The email was a paragraph long. It took me forty-five teary minutes to write.
“Hi,” it read. “[Husband] received a job offer in another city about nine hours away. We are desperately torn about what to do and desperate to discern God’s will, but we are both far too emotional and overwrought to see clearly. You all know us very well and so along with your prayers, we welcome any thoughts or input you can provide.”
I sent it to a group of people near and dear to us: two of our best Christian friends from our small group, our small group pastor, and our small group leader.
Two days later, I got a response from the small group leader. “Praying!” And that was all it said. Hurt and confused, I assumed maybe no one else had gotten the email. I found out weeks later that they all had received it the night I sent it.
This is not uncommon. In fact, here is a selected list of emails I have sent to valid email addresses of Christians I knew to which I never received a response:
- a note to my music minister praising the recent play and asking for the name of one of the pieces so I could add it to my playlist
- a request to the small groups pastor for more information about a particular small group
- an email to a ministry leader (different from the above two) asking about the start time of a particular ministry event
- at least three different serious requests for prayer, which I send only rarely
- a request for information about a church
- a note volunteering my services for another event
- a note to the leader of a downtown collegiate ministry where I live asking if there was an available mailing list for me to join
Here’s the thing: I can understand the occasional lack of response. Sometimes you send a note to an inactive email address, or people check Facebook instead, or someone had a really busy week. Sometimes you run across a person who sends way too many emails to the point that it’s easy to ignore or miss theirs. But I am not a person who sends a deluge of emails, particularly prayer requests. And all of the emails I sent were sent to Christians who did check email, who had received emails from me before, and who actively advertised their email addresses as a part of their ministry.
As a result of never hearing anything back, I: never got the name of that song that moved my heart and reminded me of God, never joined the small group I was thinking of because I didn’t know when it met and couldn’t find out anywhere, missed the ministry event because nobody wrote the time down, never bothered trying out a new church, never volunteered for the event, never was able to participate in the ministry that seemed awesome, and assumed God’s people who were supposed to be my brothers and sisters didn’t care about me when I was hurting.
If that sounds terrible, it is. And there is no excuse for it. If you’re a believer getting requests from people about ministries, about small groups, if you’re getting requests for prayer, for help, for clarification? Answer them.
“The problem is I never check my email.” Okay. Then stop advertising your email as a point of contact. Share your Facebook info or your phone number or your Instagram. But if you don’t check your email, don’t tell people they can reach you at it.
“But the answer’s available elsewhere!” First: are you sure? (I experienced this once when, after being told the answer was on the church website, I had to point out that it unequivocally was not, to the embarrassment of the other party). Second: maybe people don’t know where to find the answer. Maybe they don’t read the church’s Facebook, or they didn’t attend the service sharing the details, or they don’t know you put this stuff on the website, or they just wanted to double-check the information with an actual human being.
“We just mostly use Facebook/Instagram/Twitter to communicate because that’s what most of the congregation uses.” Again, if this is the case, remove your email as a point of contact.
“I didn’t know what to say.” I can assure you that the most ham-handed response you can imagine is probably better than a wall of indifferent silence. Alternatively, just be honest. “I don’t know what to say” or “Unfortunately, I don’t have any more info! You might try calling Susan” or “Oh, I don’t handle that, wish I could help more!” are all useful things to say instead of nothing.
An article in Christianity Today recently argued that believers should be skeptical of digital detoxes and time away from technology because emails, texts, and where social media is where the ministry is now. I don’t actually think that’s the case, nor should it be, but the principle of kindness and decency applies across the board to all communication mediums: respond to people. Don’t leave them hanging. Answer their calls. Their Facebook posts. Their texts. Their emails.
I’ll admit that for me, it’s not that big a deal: an unanswered email, or even a ton of unanswered emails, were never going to keep me from Jesus or from God. I’m a mature believer and, as annoying and frustrating as these walls of silence can be, it’s also not enough to turn me away. But for someone who is seeking? Someone who’s predisposed to dismiss believers anyway? Someone who might be discouraged by perceived indifference? It can mean everything. It can be a difference-maker.
Keep the barriers for entry low for those who wish to get to Jesus. Do the little things. Respond when you can. Something short is better than none at all, and it’s an acknowledgement that the person on the other end of the interaction has been heard, noticed, and seen. It matters, sometimes more than we know.