Monday, May 05, 2008

Ever feel guilty writing a prayer letter?

I first started sending an email round to friends with a bit of news and some prayer points when I did six months of my gap year in South Africa with SU. A lot of the people recieving it were families who'd hired me to cook dinner parties for them, allowing me to raise a bit of cash to fund my trip. Once I hit Durham I'd send an email once a term or so, with a bit of info about what I was upto, some encouragements from CU and church, and prayer points, both general and specific, for the term ahead. A remotely funny anecdote never went down badly either.

Now that I've passed from student to that well-worn category of 'full-time paid [but yet not actually paid] Christian ministry', I'm reliant on a base of supporters to fund my living costs. Obviously it makes sense and follows biblical principle that those supporters don't just write me a cheque now and again, but are actually involved in what I'm doing. One of the best and most precious ways of that partnership being fleshed out is in much needed prayer, and so I send out an email every couple of months with detailed stuff to give thanks for, and points for prayer. This also goes to a group of mates who offered to pray for me this year. All well and good so far.

However, nearly a year after graudating, out of all the friends who send me prayer letters/updates all but one are involved in some sort of Christian training scheme/church position. Obviously it's great to be praying for people in those kind of positions, but at the same time it could indicate a potentially unhealthy focus on what 'Christian ministry' is. I was chatting with my friend James about this a few weeks back. From nine-to-five he's dealing with invoices for a rail-delivery company, but he keeps friends far flung updated with a little email now and again containing prayer and praise points.

There's a number of caveats to bring to the table. Maybe it's just I'm not that great at keeping in contact with friends. Maybe our culture is such that people are more likely to have one or two pals who they keep in touch with for prayer. I suppose in reality you are going to be praying for those you are close to, so its clearly unrealistic to expect everyone to be exchanging prayer news with everyone. Also those who are still part of the same church should be in a position where they can pray for each other regularly, and I guess there's a good argument for the local church being the place where people recieve most prayer support. And we wouldn't ever want to say you can only pray for people whom you are 'up-to-date-with'.

All that said, this doesn't remove the fact that it seems prayer letters are the norm for church workers, whilst those involved in full-time Christian ministry at the office, in the classroom, at home, etc, are less likely to send them, or are less likely to be encouraged to send them. I'm pretty sure it's symptomatic of an unbalanced focus on church positions in some sense - i.e. if you're going-for-it-keen then you'll work for a church and therefore are entitled to send out prayer letters. I guess it could also indicate a prayerlessness within Christian friendships? I've certainly been convicted, as I've been thinking, about how badly I care for friends far flung. We're all busy people but an unwillingness to keep in touch and to pray in an informed way for each other can't simply be something that being busy is allowed to create.

So what to do? Encourage a few mates in different walks of life to send round a monthly email updating each other on the ministry they are involved in? I was reading in From Cambridge to the World (incidentally a brilliantly written and non-triumphalist book detailing the work of the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union) how back in the day graduated CU members would send round an annual letter reporting what they were up to and how they could pray for each other. I have a mate who, in this vein, set-up a password-protected blog for his mates so they could regularly load up their prayer points.



Anonymous said...

Not a systematic answer, just one off-the-cuff thought. Let’s place the positive aspects of prayer letters to one side for a moment. We clearly don’t ‘need’ to have a host of prayer supporters. Five handwritten prayer letters per year to five individuals would not be less effective in the economy of prayer than five mass-mailings to fifty people. Prayer letters, for all their admitted virtues, could be construed as quantifying prayer and are actually rather impersonal. With mass-communication we are able to keep notionally in touch with far more people than we can possibly invest in: most of us would have trouble praying for fifty people consistently and thoroughly. Better to pray for a few, so as to be regular (preferably daily), informed (probably weekly, at least), personal (what you wouldn’t write on a mass-mailing), and able to follow-up and encourage. Beyond what you can reasonably cover responsibly, there is nothing wrong with general prayers. Paul’s prayers were often generally applicable, and the first Christians simply couldn’t keep in touch over long distances. They could still pray, and God knew what was needed. Please, let’s not all start sending prayer letters. Robin raises a fair question but more prayer letters will not answer it in any satisfactory way.

Tom Underhill said...

Another non-answer, but a thought. It seems to me that one of the roots of the problem is that we (esp. as young graduates) move around a lot in our lifetimes - home, university, and where we work after university are often three entirely separate worlds, possibly followed by more shifts as jobs change and opportunities arise. Meaningful and deep friendships take time - and yet seems like you have just built them up and a long comes another move.
I guess my question, given this, would be about how realistic it is to continue really informed prayer support with any numbers of people when they are geographically distant. Granted, we will always have a small number of close friends we have moved from with whom we want to stay in close, personal, regular contact. But is there a place for expecting your main prayer 'supporters' to be the ones who you live or work with, and most importantly, are in the same local congregation? Is it a legitimate saving of effort to make those who are actually day-to-day most involved with your life your main prayer resource? In which case a prayer letter, while less personal, serves a purpose rather more akin to a reminder to a wider net that prayer for people's ministry is important. Rambling now, will stop...

Greg Pye said...

I think you raise a healthy concern bro! I have, in the past, sent out emails before and after a Mission or Camp to ask for prayer partnership in that work... rarely sending one out to simply ask for prayer about workplace ministry (or lack of)... and now as I plan for next year, I'm expecting to start writing regular letters to such supporters... why only now should I be considering this????

Keeping in touch is a hard thing... amongst the busy-ness esp in London I guess... However, it doesn't take much time to send a quick text of encouragement, a quick call for catch up and prayer request exchange etc... we just need to be better at keeping in touch about the important things...

A prayer letter (and to some extent, a blog) is a helpful way of doing this, keeping ppl up to date with your ministry in a more detailed way that people can then read and pray through at their leisure... does it replace the relational partnership (and accountability that follows) amongst mates - I think not... it does, however, offer much fuel for prayer partners and indeed for that quick 'catch up' phone call of "how did that talk go? how were you changed/challenged by that passage? how I can pray for you in the light of it?" etc...

Dan R said...

I think the challenge for me is
1)Believing in the worth of prayer 2)Praying for my friends and
3)Making the effort to stay in touch.

Mike Burden said...

Hamage! Didn't realise u were on here. :)

I totally echo Dan R's comment...

JB said...

I agree with Anonymous, which is strange considering I am the afore-mentioned 'James who works in rail-delivery' and who sends pesky emails (which nevertheless seem to be appreciated- by some!). Nevertheless, one further thought: might it be that endless prayer emails reduce one’s own sense of personal responsibility? However, so many good points have already been made that I should like to draw the debate in a different yet related direction, and one that might even precipitate a new blog entry…?!
Essentially my starting question is: 'What kind of Christian 'ministers' (for we are all this, as Robin rightly highlights) have the right to be financially supported?'
Paul certainly felt that apostles do... but then much of the time he worked to support himself, partly to prove the point that believers (himself included) should be hard-working (and able to give)! See 1 (and 2?) Thess.
What about elders- Did Timothy earn a wage in the marketplace? If more of our elders (‘ministers’/‘pastors’/‘vicars’ in today’s parlance) had part-time secular work, or had had full-time secular employment, would we perhaps have more relevant and practical teaching on the workplace (whether it be running a home, shop, or multinational)?
Should we support 'missionaries' to teach in English in the nations, or should we respectfully suggest they actually have to convince their clients that they are worth the money?
Do Bible translators have the right, or should they also learn a 'secular' trade ('techne' in Greek) that can give them geographical freedom, like Paul?
Controversially -in this setting- should we encourage graduates or pre-students to work full-time for 'the church' for a year, or rather to work part-time to support themselves?
Finally, might it be that an over-emphasis on ‘paid Christian work’ is making the general believing populous see themselves as second-class, or at least forget that their workplace is a place of purpose (1 Cor 15.58), frustrated by, but yet present before, the Fall? Could this in turn lead to a tendency to move away from leadership (and ‘ministry’) opportunities in the local church, because of one’s own slightly guilty feeling that one is somehow falling short of God’s ideal for them?