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Digital Essentials for Missionaries

The Curse of Knowledge and Missionary Newsletters

In a decade working with new and seasoned missionaries, the communication pains are always some version of the same hangup: I don’t know what to write about every month.

Can you relate?

Of course there are unlimited things you could write about that your supporters would love to know. You are stepping out into an uncommon life, following Jesus into unknown adventures.

You’re potentially picking up a new language and cultural intelligence, reading books and meeting people. Not to mention, your own story and how your experiences are shaping this new chapter of your life. There are TONS of things to write about!

And yet it’s a struggle for just about every missionary I know. Some call this phenomenon the Curse of Knowledge:

Research in economics and psychology shows that when we know something, it becomes hard for us to imagine not knowing it. As a result, we become lousy communicators.

Think of a lawyer who can’t give you a straight, comprehensible answer to a legal question. His vast knowledge and experience renders him unable to fathom how little you know. So when he talks to you, he talks in abstractions that you can’t follow. And we’re all like the lawyer in our own domain of expertise.

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The curse of content is familiarity

A classic demonstration of the curse of knowledge is the F-test. Take a few moments to read the following sentence and count the occurrences of the letter f:

FINISHED FILES ARE THE RESULT OF YEARS OF SCIENTIFIC STUDY COMBINED WITH THE EXPERIENCE OF YEARS.

If you’re like most native English speakers (not already clued into the experiment), you likely counted 2, 3, or 4 fs. When given the same sentence backwards, however, the lack of familiarity with the words makes the individual letters more apparent and the occurrences of f stand out more.

SRAEY FO ECNEIREPXE EHT HTIW DENIBMOC YDUTS CIFITNEICS FO SRAEY FO TLUSER EHT ERA SELIF DEHSINIF

In other words, deep familiarity with your own life and ministry makes it hard to consistently communicate about it, especially to to new contacts and supporters. This is the curse.

God’s common grace in newsletter creation

Like most things, God’s common grace is there and provides a blessing that subverts and redeems the conundrum.

Here’s the nugget: People tend to be most engaged when they’re learning.

That’s huge! Not only are new contacts and supporters in a prime place to get excited about your ministry, but the supporters who are the most familiar with it can get engaged again.

So what’s the key to writing newsletters your ministry partners will engage with? Adopt a beginner’s mindset.

It may be easier said than done. In fact, there’s really only one way to do it–you have to listen to the types of questions “beginners” are asking. Which, if you’re like me, doesn’t always come so naturally. As an expert in your missional context, you primarily interact with the advanced and nuanced issues related to your ministry. You have thoughts about them. Passionate thoughts.

Yet your readers and supporters are not there. Beginners will earnestly attempt to follow your content for awhile, before giving up because kindergarteners get bored to tears in a senior symposium class. Does that mean you need to scale back your own inquiry? Not at all. Thoughtful interaction with those nuanced issues is critical to your ministry effectiveness. But so is an engaged and praying support team.

So, when it comes to your support team, it’s your job to bring them up to speed like an expert kindergarten teacher.

7 questions to help you write for a beginner’s mindset

Let’s get down to business. Below are seven burning questions that I’ve found consistently assumed (we all know what assuming does) in missionary newsletters. You will have to touch on these, perhaps in depth and repeatedly, if you want your supporters to stick with you and grow in their understanding of the mission.

Remember everyone needs to start somewhere, and not everyone eats, breathes and sleeps missiology (weird right?).

  1. What are the foundations of Christian missions? Why should someone care?
  2. Why don’t you just focus on ministering in your own backyard?
  3. Does every Christian have to be a missionary?
  4. Why is this mission field important?
  5. How do you fit into this mission field?
  6. What is my role in your ministry? It just feels like I’m paying for it.
  7. What will you actually be doing?

I’ve put together a worksheet with some more personal questions to help jump start your thinking on this issue and hopefully equip you with a new mindset and wellspring of content for newsletters over the long haul.

To the worksheet →


If you found this helpful, you may appreciate the Digital Essentials course that covers how you can improve the quality of your newsletters specifically with MailChimp as a newsletter software.