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Write Email Updates that People Actually Read

Ah, technology – what a gift to the missionary! Gone are the treacherous days of month-long sea voyages to arrive at a ministry site; now we catch up on movies while hurtling through the air in an Airbus. Not long ago, homesick YWAMers searched for payphones and used expensive international calling cards to talk to Mom. Now it’s FaceTime, What’sApp, or countless other smartphone apps that keep us connected.

Technology is a tremendous gift, if we steward it well. And while there’s still value in sending a quality printed newsletter to keep friends and supporters informed about our ministry, the email update has found its place in the missionary tool-belt.

But if you’re like me, your own inbox is currently cluttered with missionary e-letters that you’ll never even read. Email is a powerful tool, but it’s only effective if you wield it well. Here are some tips for sending email updates that don’t get trashed immediately.

Actually Do It

I’m amazed by how many missionaries “haven’t gotten around to” starting an email list for ministry updates. Understandably, the process can be cumbersome! Let’s weigh out the benefits:

Email is free. Unlike a printed newsletter, you’re not paying for a postage stamp for each one you send. You’re not printing or shipping, either, so it’s good for your wallet and good for God’s green earth.

Email is fast. Moments after you hit “send,” people can open and read your update. Think about the impact of that immediacy when you have an urgent prayer need or an encouraging testimony to share.

Email is [often] traceable. If you use an email marketing service (and you should – more on that in a bit), you can see who opens your update or clicks on your links. That helps you keep track of who is connecting with the vision you’re sharing and who might need you to reach out to them in different ways.

Don’t be overwhelmed by the challenge of getting an address list together. Even if you start small, start somewhere! It’ll be worth it down the road.

Forget Everything You’ve Learned about Print Newsletters

Ok, maybe not everything. You should still spell properly and tell a good story. But if you’ve ever gotten an email update that was unappealing or difficult to read, it was probably created by someone who tried to recreate a printed newsletter in email form.

Instead, think about what makes a good email. It’s short and to the point. It’s organized into clear, concise sections or paragraphs. It gives you just the information you need and provides links to other sites with more details or options. And it’s got a simple format that looks good on a laptop or on a mobile phone.

Email updates that mimic print newsletters tend to look crowded and cluttered. And don’t get me started on the .pdf attachment that I have to download to read your update!

If what you just read made you wonder whether I’ve been describing your emails, don’t blush and give up entirely. Just recognize this: your email updates are suffering from an identity crisis. Don’t try to squeeze them into the paper letter’s mold! Let them be the simple, modern format they were intended to be.

Tell One Good Story

Kick off your email update with one good story. Use a powerful description or engaging quote to draw people in and make them want to keep reading. Consider the following real-life examples:

Missionary Update A:

In February I went with my team of 15 to China. China is the most populous nation in the world, with a cultural tradition that dates back thousands of years. Despite rapid economic growth due to recently reopened trade, communism prevails, and with it corruption and control. Most young people have been taught that there is no God. We traveled to three cities, teaching English, building friendship, and sharing the Gospel. We drank a lot of tea and I learned to eat with chopsticks.

Missionary Update B:

“What is the story of Jesus?” Leila asked. English club had ended, and a few of us were sitting and chatting with our Chinese friends. As I began to share my favorite Story, Leila and her friend Carol leaned forward to listen. All around me, my teammates were sharing Jesus as well. Later I found out that one young man had not only accepted Jesus but also received healing for his wrist! That’s just one glimpse of how God worked through us. As we taught English and built friendships with Chinese students, God opened the door for us to share the Gospel with people who had never heard it before.

Which one of those stories makes you want to keep reading?

Nobody needs an itinerary of your trip, but almost everyone needs to be inspired by what God can do through his weak-but-willing people. Tell one good story that leaves your readers wanting more. You can always post more stories on your blog and give a one-sentence teaser that links to the post.

Tell one good story that leaves your readers wanting more.

Don’t Waste Words

Have you ever been in a tiny apartment or dorm? People who live in tight quarters learn to be creative and efficient with the space they have.

Choosing the right words is the email equivalent to a fold-out table or futon bed. The average office worker receives 121 emails a day. Make yours count! Throw words around carelessly and you’ll lose your reader. Your real estate is limited. Use it wisely.

A great example of squandered space: the subject line. For instance, there’s nothing about “The Smith Family’s July Update” that makes me want to sacrifice time from my busy day to read it – especially if their June update was boring! But these subject lines look like they belong to an email that’s worth my time.

  • “The Riskiest Prayer I’ve Ever Prayed”
  • “371 Bibles, 27 Homes, & Too Much Coffee”
  • “Going Undercover for Jesus”
  • “Confessions of a Bad Missionary”
  • “From the Bogota Slums to a Tennessee Dirt Road, God Is On the Move”

Now, don’t compromise integrity for clicks! We should never make up or exaggerate events just to get people engaged. But serving Jesus always means there’s a story to tell, and yours is worth sharing. Choose your words wisely, and it’s more likely they’ll be read.

Serving Jesus always means there’s a story to tell, and yours is worth sharing. Choose your words wisely.

It’s Not About the Money

If every email you send is mostly just asking for money, your readers will lose interest in a hurry. Remember, fundraising is not a necessary evil to keep you in ministry. The process of involving others in the calling God has given you is ministry itself. (Not convinced? We’ve already written about attitudes towards fundraising here and here.)

Let God use your stories of his faithfulness to encourage and inspire others. And when there’s a need, invite others to be involved. Just don’t make it about that every time. If you’re desperate for cash, it will be read between the lines. Typically that doesn’t honor God or those you’re writing to.

Practical Tips to Get You Started

  • Use an email marketing service. It enables you to send more emails at a time than a standard email provider would, and typically includes tools for designing an attractive format. There are lots of options out there; my favorite is Mailchimp, which is free for small-time users like us. (And no, they didn’t pay me to say that.)
  • Keep a simple, clean format. Use pictures and quotes to draw people in. If it’s getting long, put it in a blog post instead, or save some of it for your next update.
  • Time it well. Research varies on this, so pay attention to your readers and see what day of the week and time of day tends to get the most engagement.
  • Link to your social media profiles. That way people can follow the day-to-day stuff of missionary life and get to know you better. Other helpful links: your personal website (don’t have one? well, that’s another post for another day), your organization’s website, pages for specific programs or trips your organization offers, sermons or articles you’ve learned from, etc.
  • Link to an online donation page. Not every time! (See above.) But if you’re strategic, your email updates can be a great way to connect potential donors with your ministry.
  • Get inspired. Check out what other people are doing for their emails. Look around for some examples that inspire you. (Here’s my archive, some better than others, if you need a place to start.)
  • Have fun! Add a silly fact or fun selfie. Experiment with design options. The nice thing about email is that it’s a less formal method of communication. It’s also free, so don’t sweat it – if your update wasn’t as effective as you hoped, you’ll do better next time.

if your update wasn’t as effective as you hoped, you’ll do better next time.


img_6018Libby Thorngate has been slinging words in the YWAM world for 15 years now.

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