“Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.” -Philippians 1:1-2
Thus starts the book of Philippians. This book in Scripture, along with the rest of Paul’s writings, is a missionary letter. This particular letter was written from inside Caesar’s personal dungeon under the palace in Rome. Paul is probably the most well-known and the most successful missionary in Christianity. It would seem appropriate to learn about missions from him.
Paul was accustomed to informing the churches of his actions. At the beginning of his ministry he traveled back to the churches to report and exhort. “And thence sailed to Antioch, from whence they had been recommended to the grace of God for the work which they fulfilled. And when they were come, and gathered the church together, they rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles. And there they abode long time with the disciples.” (Acts 14:26-28) As the work grew and more churches were started, it became more difficult for Paul to travel back to those churches to exhort and report. He took a little time to write a letter and sent a currier to deliver it. These letters have been a great encouragement to millions over the last two millennia.
Missionary letters are important to God, the missionary, and the readers. God deems them important because he made them part of the Bible. The missionary deems them important because they are catalogs of prayer needs and God’s blessings. The readers deem them important because they let the readers know what progress the missionary has made. In this section we will explore the purpose, the consistency, and the response to missionary letters.
The purpose for missionary letters is communication. A good missionary realizes he is in a partnership that hinges on communication. The supporting pastor wants to know how his church’s money and prayers are working. This is vitally important. Many pastors have said, “Can’t he take a few minutes a month to let us know what is going on?” By the same token, many missionaries are frustrated with a one-sided conversation. Missionary letters are a great way to ensure that the relationship does not become strained.
1. Missionary letters should start with praise to God for His opportunities and blessings and to the supporting church who is funding the work. Nobody likes a complainer. Many people lost their lives because of it. Paul, our example, did not complain or criticize in his epistles. In Romans Paul wrote, “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world.” (Romans 1:8) He told the Corinthians, “I thank my God always on your behalf…” (I Corinthians 1:4) In all of Paul’s epistles he starts with thanking God and commending his readers. This puts God in His rightful place and signals to the reader the depth of the missionary’s faith in God and in the supporting church itself.
2. The letter should have a place to tell a soul-winning story or a testimony of Christian growth. Everyone loves an exciting well-told story. Some modern missionaries do not take the time, but the time is quite useful when taken. This can also be used as a journal later on to chronicle the history of the mission.
3. Prayer requests are a vital portion of every missionary letter. Prayer is more important to the missionary than money. Prayer brings God straight into the situation. All the great men of faith desired God and His presence above all other things. Moses said, “If thy presence go not with me, carry us not up hence.” (Exodus 33:15) In our template missionary letter of Philippians Paul writes, “That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; If by any means I may attain unto the resurrection of the dead.” (Philippians 3:10,11) More than anything else missionaries need God. The more people who can pray effectively; the better. Just as the armed forces give air support to the infantry on the ground, so we ought to provide prayer support for those going to the very gates of Hell to free lost souls.
4. Not only is the missionary supposed to let the churches know what is happening on the field, but he should also encourage the readers. Some churches will support a missionary out of a sense of duty while others seem to respond to gentle nudging. Whatever kind the supporting church is, everybody desires and needs some encouragement. Missionary letters are a great opportunity to exhort Christians to enlist and to stay in the fight for souls. Stories of what God is doing along with a truth from God’s Word go a long way in keeping people passionate for souls. Both George Mueller and Jim Elliot felt the Lord’s leading from reading missionary letters.
5. Missionary letters also present an opportunity to actively involve church members in the lives of the missionaries. On each letter is an e-mail address or even a return address to which a church member can send a reply. In a country with a different culture and language, it is easy to feel isolated. A letter from a supporting church member can be just the thing God would use to encourage the missionary. Sometimes I wonder how many missionaries would still be working their field if some Christian would take the time to write a letter of encouragement.
If the supporting church has a newsletter, it would be wise to send a copy to each missionary the church supports. Just as a church expects to know what is happening on the mission field, the missionary desires to their supporting churches are doing. This gives the missionary the opportunity to pray for big days and special events.
The Christian can also get involved in missions by sending care packages. Most missionaries have their anniversaries and birthdates printed on the back of their prayer cards. A package with birthday cards or holiday gifts in their season would be appropriate. The pen pal can find out different items the missionary family members like and send it to them. Another great idea is preaching cd’s. Missionaries need preaching too. If the pastor is preaching a Bible study series, a set of notes or cd’s could be sent to the missionary. The influence of the messages could be multiplied to many people all over the world. There were a few Chinese who visited a church during their stay in America. They ordered that day’s sermon to learn English. Who knows how many Chinese people will be influenced for Christ because one man wanted to learn English.
6. Missionary letters give the supporting church the opportunity to fill a need in the missionary’s life. One day our church received a letter from a missionary asking us to pray that God would send them some computers for their school. After reading it, I thought, “We have some computers that we could ready and send them.” If that missionary had not sent a letter, no one would have been moved to help God answer that prayer.
The purpose of missionary letters is to communicate. It enhances and flavors the relationship between the supporting churches and the missionary. It is to communicate praise to God, exhortation of the believers, and prayer needs. It also gives the church that supports the missionary the opportunity to get personally involved in helping him to succeed.
Missionary letters ought to be consistent in content and frequency. When a letter is inconsistent in content, it confuses the reader and makes God look bad. When a letter is inconsistent in frequency, the supporting churches acquire a sense of laziness or apathy on the missionary’s part. Therefore, time must be scheduled for the writing of missionary letters.
A letter should be sent monthly. With the internet so readily available, the letter can be sent as an e-mail attachment instantly with no postage charges. A missionary should strive to confirm that the letters were received. It does no good to send a report that will never be received because it got lost in the mail.
A missionary can send a quarterly video message to the supporting churches. This keeps the mission visually in the forefront of those “holding the ropes.” Some church members don’t care to read the letters, but they will be attracted to a screen. The video also allows the missionary to contact the eyes, ears, and emotions of the church members in a way he can not do on the printed page.
The missionary should write the same way from the layout of the letter to the sections of the letter. It should always be upbeat. Do not let the reader walk away with the impression that the family he supports does not want to be there. The reader should feel an energy from the mission field. If written correctly, the letter will provoke many to soul winning or even missions trips. It is crucial to be consistent in the approach of communicating with the supporting churches.
Missionaries take time to report on their activities for a purpose. Many churches may have a nicely decorated section dedicated to the missionaries. Someone in the church may even rotate the letters, but that is as far as it goes. If nobody reads them, it is a waste of a church wall.
The number one reason missionaries write letters is that people will read them. If they are not being read, the missionary is wasting his time, paper, and ink. Naturally then, the first thing a church ought to do with the letter is read it. Some churches have someone read a missionary letter or two during the announcements of the Wednesday night Bible study. This is an effort to keep the church informed of what their money is doing on the other side of the globe. One of the greatest insults to a missionary is to not read a letter he wrote. As one reads the letter, he ought to quickly note the blessings and the prayer requests.
After the letter is read, the church member should take the prayer requests to God on behalf of the missionary. “Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints; And for me, that utterance may be given unto me, that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel, For which I am an ambassador in bonds: that therein I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.” (Ephesians 6:18-20) A missions prayer journal can be kept with lists and dates of the requests and answers. Prayer can do more for a missionary than any amount of money could do. In this venue a person can have a global influence from their own home or community.
In conjunction with praying, the Christian ought to seek to help God answer to their prayer. God does not need our help, but He may impress upon us some way we can help fill a need. A missionary once contacted a church about sending Bibles to Africa. After the pastor finished his conversation with the man, he felt God prodding him to help them. In a few minutes the money was raised to ship the Bibles to Africa. I remember a missionary to Guyana, South America telling of his need for boats to bring people to church. Within ten minutes of his passing comment, the church raised the money to buy him a boat. Mot only should we seek a report, but we should also seek to fill a need. America needs more pastors and church people who realize their duty to reach the world in any way possible.
Once the letter is read and prayed for, someone in the supporting church must sense the need to respond back to the missionary. “But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at the last your care of me hath flourished again; wherein ye were also careful, but ye lacked opportunity. Not withstanding ye have well done, that ye did communicate with my affliction. Now ye Philippians know also, that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church communicated with me as concerning giving and receiving, but ye only. For even in Thessalonica ye sent once and again to my necessity. Not because I desire a gift; but I desire fruit that may abound to your account. But I have all, and abound: I am full, having received of Epaphroditus the things which were sent from you, an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well pleasing to God. But my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:10, 14-19) No one wants to send reports if they feel it is a one-sided conversation. The response should be timely and concise. The reader should sit down and write. Every missionary would like to get a letter telling what their supporting churches are doing. The response should be short and to the point. It should thank the missionary for his service, encourage him to keep working, and confirm that his requests are being prayed for. The letter can be a page or two at the most. It should be long enough for an update but not so long as to bore the recipient. If the supporting church sends out a newsletter to its members, it would do well to send one to the missionary. Many churches have a Women’s Missionary Society that sends out packages to missionaries on birthdays, anniversaries, and other special days.
Missionary letters are a means of communication between the missionary and the supporting churches. If handled properly, these letters will strengthen and enhance the relationship between both parties. With a strong relationship, it will be hard to break the bond. Also the members of the supporting will have a sense of involvement and influence globally.