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Philippian Lockdown: Missionary Letters

What can writers of missionary newsletters learn from Paul’s letter to Philippi?

This is the first post in what I hope will turn out to be a short series exploring Paul’s letter to the Philippians and considering what implications his prison experience has for us in our situation. However, this first post is a bit different to what will follow.

Every month or so, Sue and I send out a news email to friends and supporters keeping them up to date with what we’ve been doing and suggesting ways in which they can pray for us. (You can sign up here, if you’d like to receive a copy) We’ve been doing this since 1986. Initially, the letters were quarterly photocopies that were sent out by mail. The first few (before we bought a manual typewriter) were actually handwritten. However, although the format and the technology have changed over this time, the content of the letters has not. Basically, we tell some interesting stories about what we are doing – something that was far easier when we lived in Africa, rather than in Yorkshire under lockdown – we give a few prayer points and show how God has answered the last things we asked prayer for. It’s all very standard – though hopefully interesting and engaging.

I found myself musing on this while considering Paul’s letter to the Philippians because this is essentially a missionary prayer letter. Paul is writing to friends who pray for him and support him in his work, to thank them for their ongoing care.

However, Paul’s letter differs in a number of ways from most missionary prayer letters and certainly from ours. Firstly, it is far longer. I’m not convinced that I could produce something of this length on a regular basis and I’m even less convinced that anyone would want to read it, if I did. Secondly, it contains very little of Paul’s personal news. I presume that this is because the letter would have been carried by a friend of Paul’s (Epaphroditus?) who would be able to fill the church in with all that they needed to know.

The biggest difference between Paul’s letter and our newsletters is the way in which Paul sets out to teach and encourage the Christians in Philippi. The letter is more a masterclass in pastoral theology than a news update. Now, I get it that Paul’s relationship to the Philippians was different to the one which we have with our supporters. He was an Apostle who had planted the church in Philippi, we are simply church members sent out by a church which existed long before we were born. However, I find myself wondering whether we need to work harder at including an encouragement/teaching angle in our news letters. Initially, that was the purpose of this blog, but over the years the content of the blog and its audience have shifted so that there is limited overlap between our long-term supporters and blog readers.

To be honest, I’m not sure what to make of this yet, but reading Philippians as a missionary prayer letter does throw up some interesting questions.

Now, our latest newsletter is weeks overdue…

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