Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Prayer Letters Worth Reading-Elizabeth Givens

The Key to Writing a Prayer Letter that WILL Get Read

I remember arriving in the north of the Philippines about 20 years ago after a long day on bus, jeepney, and foot. I had hardly sat down at our friend's table when she slapped a letter down in front of me.

"Read this!" she said. "This is our last letter and I've gotten more response on this than any letter I've written in decades. What did I do?"

It only took a quick read to understand why people responded. Fay had told a story. Her husband was to speak at a gathering of tribal people and he got sick, so she went in his place. As I read, I could feel her concern on the trek that her language wasn’t as facile as her husband’s. I could smell the rice in the mountain paddies. The mud seemed to ooze through my toes as I crossed the river with her, and then I sat in the little clearing while she spoke and watched people’s faces as they hungrily drunk in her teaching of the Word. In short, she had taken me with her.

I'd read her letters before. They were accurate chronological descriptions of their ministry, but they were flat and dry. This couple was anything but flat and dry. This time she had invited her audience into her heart and allowed them to think, feel, smell, and walk with her. I didn't need to know what she did five days a week, or ten weeks a year. I only needed to go with her this one time and I grasped far more of what her life was like than pages of ministry details.

Today her letter would come to me on email. Unlike a full page for graphic design, now you have only a little window of space to grab the reader's attention. The beginning of the letter is vitally important. When you write, don't waste time on greetings and apologies. Jump right into the story. Tell a story first -- then follow up with schedules, prayer & praise, details.

What kind of stories? The best ones teach without preaching. I don't need a lecture on contextualization, but I'll read about why Kazak women feel comfortable with pillows and low tables, playing the dombre, and drinking tea as they learn the stories of the Old Testament. I want to hear how Hannah’s story brings tears to a gathering of Muslim second wives who are barren and why riding shot-gun to an archery contest with a bunch of vodka-swigging Mongols is core to evangelism.

I want reality. I want to smell what’s cooking in the hot oil at the market, listen to the lonely pathos in the voice of the woman you are trying to lead to Christ, hear the cacophony of the bells at the temple down the street or the call to prayer across the way.

I am guilty of writing rather dry, boring reports some months, but when I get a lot of response, it’s because there was a story.

~by Elizabeth Givens


OliveTree said...

Thank you so much for this reminder. One of my greatest challenges is that dreaded moment every few months when I sit down to work on our prayer letter! When we were home on furlough last year in the United States we had occassion to read many prayer letters. Being on the receiving end helped me to understand what it feels like to receive a long letter with lots of detail. An interesting story is much more inviting. Thank you.

Linda said...

Elizabeth, thank you for your helpful post. I'll read it aloud at the new memoir class I will start teaching in a few days because your points are points I emphasize. :)

I thoroughly enjoyed (because I related to) your articles (in the right column) about roots, leaving your heart in Asia, and being separated from young adult kids. Oh, yes, I really can identify.

God bless you for using your words, your heart, and your experiences to encourage others. Thanks!


Jamie Jo said...

Nice to "meet" you, Elizabeth, and to get some fresh new tips we all need. While I totally agree that people love a good story, after 25 years on the field, I cease to see anything spectacular about what I see, hear, smell, or taste.

Reading what new missionaries write makes me smile the same as the enthusiasm of a new believer at a Bible study. I need to recapture that sense of awe and then communicate it to those reading our prayer letter.

The only letters that get a lot of response in my experience are ones when I am communicating some big crisis. I'd rather live a calm life with no response to my updates.

Wandering words said...

@Jamie Jo,

I agree that it's hard to keep the "sense of awe" and newness when we live a long, long time somewhere. But I believe it is worth pursuing because our readers have, for the most part, never been there, and they need to understand our world for two reasons -- one is that they pray more accurately when they understand it better, but the greater reason is that as world Christians, we need to all be pilgrims in an alien world, looking for an eternal city.


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