking about? Look for this phrase: There was. Or some form of it (there is, there were) is a weak verb alert.

There was a man on the bus who was getting in my personal space.

Instead of “was” (a weaker verb), how about: On the bus a man encroached my personal space. It took every fiber in my being not to back away; I kept uttering the pre-field training mantra for personal space in this country: “my space is your space.”

In the battle between Was vs Encroached, it is not even close.

Four: Consistency is more important than content—Let’s be honest again, given how much time we can spend on newsletter writing, don’t you kind of hope your supporters basically memorize them? Or at least do more than scan? When I met with the young man raising support last week, I stressed, “If you ask people a year later what you said in July, they probably will not remember. But if you asked them if they hear from you, that question they can answer.”

Do not overthink what you are going to write. Just write something and ship it. Get it in their hands. Trust that the Holy Spirit will give you an idea for your next communication if you think this letter wasn’t great. Move on. Live, minister, write, rinse, repeat.

Five: Update your mailing listI have been sending out newsletters for almost a quarter of a century and know that every now and then it is “newsletter best practice” to do a bit of maintenance. See what information is out of date, see who still wants to receive the newsletters, see who is actually on my list.

But guess where my best intentions of “updating my list” got me?

No where.

For three years I have been meaning to get around to it. But life just never made space (and “life” is always more interesing to me then “admin” work).

So, I created a seven-day newsletter challenge that I needed. If you join in the challenge, seven days in a row you will be emailed a specific task that takes between 15 minutes and an hour a day. With the generic “update list” broken into specific tasks, all you need to do is one thing on that day.

As one person who finished the Newsletter List Challenge said in the middle of it, “It feels so good to have looked over my list, and to see who wasn’t opening e-mails and which contacts had bounced and needed to be updated!”

I will admit, maintaining a clean and useable list is NOT what I love about newsletters; but it enables me to share the stories of what God is doing.

Now that I love!

If you sign up for the challenge in the next three days (by October 23), you’ll be entered to win a copy of Enjoying Newsletters.

I wrote this for you

I backed into this writing gig through the same door you may have: newsletters. For years I wrote monthly ministry newsletters and taught writing to both ESL (in the US) and EFL (in China) without a thought of being a writer myself. Sixteen years into my work in China I started a blog.

About a year after my blog launched, I was in the US for a furlough-type rest that was anything but restful. The original plan was to land in Denver, spend two days with family while getting over jetlag, and then head off to a conference. My dad had fallen and broken his hip five days before I boarded the plane.

In those five days, I was supposed to pull together a presentation I was to give at the conference. Due to my dad’s health complications, the doctors had a prolonged process deciding whether or not to do surgery, with the risk of him dying on the table. Weighing the risks, the doctors decided to operate, and my dad moved to rehab after the surgery. Much of the five days prior to my departure, I was in shock and unable to do anything but wander my apartment. Eventually I pulled together the presentation, boarded the plane, and started my time in the US with a visit to my dad in rehab.

What does this have to do with writing? Near the end of my visit I was not thinking about writing when a pastor—a published author himself—came up to me and said, “You should write a book.” Multiple people had said, “You should write a book.” But  something clicked, and it was time. He gave me two pieces of advice: write five hundred words a day and try to get an agent. Those were my marching orders and I started marching. I recorded in a notebook how many words I wrote every day until the book was done.

I sensed my time in China was coming to an end—it did eighteen months later—and had no idea how I could support myself in America. “What skills do I have?” I wondered. “What do I have to offer?” Nothing!!! NOTHING. I had been in China getting skilled at life and ministry in China! UGH. “Wait, I will support myself by writing books. Whew, that will pay off.” (Only later would I hear the laughter of my guardian angels on that day.) So I started reading a ton about writing, making writer friends through blogging, and driving my friend Joann nuts over my obsession with numbers and writing rough drafts and many other charming parts of my personality. More than once she said, “What have I unleashed?!” That’s how charming I was: she said it out loud; imagine what was going on in her head?

This is what I discovered: much of what is written about writing is for people who want to write a book or are trying to take their blog writing to a professional level. As a non-professional writer, it never occurred to me that improving my writing might involve more than learning how to use commas better. Commas are my Achilles’ heel, and for years my organization’s Communication Department and I had gone around and around over how few commas I used. I started studying the craft of writing in earnest and learned about word choice, poorly written first drafts, killing your darlings, and how to strengthen your writing. I wondered why I had never heard much of what I found. After all, I was not brand new to this writing thing (hello, sixteen years of newsletter writing and many semesters of teaching writing). It was both exciting to learn and improve as a writer and annoying that no one had told me about these aspects of the craft of writing.

My most recent book All The News That’s Fit to Tell and How to Tell It: How to Write Christian Newsletters is distillation of what I have learned and translated for the field of newsletter writing. This book is divided into four parts:

SECTION 1: The Unseen Battle

  1. Your Mind-set

SECTION 2: Newsletter-Specific Writing

  1. Know Your Why
  2. Resist the Urge to Only Explain (RUTOE)
  3. How to Write Intros and Wrap-ups
  4. Using Visuals

SECTION 3: Simple Ways to Improve Your Writing

  1. Use Strong Verbs
  2. Use Concrete Language
  3. Kill Your Darlings
  4. Tighten Your Sentences

SECTION 4: Developing as a Writer

  1. Finding Your Voice
  2. Poorly Written First Drafts
  3. Where to Find Material
  4. Checklist for Newsletters

Each chapter ends with a “Your turn” section, allowing you to practice what was discussed in that chapter. If you have already written newsletters, use your last five newsletters. If you are at the beginning of your newsletter career and do not have newsletters to use for practice, find other samples of your writing, such as blog posts, social media posts, letters, or school papers. Do not focus on length or content at this point. Anything you have written will work.

Um, you have lettuce on your teeth

I wrote this book with you in mind because the more I learned, the more I wondered how it was I had written newsletters for years—practically decades—and no one said a word. Instead “they” let me walk around with lettuce on my newsletter teeth. Would it have been too much to hope someone would give a friendly whisper? “Hey,” gesturing towards my tooth, “you’ve got some lettuce.” Sure, those moments are embarrassing. But I would rather be told I have lettuce in my teeth than find out at the end of a party looking in the mirror.

Lettuce is easy to deal with! Once it is gone, people are no longer thinking about the piece of lettuce; they’re thinking about what you’re saying. Lest the subject matter of this book—the craft of writing—sound too academic and ring of a boring English class lecture, I love to have fun and have done my best to let you laugh at me and the 5,379 mistakes made in my newsletter writing over the years.

This book is my gift to you. You have lettuce on your teeth, but the good news? The good news is that if you can enter this book with a sense of adventure, I can almost guarantee that by the end of this book, you will have improved as a writer while having fun. And, more good news, the lettuce on your newsletter teeth will be gone.

P.S. both Marilyn Gardner and Jonathan Trotter endorsed it. Thanks friends! You can buy a copy here.

Do you like writing newsletters? What is a closer relationship with supporters worth to you? Who could you give this book to?

Read an Accidental Memoir Told in Newsletters (and a giveaway)

This month marks the 25th anniversary of writing newsletters. I know some reading this post have been writing newsletters for many more moons than I have, but I am still a bit surprised that I have 25 years under my belt.

Did the word “newsletters” have a Pavlovian response for you? If so, I bet you’re not salivating with excitement, instead you might have twinges of shame, anxiety, and/or dread. This should not be my friends. This should not be. But instead of adding to the shame that exists by saying, “I love newsletter writing and so should you. End of story.” I set out to find a way to help people fall in love with newsletter writing. Maybe for the first time. Maybe again. Maybe a little bit more for those who already enjoy writing newsletters.

Here is one of the fundamental problems: too often those in ministry don’t write newsletters, they write news reports. Now, someone else may feel passionate about reports, I don’t. A report accomplices something different than a letter. A report often shows progress. A report has to hustle for its worth. A report justifies what a person, product, or division has been doing. A report shares information.

A letter, on the other hand, fosters a relationship.

At its core, a newsletter should do just that: share the news of your life and ministry embedded in the relationship a letter offers. Sometimes the news is exciting, sometimes it is heartbreaking, sometimes—let’s be honest—it can be a bit dull (do I really need to know what you ate for lunch?). But every line written can be a thread weaving the heart of the writer to the heart of the reader, strengthening the tie.

Does this sound like the kind of letters you write? If not, don’t worry, help is on the way. For the past year I have been compiling the newsletters from my first nine year on the field and writing nine short articles for those who write newsletters. Last week Love, Amy: An Accidental Memoir Told in Newsletters from China was published.

Why should you buy this book or give it to someone you know who writes newsletters?

We need to know we are not alone. I did not compile these letters to say, “Look at how amazing I am.” Actually, there are parts I’d rather not share. As I compiled them I had to come to terms with First Year Amy. She says things that makes Current Amy cringe. I want to put my hand over her mouth and say, “When you know what you are talking about, then you may speak.”

But she has the right to be First Year Amy. She has the right not to know what she cannot know. She has the right to do the best she can when it comes to the culture, functioning on a team, and sharing her faith.

One area my editor and I wrestled with was how much to alter the letters. You will notice that my writing ability improves and I go through phases. For instance, the letters start off without titles and in year seven I became enamored with subtitles. I kept coming back to the heart of the project: not making me look better than I was, but showing you do not need to write perfect newsletters. You just need to keep showing up.

You can move at least one tick towards the “love” end of the “I love—hate writing newsletters” continuum. I am not deluding myself that this book will turn everyone into raving newsletter fans. I wish it could! I am, however, sure that by reading these letters you will move a little bit on the continuum. I wrote it specifically for you. Those who already love writing newsletters will enjoy it, but they don’t “need” it the way you do. You ministry and relationship with your supporters is with the time, money, and effort to read this book.

You will get ideas for your own newsletter writing. In the short articles at the end of each year you will find:

  • What Gets in the Way of Writing Newsletters
  • Ideas for Your Newsletters
  • How to Write Readable Newsletters with One Easy Tip 
  • Five Things Newsletter Writers Do Well by Davita Freeman
  • Five Things Newsletter Writers Do Well by Davita Freeman
  • Ideas for Supporters Reading Your Newsletters
  • Questions to Help You Develop a Theology of Newsletter Writing
  • The Joys of Newsletter Writing
  • Three Final Practical Tips for Your Newsletters

Reading the letters themselves will also spark ideas.

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Technology offers us many ways to connect with supporters. Secret Facebook groups, making a Facebook live video or an Instastory on Instagram, are great. But there is something special about a letter. A newsletter in which you share a story, an encounter you had, a cultural lesson you learned. A letter allows you to bring others along on the journey. It is long enough to say something of substance, but short enough that no one letter bears the weight of the relationship.

If you haven’t written a letter recently, write one this week. If you’re not sure where to start, let Love, Amy give you a few ideas.

Because I believe in paying it forward, I will give three copies of this book to someone you know. Leave a comment and enter to win a copy you can give to them.

What has been your newsletter writing experience? What stresses you? What have you grown to love about writing newsletters?

You know I wasn’t always a writer. In fact, I was a junior high math teacher, but writing newsletters turned me into a writer. It may just do the same for you!

Love,

Amy

P.S. Read the back story of Love, Amy here.

Adding to Your Story-Letter

Ahhh, newsletters. (And by “Ahhh,” I’m guessing you know what I mean.)

Living outside your passport country means finding ways to keep people updated about what’s going on with you. Some of those people need to hear about what’s happening and some of them simply want to. The newsletter can take care of both, which is a good thing. But sometimes it can feel like one more burden, especially when there’s not much interesting or exciting (or not much of anything at all) to report. What if your day-to-day goings on don’t feel newsworthy?

How about thinking of your newsletter as a way to tell your story in serial form? A story-letter, if you will. I’m not suggesting that your collected writings would need to be novel-esque. It’s a problem when we think that what we write isn’t enough: not inspiring enough, not impacting enough, not poignant enough, not powerful enough. It doesn’t have to be any of those things. Your story is your story. It is what it is. And we need more “what it is.”

But my main point here isn’t telling you how to write—many of you are already great story tellers. I’m just wanting to help you fill in the gaps when you hit a dry spell. With that in mind, imagine your newsletters bound together, like chapters in a book. What kind of cover would that book have? What kind of illustrations? And what would you add to make your memoir more memorable? Why not add those things now?

So, when you’re sitting in front of your computer screen and you feel stuck, give these a try:

A Subtitle:
Your newsletter already has a title (which you chose from hours of research and consulting with focus groups, right?). But what about a subtitle, that explanation that comes after the colon? And by that, I’m thinking about a short mission statement. Maybe it’s the one for your team or for the work you’re doing. Maybe it’s your personal mission statement. Whichever it is, from time to time, you can remind your readers about it and reflect on how you’re on track . . . or how you plan to correct your course. Maybe you’ll even need to rewrite your subtitle. This is a work in progress.

A Prologue:
Probably most of the people reading your newsletter know your basic history. But when an anniversary rolls around, it can be a good time to recount how you got where you are, showing how God has brought you from “there” to “here.” Writing it down might help you better see the distance between the two.

A Map:
You know how fantasy writers create new worlds with hard-to-pronounce place names? To orient readers, they often supply a map showing the villages and shires where the story will unfold. Some of you can show where in the world you are and label the countries next door. Some of you can’t. But most will be able to draw a word picture of the neighborhood you live in, giving your readers a feel for your corner of the globe. Just take a quick walk outside your front door and write down what you see.

Epigraphs:
These are the meaningful quotations that precede each chapter of a book. What is something inspiring that you’ve heard or read lately?

Asides:
Whenever I read about a place or time with which I’m unfamiliar, I enjoy reading the asides, those times when the author digs deeper into some aspect of that place or period. What an opportunity you have to educate your readers on the customs, histories, politics, and traditions of the people around you.

Blurbs:
This is where well-known authors and experts claim on a book’s back cover that it’s “Amazing!”—”The best thing since sliced bread!” If you’ve got similar endorsements, by all means print them, but most will need to rely on more run-of-the-mill reviews. No problem. When people come to visit, ask them to write about their experiences, then publish a few of their responses. It’s good for others, and for you, to see your surroundings and your work through new eyes.

A Bibliography:
Where do your ideas come from? What about your strategies and plans? Tell your readers about the books, conferences, and classes that have given you new insights and have helped shape your direction. And while you’re at it, you might need to include a running glossary, explaining the jargon that we so often take for granted.

Acknowledgements:
There are always people to thank. Who are you grateful for? Who has helped your story along its way? How have you been blessed by the people you’re serving?

Epilogues:
Remember that meeting you organized where 50 people showed up, fueling your hopes and dreams? That was news!—and you wrote about. But don’t forget to report later that the attendance dropped down to one. Epilogues aren’t only updates; they’re times for reflection, as well, looking back on what may have seemed at the time as a finished chapter. Sometimes there are surprise victories, sometimes lessons learned. Follow-ups that tell about the one step (or two steps or three steps) back after the two steps forward aren’t easy to write. (I certainly have a hard time with them.) But disappointments don’t mean you’ve failed. They simply mean that you’re doing cross-cultural work, with its ups and downs.

Of course, the final epilogue to your story remains to be written, and it’s not a cliché to say that God only knows what it will contain. It hasn’t been put on paper yet, because it hasn’t happened yet. And until that time comes, here’s to living out your story . . . and writing about it, page by page.


[photo: “Large Coptic Bound Journal Covered in Handmade Paper,” by Krispy and Dennis, used under a Creative Commons license]

Facebook lies and other truths

Have you ever created a fake boyfriend? Yeah, me neither.

One woman did, though, and while she’s no Chewbacca Lady, I still think she’s pretty awesome. You can read Ms. Smothers’ story here. Apparently, It only took one week and five easily stageable posts for Smothers to convince her followers that she had found love.”

Facebook, er, Instagram, lies. [And for the purists, Facebook owns Instagram, so the title of this post still fits.]

Ms. Smothers succeeded in convincing her followers that something amazing had happened: she had found love!

But it was all a ruse.

fbl1

I’m really glad you’ve never created a fake significant other, but have you ever created a fake missions point? You know, tweaked a ministry photo of someone else’s ministry and gently hinted that it was yours? Piggybacked on someone else’s success without explicitly giving credit?

Ever not posted your vacation pictures because they look a bit too exotic for the home team?

Ever tweaked your ministry numbers just slightly because you know the people counting?

Using social media to deceive is pretty easy, especially when everything gets washed through thousands of miles of sub-oceanic internet cables. Using social media to salve our souls (or attempt to) is also pretty simple: have you ever shared something because you were lonely and you needed some smiley faces and thumbs up and likey hearts? I have.

The accumulated consequences of these behaviors are enormous, both to us individually and to the future of cross-cultural missions. How we use social media really, really matters.

We all know that our online lives differ significantly from our senders’. Our supporters and friends probably won’t lose money by showing a picture of a vacation. We might. On the other hand, our friends won’t make money by showing a picture of a destitute child or a baptism. We might.

And that’s disgusting and gross.
It’s also true.

Our use of social media, like all communication, can construct or destruct. Our words can be sweetly hospitable or bitterly mean.

I want to figure out how to bless the socks off of people with my online presence. I want people to meet Jesus and his power when they browse my Instagram feed or Facebook page. I want them to leave in awe of a God who takes little people, connects them to his heart, and then changes the world.

To do that, I have to own my role as a curator/creator. And so do you.

 

Missionaries as Curators
Facebook and other social media allow us to show a curated life, and that’s not a bad thing. As it turns out, most of us actually like curated things, like National Geographic and the BBC. “To curate” simply means to select, organize, and present, typically using professional or expert knowledge.” We really should do that.

Curating is communicating; it’s you and me choosing what to communicate to the world outside of our heads.

The alternative of “just being real and showing everything” is a non-option. It’s not that people don’t care about our ENTIRE lives, it’s that people aren’t God. Simply put, no one has that kind of capacity. So, again, we must curate, select, and present.

Now, the key is to remember that the thing is curated.

The one photo in a National Geographic stands in the place of thousands that didn’t make it. The story on the front page of the Huffington Post hides hundreds of others.

What we share is what people see. How we spin stuff is typically how it stays spun.

You see, the power to curate is the power to blind.
It’s also the power to create.
To raise awareness, instill courage, raise up prayers.
To disciple, challenge, and bless the world.

 

The Power We Wield
How we talk about missions impacts the next generation of cross-cultural missionaries. It impacts their expectations and their hopes, and perhaps whether or not they even show up.

Those arriving on the field in 10 or 20 or 2 years won’t learn about cross-cultural missions from a book. They’ll learn from Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat (Lord, have mercy!) and whatever’s next. Will they think it’s all safaris and hugging kids with darker skin? Will they think it’s all boat rides and baptisms, with a swig of bubble tea to end the day?

Will they think it’s all loss and dirt and manual labor? All grief and regret, and after a certain number of years, you just come home weird?

How we talk about missions impacts how our senders see missions. Is missions something we do (as in “we, the elite missionary force”) or is it something WE do (as in, “we the global church reaching the people of the globe”)?

How we talk about missions impacts how our senders see the next missionaries. Do missionaries rest? If we never let our supporters see us resting and having fun, they will go on thinking that the next missionary they send can go 20 years without a vacation. That is not a gift I want to leave for the next missionary!

We influence these discussions. A lot.

 

Going Deeper – The Curator’s Id
Social media can be a dangerous place. We take our fleshy souls and string them up on an http:// and hope for the best. Maybe we hope for love and acceptance. Or affirmation.

Or maybe we’re afraid that if we don’t post, we’ll be forgotten, abandoned, and ignored. The fear is real.

Because the curator’s task – our task – is so crucial, we must seek to understand what lies underneath our social media selves.

Fear: Am I afraid of losing support. Am I deeply afraid of being labeled as lazy, or ineffective, or unworthy? Am I afraid that people will withdraw their love? Or money? Fear is such a terrible motivation for everything (except maybe teeth-brushing). If what you post/don’t post on social media is driven by fear, name it, call it out, and talk with God and your close friends about what to do with it. And maybe read some Brené Brown.

Attention: I need to be awesome. I need people to think I’m doing amazing things and visiting amazing places because, you guessed it, I’m amazing. You wouldn’t really say that, but does your Instagram account? I’m 100% sure the Pharisees would have been on social media, and they would have looked good – like, perfect, white-washed good. They had their street corners of boasting/prayer. Is social media yours?

Affirmation: Am I ok? Am I doing enough? Am I enough? Will my kids be ok? Have I ruined my family? Are you sharing your life in order to be affirmed by your friends and senders? Hopefully, there are people IRL (in real life) who do affirm God’s work in you. People who know you deeply and love you unconditionally. Write their names on a list. Then talk with them. Regularly.

 

Facebook, Fracking, and Viral Posts
Social media is like fracking. We inject tons and tons into this thing in hopes that we’ll get something usable bubbling to the surface. And we do. But then we come to find out that we’ve just destabilized a whole region and earthquakes are now common in Oklahoma!

Facebook “like” buttons and happy emojis offer illusions of care and affirmation; they’re nice, but they cannot fill the void. They are empty carcasses, incapable of answering the deeper longings.

It took one viral blog post to sink this home for me. It felt really great, sure, and I got a lot of attention. But pretty quickly, “real people world” crashed my internet party with the messiness of kids and ministry and marriage. And you know what I found? Real joy, lasting joy, is found in real places with real people. Not online.

It’s a ruse. A golden pot at the end of a rainbow. On the moon.

 

A Word on Vulnerability
Curating your story openly and with vulnerability does not mean you share everything. Transparency doesn’t mean everyone sees everything. Jesus himself didn’t let it all hang out for everyone. He had layers of subscribers and followers and disciples and friends. And then he had John.

Vulnerability gets hijacked when we use it to meet our own needs, and that’s not healthy for us or anyone else. Brené Brown, renowned vulnerability and shame researcher, goes so far as to state in her book, Daring Greatly, “Using vulnerability is not the same thing as being vulnerable; it’s the opposite – it’s armor.”

Are you using your online vulnerability in an attempt to get your own needs met? Is it your armor? One easy way to find out is to quit the internet. Go dark for two weeks and see what it feels like? If you feel like the wind got knocked out of your sails, like you lost all your friends, like a failure, you might need to recalibrate.

I tried this last January, and I was really nervous. I wondered if I’d die. I didn’t. In fact, I’m planning to do it again because it was entirely refreshing. It reminded me of the outernet, which is actually way bigger and more entertaining anyways.

 

Logging Off
So, I guess what I’m trying to say is, curate an online life, but live a real one. Connect with your neighbors and your teammates and your friends and let them see you. Not the Facebook you, not the Insta-filtered you. You.

Yeah, Facebook lies. So find some friends who won’t. Friends In.Real.Life. Of course, “In Real Life” doesn’t necessarily mean they’re physically present; these could be people with whom you spend time connecting, personally – and privately – via e-mail or private message or Skype. We all need people who are close enough and trustworthy enough to hold our stories.

The world doesn’t need any more fake boyfriends. Or fake missionaries. Let’s learn how to curate our stories well, and with integrity. Perhaps we could start by praying this prayer…

Serenity Prayer for Social Media.1

 

Peace,
Jonathan T.

 

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Articles someone somewhere might find helpful
Check out How to Communicate so People will Care for some simple guidelines to more engaging communications.

Read Elizabeth’s thoughts on asking supporters for prayer When the lights go out.

 

Chewbacca Lady
If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you could just go on thinking I’m crazy (which would go on being accurate), or you could just go ahead and do something 150,000,000 other people on the planet have done and watch this video. You’re welcome.

How to Communicate so People Will Care

Newsletters. Prayer updates. Itinerations. Reports. Furloughs. Presentations.

Are you stressed out yet?

For most of us, living and serving abroad means communicating back to senders. A lot. But this isn’t what we went to school for, and besides that, communicating in person or in print is scary. It’s exposing. It’s like learning a new culture and language; sometimes when we mess up it’s funny, sometimes not so much.

We’re all too familiar with the dangers:

Communicate too much and we’ll annoy people or people will say we’re not protecting the privacy of the nationals.

Don’t communicate enough and we’ll get dropped; people or churches will stop supporting us, because “out of sight, out of mind.”

Talk about the right stuff in the right way. One missionary recently told me that you have to appear miserable enough that people will still support you while not appearing so miserable they want you to come home.

To be sure, communicating with senders (via newsletter or a live missions report) is a unique form of communication, blending a bit of travelogue with a side of sales pitch, and then adding a large spoonful of sermon. It’s like a Christmas Letter got married to a Church Bulletin and had an Amway.

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Extreme Sports, Convents, and Space Missions
As crazy as it seems, some people actually love talking. We call these people 13-year-old girls. I’m just kidding. Yikes. Anyways, for some of you, communication is like an extreme sport, full of excitement and danger and the very real risk of serious bodily harm. And you think it’s fun.

For others, communicating (in print or person) makes you feel like you’re wearing the appropriate attire for a European beach when you’d much rather be wearing the appropriate attire for a convent. Communicating, for you, seems dangerous, and dangerous, for you, is never fun.

Writing or speaking can feel like launching a space probe into the cosmos hoping it just might land on a tiny comet and provide even a smidgen of feedback. And when you get one positive e-mail or comment back, you’re all like, “Whooohooo! Mission Accomplished!”

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Celebrating at the European Space Agency after the successful landing of the Philae lander on a comet after a journey of 4 billion miles. Or me, when I find out someone actually read my newsletter.

 

So, You Want People to Care? Try This…
Speak from the heart.
Or be funny.
Or both.
But never neither.

That’s it. Communicate like this, and you’ll change the world. Or at least your newsletter.

 

Why This Matters – The Bride of Christ
It’s our great privilege to speak back into the lives of those who send us. They sacrifice too, and not just money: many of our senders have given up relationships and friendships, children and grandchildren. Simply put, they are worth our time.

Additionally, communicating from the field is an amazing opportunity to minister to the Bride of Christ. We can help them see God’s passion for His glory as the Kingdom spreads globally. We can enlarge their vision of God and His mission, reminding them that national politics is a small bit of what’s going on in the world. We can remind them that the Church is alive and well and the Spirit of God is moving in the hearts of people. Of course, none of that happens if we’re snooty.

Even a church missions presentation can be ministry, if done with care and thought. A report could be part of what Walter Brueggemann calls “prophetic imagination,” helping folks see an alternative reality, where the Kingdom is advancing and there’s more to life than the daily grind.

Please be careful not to love the Church only where you serve. Love the Church where you came from too. She is no less Christ’s Bride.

 

Why This Matters – They’re Volunteers
The folks reading your newsletters or listening to your missions talks are volunteers; they don’t have to pay attention to you or your words. They have chosen to listen to you (except maybe the 6-year-old boy in the third row who’s been threatened with “No McDonald’s” unless he sits still and pays attention).

They are giving you one of the greatest gifts ever: time. Value their gift, and give something back. Make them glad they came. Be wise and “make learning a joy.” (Proverbs 15:2)

Remember, you’re speaking to volunteers. They don’t have to pay attention to you, but if you speak from your heart or you’re funny or both, they will.

 

It’s Not Just Data – Speak from the Heart
Very few people get excited about data. We’re all tired of data. So, stand in front of a church and give them facts and percentages, sure, for maybe five seconds. And then give them your heart. They can get facts from Google, but they can only get your heart if you give it to them.

Want an easy way to do this? Tell them the Why and the Who, not just the What and the Where. People will care a whole lot more about what you’re doing when they see the heart behind it. Show them that heart.

Why are you going?
Why do you live there?
Why are you doing what you’re doing?
Who’s behind the newsletter?
Who’s the project for?
Who is God transforming?

What are your newsletters and presentations full of? Are they full of What you’re doing and Where you’re doing it? That stuff’s important, but it’s pretty sterile. If the majority of your communication is full of details and factoids, please stop. You’re boring people, and missions should be anything but boring.

Take a step back and ask yourself how to incorporate more of the Why and the Who. Put some heart in it.

You’re talking about people, right? So don’t reduce them to a stat or a large group photo of 50 people no one in your audience knows. There’s enough dehumanizing going on in the world already. Go ahead, show the group photo, but then tell a story about one person in the group who was impacted.

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Cecil the lion, shot and killed in Zimbabwe, July 2015

Why did Cecil the lion get so much attention? It’s because he wasn’t just a stat — another lion poached. He had a name and a family. He had a story. If we can give a lion in Africa a name and a story, can’t we do the same for people? God does.

So speak from the heart. About people, not tasks. About hearts, not projects.

Ask for God’s help. Ask Him to help you see people as He sees them, because once you connect with the heart of God on the matter, it’s all over. You’ll never be the same, and neither will your audience.

 

How to Be Funny
Sometimes, our theology erases our joy. Does yours? I realize that humor and joy are not synonyms, but really, do we actually believe the folks who look completely miserable while they grunt through gritted teeth, “I know I’m not happy, but at least I have the joy of the Lord”? Is there a laughter and peace that comes from God that is actually – really and truly – fun? We take ourselves way too seriously.

God is still in control.
God is still good.

So when was the last time you laughed? Like, really belly laughed?

Life is filled with heartache and pain. I am not immune to that, and I’ve spent a good bit of my time at A Life Overseas writing about outlawed grief, and bleeding grief, and feeling worthless.

It’s just that people are really funny creatures.

We should pray more for the joy of the Lord in our teams and churches and families. There is a time to mourn, for sure, but there is also a time to laugh and dance. Make sure you stay balanced. And remember, there’s nothing holier about sadness, just like there’s nothing juvenile or immature or sinful about enjoying life so much that you LOL.

Remember, Jesus got in trouble for having too much fun. Be like Him.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you want to be funny in your communications, learn to laugh, and laugh long and laugh hard. Wrap up your kids in tickle fights and joke about the crazy stuff.  Look at other drivers on the road and make up stories about their lives; create a running commentary. Practice various accents. In our family, one person’s good at Russian, two are great at British, another imitates Jim Carrey’s Grinch scarily well, and the last one’s four.htc5

But please, if you don’t think you’re funny, don’t worry. This is not supposed to make you even sadder and even more not funny. If funny’s not your thing, it’s not the end of the world, just make sure you communicate from your heart. No humor required.

 

CONCLUSION
Speak from the heart.
Or be funny.
Or both.
But never neither.

Try it out. See if it changes anything.
And then add me to your newsletter list.

 *photo credit