The state of missions in 1970: too few workers, limited resources, separation between church and mission field, competing sending organizations, a remarkable lack of information about missions.

The state of missions today: too few workers, limited resources, separation between church and mission field, competing sending organizations, overwhelming amounts of unremarkable information about missions.

Except for the move from “not enough information” to “too much information,” the state of missions in the church has not changed in a generation. Despite sending hundreds of thousands of short-term volunteers on mission trips every year (according to Barna, 9% of the American population has been on a mission trip), the church is no more engaged in the mission than it was forty years ago.

I’ve written before about marketing missions, and how believers’ understanding of missions is, to an extent, shaped by how missions is communicated to them. When the “experts” have a narrow understanding of the nature of the mission, that’s what gets communicated.

  • Regular believers aren’t spoken of/to as missionaries.
  • Certain fields are neglected while others are saturated.
  • Missions becomes about numbers, statistics, and difficulty rather than people, opportunity, and calling.
  • Missions is marketed as an “Xtreme adventure” rather than a normal part of Christian life.
  • Mechanics, salesmen, therapists, and entrepreneurs are left thinking that their skills have no missionary value.
  • Missions is misunderstood to be a vocation rather than an orientation.

The problem won’t likely be resolved by a cool website or the launch of yet another “network.” What it needs are vocal missionaries. Practitioners who won’t shut up about what God is doing in their lives; how cultural barriers are being overcome and the gospel is transforming lives.

In a difficult economy, “non-essentials” like communications and public relations are some of the first things a missions organization might cut. I say if there ever was a time when missions agencies needed to focus on communications and PR, now is the time.

snellville_christian_2008-300x212-1480564Some churches divide pastoral responsibilities across specialized staff positions. There’s the Youth Minister, the Children’s Minister, the Ministers of Education, Music, and Missions. Many churches have Ministers of Media, Ministers of Technology and Ministers of Parking. There’s a Minister of job for just about everything. It’s like the cabinet of the French government.

But when economic times are tight, those ministries deemed “nonessential” are the first to be cut. Like the public school that cuts art and physical education in order to save some money, churches respond to lean times by combining ministries (if the football coach wants a job, he better be able to teach natural science) or by transitioning certain ministries into “lay” positions. And no, the Volunteer Director of Middle-School Ministry doesn’t get an office.

Of course, in a specialist structure, there are consequences to “cutting” the funding and support for a particular department. Getting rid of gym class doesn’t just happen to coincide with skyrocketing childhood obesity rates. Cut the music program, and you will get Lil Wayne in the Top 40.

It’s no different in churches that employ this same structure. Cutting the “Minister of Outreach and Evangelism” without completely changing the way church people think about outreach and evangelism will result in a church that neither reaches out nor evangelizes.

(Side note: if you’ve got the money, you may want to look into hiring a “Minster of Nutrition and Exercise.”)

These days, most Ministers of Missions are selling insurance or cars. But the churches that laid them off haven’t done anything to move away from the ministry specialist structure or to replace them with so much as a web app. If your specialist-style church has a Minister of Security but no Minister of Missions, you’re telling your people that security is more important than missions. The result is church people that know little about missions, culture, or geography, but feel a bit safer in the pew on a Sunday morning.

If your church is of the specialist sort and doesn’t have a “minister of missions,” then you are the minister of missions. Take responsibility; tell stories of what God is doing around the world, remind your church people that they have been blessed to be a blessing. Don’t be afraid to challenge the Minister of Coffee when it comes time to vote on next year’s budget.

Why not…

  • Require all church members to have a valid passport and go on at least one international trip every couple years?
  • Invite representatives of unbelieving people groups into your church to speak about what they believe and what they think of Christianity?
  • Send a care package to a missionary you don’t (yet) know?
  • Start a blog on behalf of the workers in restricted-access places that would allow them to communicate safely and anonymously?
  • Advocate for a people group? Make them more than just projects or statistics.
  • Intentionally cross cultures in your city?
  • Use your church van to drive neighbors to the store?
  • Design a logo for your local neighborhood association? Bring it to the next public meeting.
  • Use the arrival of the Christmas season to explain the gospel in a clear way to neighbors and co-workers?
  • Celebrate the good news in your community? You could buy someone’s coffee, post a note on a local bulletin board.
  • Mow your neighbor’s lawn? (Shovel the snow in his drive?)
  • Build a website for another church in town? You know which one I mean.
  • Skip work (let them know) and take your family to a matinee?

In my last few posts, I offered an outsider’s perspective on Youth With A Missions’s communication efforts and strategy. I want to reiterate that my efforts were totally unsolicited, but sincere. I’m only here to help. YWAM has been very gracious in their interaction and response, and I would love to help them however I’m able.

In wrapping up my thoughts on YWAM, there are a couple things I’d like to add a word about the YWAM logo.

Every organization uses a logo. Logos serve as graphical representations in any visual media. The “about” page of YWAM’s website features what I assume to be the evolution of the organization’s logo:

Organizations often become emotionally attached to their logos. It is, after all, more than a picture, it’s an identity. But YWAM’s current logo, a stylized image of a person carrying a torch (usually with the obligatory missions-agency globe) has evolved from a literal man carrying a torch into what can only be described as a bat on a gusty day.

Previous YWAM logos explained too much– an organization carrying the Light to all the world. But the current mark needs more than an explanation, it needs a translator (and possibly an apology for frightening small children). I’d encourage YWAM to go for something professionally-designed; meaningful and recognizable without being too cheesy or typically Christian.

Finally, I encourage all the YWAM bloggers, tweeters, and Facebookers to keep the lines of communication open. The more you’re communicating, the more opportunity there is for awareness, support, and realistic expectations about missions and missionaries. Tell your stories well and often.

YWAMer Bill Hutchison has produced YWAM’s current podcast since early this year. He does a tremendous job of mixing news from the field, needs, and opportunities while keeping things upbeat. It’s really great to listen to– mmmmkif you want to know more about YWAM. I’d love to see more general evangelism training included (if only YWAM knew where to find material on that…) and some fun stuff, like how missionaries are using iPads to show the Jesus Film and surf the internet for a proper substitute for imitation maple syrup.

In addition to featuring different YWAM bases and staff, why not feature different websites or Twitter feeds each week? Again, the more you can broaden your subject matter (not just all YWAM, all the time), the more you’ll broaden your audience.

The only other advice I’d have for Bill would be to include a bit more commentary; (I never thought I’d say this, but) a little less NPR and a little more Fox News. Telling stories of heart-wrenching need in a calm, Canadian voice can make it difficult for the listener to connect. Remember, you’re not a news source, you’re a mobilizer. People don’t connect with news, they connect with people. As we get to know you, we will start to care about the things you care about.

I say, let Bill become more the face and voice of the organizations many ministries. His personal Twitter feed is accessible and interesting. Despite the decentralized approach to YWAM’s structure, having a few select personalities speak on behalf of the organization would only help make the group more personal to outsiders. These should not be YWAM’s formal leadership, the public will almost certainly find “regular” missionaries more accessible.

YWAM won’t likely follow this advice because of trust (actually, a lack thereof). I’m not sure who makes the final decisions regarding what passes through YWAM’s formal lines of communication, but I imagine they wouldn’t be comfortable allowing others to use those lines of communication. The irony is that releasing that sort of control is exactly what allows an audience to connect. Nobody wants to follow a cleaned-up, focus-group-tested, leadership-approved stream of propaganda. They want to identify with the struggles of real people doing real ministry.

Why not select a rotating roster of “regular” YWAMers to be the sanctioned (yet “unofficial” voices of the organization? These would be charismatic personalities, gifted thinkers, or capable communicators from various stages of the process (DTS attendee, someone who’s just arrived on the field, a veteran) who receive a bit of training and direction regarding YWAM’s expectations and desires for what they say. Give these “everyYWAMers” a platform for their podcasts, blogs, or speaking engagements, and watch as outsiders connect and relate in new ways.

Next up, my final YWAM post: If I were Mr. YWAM…


social-media-archeo-map-300x283-1346348Some of the most powerful communication tools out there are the social media. Twitter, Facebook, and blogging platforms allow for more than just spreading information; they open up opportunities for interaction with both friends, and strangers.

You’d be surprised how few missions agencies make use of social media. YWAM, on the other hand, has a significant presence in social media. Many YWAMers use Facebook and Twitter on a regular basis to keep up with friends, family, and colleagues around the world. Some of the organization’s ministries depend on these tools for meetings, prayer requests, and calendar coordination.

YWAM also maintains an active official Twitter account. Unfortunately, they use it as though it were a traditional channel. Every tweet is YWAM-related, an advertisement for a longer article on a blog or website.

Twitter is not a billboard, and it’s more than just a marketing tool. It’s an interactive communications opportunity. To maximize the effectiveness of their feed, they should consider including re-tweets and links to what others are doing. It sounds counter-productive to send readers to other peoples’ websites, but in the social media world, it comes back around. A friendly mention of arch-rival (kidding) Frontiers in the Twitter stream could result in some of their followers following YWAM as well. This would expand their network and make their feed more interesting. Social media should be, you know, social. Otherwise, it’s spam.


Which social media sites are used in your part of the world?

IMB has a page that aggregates its various social media channels in real-time. Something like that would encourage YWAMers around the world to be more active in their use of social media; when your tweet shows up on the YWAM international home page, it’s exposed to more than just your 6 Twitter followers. If they knew that their messages may show up on a high-traffic site like ywam.org, YWAMers might see the networking value in social media.

I have no idea what happens at a DTS, but lots of participants and alumni sure do like to talk about it. Why not make social media status updates part of the curriculum? While young people are being trained to engage people online (that is part of the training, isn’t it?), encourage them to build a support network virtually. Everyone involved in DTS posting about what they’re learning, what’s difficult, and what they love about it would be like ten thousand commercials for the program. It would establish more realistic expectations for the course among potential participants, and make more people aware that it even exists.

Here’s the problem: as it is now, YWAMers are all competing with one another. It’s not that any of its staff or volunteers would want to see others fail, it’s just that there’s really only so much to go around. The YWAM audience of friends, churches, supporters, and alumni only has so much money, so much time to pray, and so much effort to keep up with what’s happening. Unless the organization does more to broaden its support base and help its constituents make sense of it all, the YWAMer with the coolest website will get attention at the others’ expense.

Up next: YWAM Radio.


screen-shot-2010-11-13-at-10-43-24-am-300x169-8125483When it comes to communication in the missions world, web presence is everything. Monthly newsletters and bi-annual visits aren’t enough anymore. In order to feel connected to your ministry, supporters want to know what’s happening now. And not just the good things, either– they want to know the good, the bad, the mundane (see Twitter).

The YWAM website is very well-designed, and visually interesting. Despite being one of the world’s largest missionary organizations, ywam.org is not found in the top 300 Google search results for the keywords “Christian missions,” or “Christian missionary.” Nevertheless, the site is well-organized and easy to use. It makes great use of photos and stories. The use of three words to explain what they do: “convey, change, care,” makes it easy to understand what YWAM is about. The site is packed with news and stories of spiritual transformation.

Good design, however, will only get an organization so far. ywam.org is great for communicating with people who are deliberately looking for information about YWAM. But it does little to set the organization apart from the hundreds of other missions agencies out there, and the website alone isn’t likely to help expand YWAM’s network.

Like most missionary organizations, YWAM tends to suffer from the typical hesitance to feature its own people. Partly due to security concerns and partly out of humility, it is very difficult to find information about YWAM’s missionaries from the home page. This means that at the site, the average, mildly-motivated visitor is expected to connect with the organization rather than any individual. But people don’t connect with “organizations,” they connect with people. That’s why McDonald’s has Ronald, Progressive has Flo, and LifeWay has Ed Stetzer.

366894-flo_progressive-embedded-prod_affiliate-56-220x300-5497856I’m not saying that YWAM should start an ad campaign with a clown or talking Gecko. They should, however, feature the voices of their greatest asset– their people. Higher-visibility leaders could include insights into their personal lives and ministries. Front-liners serving in restricted-access areas could post under pseudonyms (though I’ve heard that nobody likes an anonymous blog…). YWAM nationals from around the world could tell their stories of how God is moving among their people.

I understand the reluctance to focus on the missionaries. You want to be advocates for unreached peoples, not for the workers. But without the workers, there’s no connection. Nameless peoples in far-off places, a sea of need and desperation; these aren’t motivating, they’re overwhelming. It’s hard for me to care about people until I have some connection with them. YWAM missionaries are that connection.

The number one question we get from people considering full-time mission is: “What does a typical day look like for you?” Having been on the “inside” of the missionary world, I know that there really is no answer to this question. But missionary candidates want to know what life would be like for them if they were, in fact, to take the plunge and move overseas. What they’re really asking for is a peek behind the well-planned press releases and into real life. It seems counter-intuitive to share stories of frustration, boredom, loneliness, strange meals, or language mishaps, but these allow a person to connect; to see themselves in the shoes of the missionary.

For YWAM, featuring these voices wouldn’t be difficult at all because they already exist. It wouldn’t take much to mention on the web site what YWAM bloggers, locations, networks, staff, bases, and alumni are up to. This would demonstrate the diversity of ministries in the YWAM family, and would promote the individual efforts by sending web traffic their way and encouraging conversation around what God is doing among them.

To give the organization even more of a personal voice, YWAM leaders could provide a sort of running commentary of what is featured. In other words, ywam.org could feature updates from its various ministries, and national/regional leaders could weigh in with opinions, relating those things to other work around the world.

screen-shot-2010-11-16-at-12-34-44-pm-300x193-1989852It wouldn’t take much for someone to put together an organization-wide editorial calendar of suggested topics and themes for YWAM bloggers to write about. This would help inspire participants to write about accessible and personal topics, and would add a certain amount of unity across channels. With a bit of organization and intentionality, YWAM could easily become the most personal and effective communicators in missions toady, simply by pointing the spotlight at its people.

p.s.– Speaking into the many lines of communication is also a great approach to handling criticism. When this guy says that YWAM is a cult, by encouraging your people to write about it you’ve got 5,000+ voices saying otherwise.

Next Up: YWAM and social media.

This is the second part in my unsolicited communications advice for the missions organization, YWAM. I had intended to begin with ywam.org, but before we evaluate the content of YWAM’s website, I wanted to share some thoughts regarding the group’s name.

The name, Youth With A Mission, dates back to the founding of the organization by Loren Cunningham in 1960. Since then, it has been abbreviated as YWAM. (With unfortunate similarity to multi-level marketing giant, AMWAY). The name was radically different from the denominational missions agencies that were so strong at the time, and it reflected the organizations unique approach: a decentralized group mobilizing young people– many just out of high school– as missionaries. The group with the funny name drew thousands of young people into service abroad.

ywamlogo-300x144-1986887Since then, initialisms and acronyms have become a trend in the security-conscious missions world. Many missions organizations, including OM International (Operation Mobilization), GEM (formerly “Greater Europe Mission”), and imb (International Mission Board) have gone the same route. For some, it seems to be a way to downplay the words that might be problematic when it comes to access into restricted groups and places. For others, it’s an attempt at changing the agency’s identity without crossing traditionalist trustees and nostalgic constituents.

ymca-for-psp-300x225-5427977Unfortunately, what these groups don’t realize is that going by their initials is a bad move. They’re going for BMW, but they end up KFC; only serving to (further) confuse their identity and make them sound colder and more corporate. Rebranding as initials is a classic tactic for old, out of touch company trying to re-invent itself for a new generation. Think IBM, GM, B&H, AOL.

Younger organizations, the ones with momentum, would never go with initials. Ancient Greek, yes. Mashups (global + local + network = GlocalNet), sometimes. Latin, ad nauseum. Initials, no. Names like Acts 29, The Upstream Collective, Ecclesia Network, and Forge, don’t always communicate a whole lot, but they do convey a tone, a sense of identity, and a feeling of movement. These names tell a story. YWAM, not so much.

Initials aren’t the end of YWAM’s alphabet soup. Most organizations use acronyms. Some, like CEO (Chief Executive Officer), and NGO (non-governmental organization), are widely recognized. But to call your flagship training initiative “DTS” is to doom it to insiders-only obscurity.

I don’t expect that the ministries of YWAM will change the name. After 50 years, thousands of people (all of them insiders) are emotionally attached to it. But because the organization has changed over the years, the name actually misrepresents what YWAM does. They are no longer a “youth” missions organization.  Part of what initially set the group apart from all the rest has since become a secret password of sorts; if you know what YWAM is, you’re in. If not, you’re out. This, you can imagine, isn’t the best for broadening a network.

I’m not suggesting YWAM change their name to follow trends or to be more easily tweetable. Instead, I recommend they use the YWAM name for what it is, an umbrella network over many individual ministries, and launch a new initiative that would serve as the identity for the evangelism, training and mercy ministries promoted on its website. Such a move would retain the current support structure, but allow the organization to recruit people to the new name.

What should be the name of this new venture? Don’t ask me, ask the YWAMers. Many of them have adopted unique names for their local ministries around the world, and have great ideas. Many of these have already been formally applied to various ministries within the organization and would make fine names.  As I mentioned earlier, people are the greatest asset. Soliciting ideas from within the organization might result in something that better reflects who the organization has come to be. It would help build a sense of ownership throughout the ranks and inspire creative vision for the future. Any YWAMers out there want to take a crack at it?

Next, we’ll look at the content and structure of YWAM’s web presence.

Welcome to the Communications, Misunderstood tour, where I offer unsolicited advice on the communications strategies of different missionary initiatives.  I’d like to start  with an organization with an unquestionable track record of missions sending.

screen-shot-2010-11-13-at-3-10-28-pm-1024x203-7787403This year, Youth With A Mission celebrates 50 years of sending young, mostly untrained, volunteer missionaries around the world. These guys have the reputation of being radical– while other groups are making plans and raising money, YWAMers (as they like to be called) will be among the first to move into an area and make the most of every opportunity.

Why start with YWAM? Because they have put a lot of work into establishing channels of communication. There are lots of groups with bad websites and no plan. But communication is much more than having a cool website (they do) or using Twitter (nearly every day). YWAM is the sort of organization that doesn’t have to dream up stories to tell– they’re out there making new ones every day.

While YWAM is certainly getting the job done on the field, their survival as an organization depends on their ability to communicate with their supporters, recruit new volunteers, and raise awareness of the tremendous need for what they do. This is a big job, because YWAM does just about everything a missions agency can do, from Mercy Ships medical ministries to discipleship training courses to sports ministries.

Entry into closed-access countries they can do. Building a fiercely loyal family of unstoppable volunteer missionaries, no problem. YWAM’s biggest challenge is how to communicate with supporters and potential missionaries all that they’re seeing God do among the peoples of the world.

Before we evaluate YWAM’s approach to communications, I want to point out the value of its people. As an organization of 16,000, YWAM doesn’t just have a single voice, it has thousands. Add in alumni, supporters, and lives touched, and they have the potential to saturate the media with stories of God’s global activity. The potential is tremendous.

In my next post, we’ll take a look at YWAM’s website, ywam.org.

A big part of my work with the Upstream Collective is in the area of communication strategy. I strongly believe that how we communicate determines what we communicate. (Some might call this marketing, but for my audience, that wouldn’t be good, um, marketing.) We live in noisy times. Everywhere we go, someone is trying to get our attention and influence our behavior. What makes one voice stand out from the rest? Good communication is the difference between a successful ministry or nonprofit and a failure.

screen-shot-2010-11-04-at-11-11-23-am-300x144-7996940This blog is a communications strategy. The voice, the persona, and the topics have all been selected as a means to communicate a certain message to a certain audience. (To what degree this has been successful is open for debate.) Nevertheless, have come to appreciate the art and skill of communication.

There are three types of communication: good, bad, and non-existent. Each can be effective in sending a message, but more often than not, organizations don’t choose the best type for their needs. A hokey website is bad communication, but most nonprofits think they don’t have the time or resources for something better. There’s really no excuse for a ministry to have no web presence whatsoever, but you’d be surprised how many find themselves in just that situation.

Unfortunately, the organizations that excel in communications tend to do so at the expense of their actual work.  The groups that are really getting something done on the ground are usually extremely focused on getting the job done. Promoting that work to partners and supporters tends to be neglected because most organizations just don’t have the time/money/know-how to communicate well.screen-shot-2010-11-04-at-11-20-31-am-300x186-4477768 This is why missionaries still use old-school prayer cards and monthly newsletters, and why so few of them have great blogs or hold regular Skype conferences. It’s also why most of the attention goes to the nonprofits with the coolest websites (even if you can’t tell what it is, exactly, that they do).

At times, I’ve written to missionaries about the importance of communication. At conferences, I’ve explained the importance of social networking and taught workshops on setting up blogs and using Facebook and Twitter. Lately, I’ve done quite a bit of consulting with various nonprofits, ministries, and businesses on how they might develop more appropriate and effective means of communication. Some just don’t see the point. Others really have a desire to be better communicators, but they’re intimidated by the technology. Most are just too caught up their work to follow through.

Poor communication, not the economy and not apathy, is why ministries are struggling with isolation and lack of support.

So I’m starting a new series. In following posts, I’ll feature organizations that I consider to be peers in ministry and offer my completely unsolicited (and possibly unwelcome) advice regarding their communication strategies. I’ll provide some constructive feedback where necessary, and suggest possible solutions that each group is free to use if they so choose. My goal is not to embarrass or criticize, but to encourage and help. Please stay tuned for the first installment of the Communication, Misunderstood Tour.