It’s time for another installment of the Communication, Misunderstood tour, where I offer completely unsolicited advice to missions organizations about their communication strategies.

I first stumbled upon the Ask A Missionary site while I was researching, well, questions people ask of missionaries. I was curious if anyone had compiled a sort of “frequently asked questions” for missionaries. It turns out, they have.

According to the site, Ask A Missionary was started by missions mobilizer John McVay in 1998. The site was assumed by Missions Data International (M-DAT) in 2009. Though it has a section for questions about short-term mission trips, Ask A Missionary is geared toward those who are considering long-term service. It’s basically a Yahoo Answers for long-term missions (with the answers being provided by missionaries rather than teenage girls.) The concept is pretty straightforward– users can submit questions about missions, and missionaries provide answers.

First, the good: the site is a brilliant way to make missionaries accessible to everyone. Many believers truly have no connection to a real live missionary, and the site makes it possible for people to ask very specific questions (like “I am a meteorology major and I want to serve overseas. Is there any way I could use this degree in missions?” and “How does a male, non-medical spouse fit in who raises the children? My wife is a healthcare professional and we want to serve overseas long term.”). Nothing about being a steampunk Civil War reenactor wanting to become a missionary blacksmith in Viet Nam. Yet.

The site is well-designed and easy to use. The “Ask,” “Answer,” and “Search” sections are clearly marked. Posting a question is easy (you’ll have to guess which one is mine), and it’s easy to peruse answers already given. Twitter and Facebook, integration are everywhere, and the site includes some resources for those who are ready for next steps.

There are other “Ask a missionary”-type sites, such as‘s  Ask Jack. But these sites use more of an “ask the expert” format, where “Ask A Missionary” seems to allow pretty much anyone who claims to be a missionary and doesn’t use foul language to post an answer. That said, I’m pretty sure answers are screened and edited before they can be seen by the public. I won’t tell you what research may have led to that conclusion.

And that’s the problem with Ask A Missionary; something about the answers on the site seems too, well, nice. In response to the question, “How can I prepare for missions when others try to discourage me?”, missionaries to Colombia and New Zealand answered with encouraging notes about having patience and self-esteem. If I were to write for the site, my answer would be more like: “Take the hint! Maybe the reason people are trying to dissuade you from going is that you’d make a terrible missionary. The last thing we need on the field are more uninteresting Lifers with no social skills.” But maybe that’s just me.

Ask A Missionary doesn’t feature many photos, but the few it does use are some of the most sterile and generic I’ve seen. I’m not sure what it is about missionaries and stock business photos, but surely an open, wiki-style site could solicit a few photos from the field. A video answer would add some visual interest, as would some photos from the field or profiles of question-askers.

Also, because answers are provided by a variety of “missionaries” from different perspectives and approaches to ministry, the site lacks a consistent voice, tone, and mood. The result is a collection of answers that lack a certain credibility or honesty that make other “expert” sites so appealing. The reason USA Today’s “Ask The Captain” works so well is that users can get to know Captain John Cox by reading the column. This builds expectations for the answers, just like call-in radio advice shows like Dr. Laura‘s or Dave Ramsey‘s. Ask A Missionary doesn’t necessarily lend itself to that sort of personalization, and suffers because of it.

Furthermore, it’s clear that some missionary responders on the site are mobilization specialists and agency recruiters. This means that their participation on the site is primarily PR. Though most of them have previous missions experience, they’re expanding the online presence of the organizations they represent. (By the way, if you are an organizational representative, you really should take advantage of Ask A Missionary as a platform and weigh in with answers to at least a couple of the questions posed there.)

If I were going to develop Ask A Missionary’s communications strategy, I would build a bullpen of several missionaries that each have some specialty. I’d then develop their personalities on the site and have them tell more of their stories as they answer questions. This would help build credibility and establish a more personal connection between “askers” and “answerers.”

In an attempt to be a bit more proactive, I’d add a section of “Questions Users Don’t Ask, But Should,” where missionaries ponder questions they wish they’d asked or known to ask.

I would approach multiple major missions sending organizations and ask them for money in exchange for links and representation on the site. When a candidate for missionary service has a question about missionary service, they go to Ask A Missionary to get quick answers from an “actual” missionary. Most organizations have layers of bureaucracy to go through; it can take several hand-offs before a curious person is connected to someone who might be able to answer their questions.

Finally, I’d have the site include commentary and questions about missionary service that are being asked on other websites. In other words, scour the internet for questions that are being asked, and address them as though they were being asked on Ask A Missionary. Then link to the original post and interact with the answers that were given. For example:

“Over on Missions Misunderstood, a commenter recently asked about the viability of business as mission in the Middle East. Our business as mission specialist, John Smith, had this to say about it…” Ideally, Ask A Missionary could then comment on E.Goodman’s answer to the original question: “Goodman advised the commenter to look into opening a Subway franchise. This is a terrible idea, because Subway sells bacon….”

You get the idea.

Though Ask A Missionary didn’t ask me, those are my two cents about their communications strategy. To M-DAT, Ask A Missionary, and all the contributors to the site, I thank you for offering such a valuable service to the church.

If there’s an organization you’d like suggest for my next Communications, Misunderstood post, please leave a comment.

missionshoft-3324130I’ve been watching an interesting, if asymmetric, discussion on Ed Stetzer’s blog about MissionShift, the book he co-edited with David Hesselgrave.

Participants were given copies of the book and asked to post their thoughts on their own blogs and discuss them in the comments section of Ed’s post. We started by reading the first section of the book, written by Chuck Van Engen, and the accompanying response essays written by various missiologists and theologians.

The book itself is a thoughtful discussion of mission past, present, and future. It begins with an exploration of the definition(s) of mission. Though it seems like a simple thing to do, defining the mission has proven very difficult for evangelicals to do; interpretations of “therefore go” have ranged from social justice work with no gospel proclamation to open-air evangelism with no contextualization to baptized syncretism with no transformation.

Some reject the idea of missions. Others carry on under a new title (Van Engen refers to a church that replaced its “missions” program with “global outreach”). Others still hold tightly to the word, but apply it to everything from feeding the homeless to cleaning up the local schools.

What’s a missionary to do?

Part of the problem in defining the mission is that we’ve elevated it to something that is, for most of the church, (and, ironically, for most missionaries,) out of reach. As an academic discipline, missiology sits somewhere between theology, sociology, anthropology, and communications theory.  The words we use to talk about our motivations and methods in mission can be pretty intimidating. The result is a church that has a fuzzy picture of what missions is or else doesn’t talk about it at all.

For some time now, more culturally-aware churches in the U.S. have been talking about being “missional.” This conversation has, for the most part, happened without any meaningful input from practicing missionaries on the field. The missional church has therefore been left to learn the hard way, missiological missteps and all.

It’s time for a more accessible missiology. It’s time to stop using lofty words that prove we know more than everyone else and start wrestling with what God is currently doing around the world and how that fits into our understanding of the scriptural mandate to “go unto all nations.”

I’m thankful for Ed Stetzer (don’t tell him- it’ll go to his head) and what he’s doing to further the conversation by bridging the gap between academic and armchair missiologists. I’m proud of all the missionaries who are mindful to share lessons from the field with the people in the pews.

You don’t have to be a scholar to talk about God’s global purposes or how you fit into it all.

Most missionaries see themselves as having been sent to a particular people group or population segment. This makes sense, as each subculture requires a unique methodology to church and gospel translation.

Most missionaries establish themselves as advocates for their people. They promote their work by highlighting the needs, both spiritual and physical, of the group. They present statistics demonstrating their “unreachedness” and relative separation from Christ.

I’ve written before about the need to love your city. But I would love to see missions advocacy take a more positive turn. Why not set up a website promoting what your people group has to offer the world? Rather than focusing on their great need (let’s face it, the vast need is overwhelming), emphasizing the potential contribution of your group?

Perhaps your long-lost tribe in the Amazon could teach hunters in Arkansas a thing or two about bow hunting. Or maybe the women in your village in Sudan would give a mean seminar on basket weaving. The Yi of southwestern China are expert nomadic cattle herders, and could advise on land-sharing initiatives. From art to cooking to justice to living in balance with the environment, every people has something to offer humanity. Why not advocate for your people group by promoting their assets rather than lamenting their lostness?

To be clear: I’m not talking about exploitation; you should not be making money off of your people group. I’m not talking about starting business ventures, either. Some groups may be interested in this sort of thing, but many entrepreneurial Westerners have sold out their people in the name of community development.

Instead, I’m talking about establishing a platform from which those who do not know your people group might be able to relate to it. If you were to promote your work among the gemu otaku in Tokyo as having a tremendous ability to build and interact in virtual worlds, you’re building bridges for interested churches to connect with them. The Adyghe in the Northwest Caucasus all carry swords yet live peaceably with one another. Churches could ask them to speak into the U.S. gun control debate.

Leading with the need may raise awareness and pull at the heart strings, but advertising  a people’s skills provides a starting point for dialog. It would truly serve the church on mission if advocates would help them see people groups not at projects, but as people.

Six people were killed on Saturday, and thirteen injured, when a gunman entered a townhall meeting held by Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D–Arizona), and opened fire. The congresswoman was among the injured. Today, politicians are calling for an end to gun rhetoric that has become popular among pro-gun public figures such as Sarah Palin and others. Each side, of course, blames the other.

Some are saying that the shooter was incited by the militaristic rhetoric of conservative pundits. While the gunman’s motives are yet unknown, the discussion got me thinking about some of the militaristic terminology we use in missions today. We “mobilize” missionaries when we mean to “send them out.” We “enlist” the “support” of “prayer warriors” as we “strategically” “engage” the people of our “target” audience. Might the words we use lead some, both believers and unbelievers, to come to the conclusion that Christians are warring against non-Christians?

The problem with thinking of ourselves primarily as “Christian soldiers” (rather than “Christian peacemakers”) is that we’re always looking for someone to fight. The spiritual enemy is very real, but we’re easily distracted by the human ones (both real and suspected). The Bible includes militaristic imagery (Ephesians 6 tells us to “put on the full armor of God”), but it’s clear that our war is a spiritual one. In the scriptural analogy, unbelieving peoples aren’t the enemy, they’re the captives.

I’m choosing to replace the militaristic terms in my missions vocabulary with words that better communicate my intentions. In any land, among any people, I mean no harm. I’m not that sort of soldier. I’m here to bless, reconcile, and bring peace in the name of Jesus. That’s my mission (okay, so that’s one military word I may have to keep!)

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.

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-300x283-4861036Some 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, 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-300x169-1232705When 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, 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. 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-56-220x300-8557061I’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, 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-300x193-3571941It 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, 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-300x144-3030881Since 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-300x225-7391275Unfortunately, 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.