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9 Missiological Insights into Business as Mission- Brian Walck

Business as Mission (BAM) has become a hot topic in mission circles—witness the dozens of articles, books, websites, and organizations that have emerged in the last decade including significant contributions from The Evangelical Missiological Society and Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization.[1] My own interest in the subject began as I realized during my time at seminary that my previous 23 years in the business world might not be completely wasted experience; that it might in fact be something that could be leveraged for the Kingdom of God. I began to read everything I could get my hands on and to take every opportunity to incorporate BAM related materials into my classes in theology and mission. In my final semester I was allowed to pursue an independent study in Business as Mission which afforded me some concentrated time to dig deeper into the subject. This paper comes out of that study. It will be presented in the form of a series of “Missiological Insights” or observations about some the opportunities, implications, and challenges related to Business as Mission as a strategy for world evangelization.

Before we begin it will be useful to define what Business as Mission means in the context of this paper. If you ask a roomful of people what they mean by Business as Mission you are likely to get a number of answers. This is because there are many ways to combine “work” and “mission”. Some would like to include tentmaking, where a believer intentionally takes a job with a secular company in another culture in order to gain access and witness cross-culturally. Others would like to include the notion of “business as a platform,” where a business identity is used by a missionary as a means of legitimizing their presence and work among people in limited access contexts. In many cases, these businesses are nothing more than paper “fronts” designed to deceive local governments and religious leaders. In others there is a sincere effort to help people (through the provision of jobs and/or services) but the enterprise is heavily dependent on donor funds and would not survive without them. Still others would like to include marketplace ministries, where believers simply try to leverage their presence in the marketplace for the Kingdom. Business as Mission, as we shall use it here, has four core components. First, it involves the creation of a business entity, controlled by Great Commission minded owners and senior management who seek to glorify God with every aspect of their business operation. This eliminates tentmaking which focuses on individual impact rather than the business impact. Second, it has profit (or at least sustainability) as a goal. This eliminates business “platforms” and other ministries and NGOs which cannot operate without donor funds. Third, it exists primarily to advance the gospel among less reached peoples of the world. This eliminates marketplace ministries which are typically not cross-cultural in emphasis. Fourth, it is socially responsible; it does not seek profit at any cost.[2] Restricting our definition in this way is not to say that these excluded strategies are not desirable or effective. It is just to say that the emerging consensus regarding the definition of BAM doesn’t include them and that I do not propose to evaluate them here.

With this introduction in mind we now turn to our missiological insights.

Insight #1: A BAM strategy provides unprecedented access to the most unreached people in the world.

Most of the world’s unreached people live in countries which restrict access to missionaries. Therefore those who wish to carry the gospel to these people have to find other means of establishing a presence among them. As a general rule, these limited access nations are also among the poorest in the world. There are currently only three viable strategies for bringing the gospel to the people in these nations. The first is through media, which although an amazing tool is limited to those who have access to radio and TV, and more importantly, is limited in terms of its ability to meet human needs, to lift economies, and to build the interpersonal relationships with people over which the gospel most naturally travels. The second is with an NGO that provides humanitarian services of some sort, but these provide access to only the most needy segments of society. [3] Moreover, they are viable only so long as donor funding exists. The third is through business. A tentmaker can only go where businesses are hiring. A Christian entrepreneur, however, can go anywhere, provided a legitimate, sustainable business can be developed in that area. Local people and governments are particularly receptive to businesses that employ local people and to those that export products which bring capital into the country.

There are virtually no countries which do not allow some form of foreign direct investment. Saudi Arabia is a good example of a country that completely restricts access to missionaries yet is open for business investment. From an economic perspective, the Saudi government has recognized that there is an over reliance on oil production as a source of income for the nation. “The government encourages investment in transportation, education, health, information and communications technology, life sciences and energy, as well in six ‘Economic Cities’ that are in various states of development.”[4] They have developed a series of incentives designed to attract foreign investors and entrepreneurs. Of particular significance is the fact that recent laws have made it possible for 100% foreign owned companies to be established in Saudi Arabia, and have ostensibly leveled the playing field with respect to access to government contracts as well as business financing. The goals of this government initiative are to diversify the industrial and service base of the economy, to improve the technical and business skills of its citizens, and to create jobs within the private sector. Similar stances are being taken by governments the world over. Even the military junta in Myanmar has declared the country “open for business.”[5] Of course the reality on the ground may be somewhat different. The point is that globalization has fostered a receptivity to business and economic development around the world. While it is true that many of these places would not be attractive investments from a purely business perspective, they are attractive from a Kingdom perspective, and business provides access that might not be achieved otherwise.

BAM would also seem to provide an opportunity to reach the unreached right here at home in the West. There are significant Diaspora communities of various unreached people groups in major cities all over the world. They come to escape persecution and to find economic opportunity. In other words they are looking for jobs. This provides a perfect opportunity for Christian entrepreneurs and business people with a heart to reach the world in their back yard.

Insight #2: A BAM strategy is a holistic strategy that seeks individual, social, and political transformation.

Holistic ministry seeks to address every aspect of an individual’s needs recognizing that the separation of gospel-as-word and gospel-as-deed is unbiblical and ultimately damaging to the gospel of Jesus Christ.[6] From a theological perspective, redemption is not limited to the individual but extends to the redemption of culture, social structures, political structures, and ultimately to creation itself. When a business employs someone it not only feeds him once but provides him with an ongoing means of feeding himself and his family. When a business engages with government officials in an honest and ethical fashion, it provides a testimony to those officials and to the company employees. When employees are treated fairly, paid on time, valued for their contribution, and given opportunity to develop to their full human and professional potential, they get a glimpse of the Kingdom of God. In the process, believers and unbelievers work together in natural settings. The believer’s faith is modeled in the real world, amidst real struggles and real ethical challenges. Relationships are built which facilitate the natural sharing of the gospel. People come to faith and are discipled, leading to personal transformation.

With respect to social and political transformation, the Lausanne committee said,
Business can empower and set people free economically, socially and politically: Economic transformation is about people having relative abundance and participating in wealth generation. Social transformation is about having enough income to acquire goods and services through exchange. To have access and adequate means for food, housing, education, water, health, transportation etc. People who are both economically and socially strong in turn tend to be politically stronger. Work and business enables dignity, self-confidence, production, wealth generation and increase which are the keys to social transformation.[7]

In addition, Christian businesses can provide a protective and restorative function. William Danker describes how the Moravians and Basel Trading Company in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries prevented the exploitation of native populations by unscrupulous traders. By offering better prices than they would have received otherwise, these mission companies forced their competitors to engage in fairer business practices.[8] Today Christian companies such as Pura Vida Coffee Co. provide similar protections by engaging in fair trade practices with coffee growers.[9]

Insight #3: A BAM strategy has potential to alter several significant aspects of mission funding.

First, there is the potential to change from a donation model to an investment model for certain types of BAM opportunities. Christian investors and venture capitalists should be willing to consider investment opportunities that present the potential for good return on investment as well a good return in the Kingdom. The Basel Mission Trading Co. returned six percent plus fifty percent of profits back to investors for years.[10] Ken Eldred describes an investment in an Indian call center operation that was both profitable and through which hundreds of low caste Indian Christians received employment and discipleship and hundreds more Hindus and Muslims were exposed to the gospel.[11] In order to attract these types of investors, the businesses in question need to be run and staffed by qualified business people with a viable market and strong business plan. Such businesses will attract capital from any number of sources, however, Kingdom entrepreneurs will want to accept capital only from those who accept the Kingdom mission of the business and recognize that this takes priority over profit maximization.

Second, there is an opportunity to change the support model for missionaries. Candidates for the field often take two years and more to raise the necessary support to head overseas. For many, the prospect of asking friends and relatives for money is a significant obstacle to their decision to become missionaries in the first place. Business as Mission has the potential for some, at least, to circumvent this process and head directly to the field, assuming, of course, that they have the necessary business and cross-cultural skills that would make them strong candidates for an expanding Kingdom business.

Third, there is the potential to dramatically increase the sending capability of poorer nations and churches. João Mordomo describes the situation facing the Brazilian church, “Brazilian missionaries many times simply cannot get out of the starting blocks due to a lack of financial resources. This is partly a developmental and cultural issue. The Brazilian church is simply young and has not had much time to develop a pattern of giving to cross-cultural missions. But the issue is also partly an economic one. Poverty, corruption and inflation have plagued Latin American countries.”[12] Mordomo recognizes BAM as the potential solution to the financial issues that hold back the Brazilian missionary force from making greater impact for world evangelization. What is potentially even more interesting (and convicting) about the potential sending of Brazilian missionaries (and Filipino, African, and Asian missionaries for that matter) is their relatively lower expectations regarding lifestyle and income when compared with those from the West. While a Western missionary is unlikely to be able to live on the income produced by one cow, for example, Indian missionaries routinely do so. The kinds of businesses that can be envisioned for people with relatively low income needs are virtually limitless. One can envision micro-lending strategies developed specifically to unleash this bi-vocational missionary force.

Insight #4: A BAM strategy can be self-replicating, leading to church planting movements.

Two closely related inhibitors to church planting movements are extraction and dependency. The gospel will pass most freely over networks of relationships where two or more people are part of the same social network. The social networks that people belong to may be defined by culture, language, ethnicity, class, family ties, education, occupation, etc.[13] When a new believer is extracted from his social network due to threat or rejection then the potential to see a people group movement to Christ is greatly reduced. Often these extracted believers become dependent on the missionary. BAM mitigates the extraction problem in two ways. First, it reduces its incidence. The new believer that is contributing financially to the social entity (family, clan, etc.) is less likely to be ejected than one who is not. Second, it creates new social structures (within the workplace and the marketplace) into which the new believer can expand her influence.

Dependence is perhaps an even more insidious problem. When new believers and churches are supported with donated funds, the need for increased funds grows proportionately to the growth of the church. Some “believers” are there only for the handout and will leave when funds dry up. When increased funds fail to materialize, there is also a disincentive to evangelize as new believers actually reduce the level of subsistence for existing believers in the church. Businesses owners and managers who take their Kingdom task seriously can not only disciple new believers in the faith, but they can teach them how to effectively run a business with a Kingdom perspective. In other words, they will reproduce new Kingdom entrepreneurs who will go out to start new Kingdom businesses of their own, perhaps even with the financial backing and support of the “parent” company. In any case, they have a working model for supporting themselves.[14] And people with income can develop self-sustaining and self-replicating churches which can fund full-time pastors, missionaries, and mercy ministries.

Insight #5: Unbiblical perspectives on mission, work, business, profits, and money have the potential to derail BAM initiatives at many points along the way.

One unbiblical perspective is that mission is to be left to professional missionaries. This is a byproduct of the sacred-secular divide that has permeated the church since at least the middle ages. The church has bought into a holy hierarchy of vocations: pastors and missionaries at the top, doctors, teachers, and social workers somewhere in the middle, lawyers and stock brokers at the bottom. There has also been a tendency to divide work into sacred and secular. “Sacred work” (or “ministry”) is defined as what the pastor or missionary does while “secular work” encompasses most everything else. The reformers rejected this view and championed the notion that every “calling” (or vocation) was sacred. More recently, numerous voices have argued that mission is the calling of the entire church. Leslie Newbigin said, “A church is no true church if it is not missionary, and missions are no true missions if they are not part of the life of the church.”[15] Yet it is also true that most believers will not serve as full time pastors, missionaries, and para-church workers. Yet they are still called to serve God, to be “salt and light” and to make disciples (mission) in their own sphere of influence whether at home as a homemaker or on the job and in the marketplace. Some of these God calls to serve him using their business and vocational skills in cross-cultural settings.

It is rare to hear a sermon series on God’s design for work. This is ironic given that the average Christian spends more time at work than at any other activity other than sleeping.[16] In this vacuum most believers absorb the values of the culture around them. Three unbiblical perspectives on work predominate. The first is that work is a necessary evil, cursed, and something to be endured for survival. The second is that work is a means to wealth, acquisition, and power. The third is that work is the means of self-actualization. The believer who holds such an unbiblical view of work is unlikely to view his work as a place of ministry and mission and is therefore unlikely to have significant impact for the kingdom in the workplace. The reality is that work was ordained by God before the fall as the means by which we co-labor with him in the ordering and preserving of creation and the means by which we provide for ourselves and others. It is in itself an act of worship, which when conducted appropriately, brings honor and glory to him.

There are two equally unbiblical views of money and profit. The first is a result of failure to heed Jesus’ warning that the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil. A Kingdom business person can easily forget her primary purpose is not profit if she is not careful. Dwight Baker said, “Business simply by being what it is can be seductive and has demonstrable power to draw missionaries away from their missional commitments.” He goes on to say, “Business wrongly indulged in can lead to modes of behavior that are exploitive of the very people to whom one is supposed to be Christ’s minister.”[17] In other cases, profit and money simply absorb more and more of management’s attention, crowding out ministry objectives. It has been said of mercy ministries and can be said of BAM as well, “Addressing physical needs without addressing spiritual needs simply makes people more comfortable on their way to hell.” The key is to remain intentional and accountable for well defined ministry goals.

The second unbiblical perspective is that money and profits are evil. Businesspeople are looked down upon as greedy and money grubbing. This view has been held by many church leaders and missionaries and sadly has been exported all over the world. As Grudem points out, profits and money are in and of themselves good as they represent the multiplication of resources and a medium of exchange that allows people to more easily trade the fruits of their labor for things they need.[18] God honoring businesses produce life giving goods and services and generate profits that can be used to sustain owners, workers, invest in new products and services and meet the needs of the poor and disenfranchised. Business and business people need to be valued for the contribution they make to the Kingdom, the body of Christ, and society.

Insight #6: BAM practiced without awareness of the potential impact to the local economy can unintentionally do more harm than good.

There are any number of ways that Western business people can harm the very people they are intending to help. For example, firms that import consumer products that compete with local suppliers may put the local supplier out of business. Similarly, businesses that bring in Western technology, know how, and raw materials to produce products that were made by hand locally may put those producers out of business. Firms that export raw materials may use local people simply to extract the resources without contributing to upgrading their skills. This is little more than modern day colonialism. Business people must be aware of the potential for unintended consequences in any business venture before they embark upon it. Rundle and Steffan provide five helpful guidelines as follows: 1) Do no harm – seek to be social responsible 2) Choose the right industry – beware of those that will negatively effect local businesses and people 3) Help the local economy modernize – seek to bring businesses that will help upgrade the technology and skills of the local people and help local suppliers to modernize. 4) Be an incubator – promote creativity and entrepreneurship and actively seek to assist local entrepreneurs to form new companies and spin-offs. 5) Be a local philanthropist – pay generous wages. Plow profits back into the local economy. Be generous with charities and NGO’s.[19]

Insight #7: BAM practitioners face numerous cultural, political, psychological, and infrastructure related obstacles to success.

I recently spent two days in consultation with a Kingdom business in Indonesia which produces local handicrafts for export to the West. The presenting problem was an impending change in the law that was forcing the business to change from non-profit to for-profit status. In addition, the non-profit director felt it was time to bring in more business expertise to streamline some operations and to set him free to pursue other active ministry projects. His proposed solution was to bring in business investors who would purchase a percentage of the company, giving them some “skin in the game” and infusing much needed business expertise. Since the business was not in need of cash, our team proposed what we thought was a better solution. The business should simply be transferred lock, stock, and barrel (minus the property which would remain the property of the non-profit and be rented back to the business) to a wholly owned for-profit subsidiary of the ministry that originally started it. This ministry would bring in Western expertise to make needed changes and invest financially in the business as required. This would insure that the ministry purposes of the business (through which dozens of Muslims have come to Christ) would remain preeminent. Everyone thought this was a wonderful plan. At the end of the two days there were smiles and handshakes all around. It was only as we left for the airport that we learned that the non-profit director really did not like the proposal and was upset that there would not be any financial remuneration to the non-profit for the business (despite the fact that it had originally been transferred to the non-profit in exactly the same way.) Apparently, it would have been too impolite on his part to have disagreed with us in public, so he discreetly let his opinion be “overheard” by one of our team members! So began my introduction to the challenges of doing business cross-culturally.

In fact, cross-cultural business is full of opportunities for misunderstanding and misstep. There are issues of appropriate cultural practice, corruption, and work practices of local employees. On the same trip I learned that the local people group the ministry was trying to reach had a reputation for laziness. Once they had earned enough they simply stopped working! To address this problem the ministry team was attempting to work with the local church to disciple the youth so that the next generation would have a better chance of prospering. In some cultures, the psychology of poverty runs deep. This is a deeply spiritual problem which will not be ameliorated the instant a business holding out the prospect of employment is established. All of these factors point to the need for specialized training for Kingdom professionals which includes cross-cultural and transformation development training in addition to business training. There is no short cut to learning the culture and language of the people you will be ministering to and working with.

Not every culture is ready for every type of business. A software development company will probably not thrive in a place where people have little education and there is no power and internet access. A Western business person cannot make a living running a small scale basket weaving business in a village. An export company cannot be located in a place with no access to roads, airports, or shipping. Ken Eldred suggests a useful framework for gauging what type of business work in a given region based on their level of economic development. The poorest regions will have minimal socioeconomic and legal infrastructures and the most significant cultural barriers to overcome. In these regions micro-enterprises that operate in the informal sector are the best bet. Western entrepreneurs can create micro-lending institutions that operate on a not-for-profit or for-profit basis. In developing region with emerging economies and infrastructures, small and medium enterprises can be supported. In more industrialized regions, overseas private equity investments in more significant and sophisticated businesses are possible.[20]

Insight #8: BAM as a strategy presents both opportunities and challenges to traditional sending agencies.

BAM presents mission agencies with the opportunity to mobilize a constituency that has not yet been tapped for mission. How can they work with churches to begin to change the way their people view work and mission? We’ve already seen that BAM can positively impact how missionaries are funded and how BAM can expedite their arrival on the field. Nevertheless, there are significant challenges to be overcome. For example, how do traditional missionaries and business people interact on the field? How are teams structured? Should they mix business people and traditional missionaries? How does accountability to field leadership work? How is accountability enforced when the business person has little or no financial dependency on the mission agency? What services and benefits do agencies offer to business missionaries? How much should the missionary pay for these services (traditional missionaries typical give a percentage of their support to the agency for member care and other services, including fund-raising support)? How does pre-field training need to adapt for the needs of business missionaries? What level of input does the agency or its field leadership have into the business plan? The ministry plan? Does the mission want to actually own businesses, or just partner with business people, or both?

Successful and experienced business people are likely to balk if faced with too controlling an agency presence. Agencies on the other hand are likely to balk at the idea of well meaning but culturally challenged business people stumbling around and perhaps erasing hard won good will among an unreached people group. These are the kinds of issues that agencies will need to wrestle with. Nevertheless, if they do it well BAM represents a significant new opportunity to mobilize a vast army for the task of world evangelization.

Insight #9: This may be a “kairos” moment for Business as Mission.

Certainly, as we have seen, not all types of business are appropriate for all contexts. In fact, in some cases business is not an answer at all. Business only survives when a profit can be generated yet there are some needs that believers should seek to address which do not fit that profile. For example, imminent starvation, disease, natural disaster and death are not business opportunities yet demand a Christian response. Nevertheless, there does seem to a gathering of forces and circumstances now that make business an attractive vessel for Christian compassion and the gospel. Globalization can not be turned back, the world understands through television and the internet that prosperity and a more abundant life is possible. Even the most despotic of governments understand that the key to survival is to upgrade the lifestyle of people, to lift them out of poverty. Business holds the key to modernization, job creation, income production, poverty elimination, and social change. Unreached peoples live in countries that are desperately seeking Western business know-how and investment. With jet travel, business people can get anywhere in the world in twenty-four hours. English has become the lingua franca of business. It seems that all of the pieces are falling into place for business as mission in much the same way the Pax Romana and the Greek language prepared the ancient world for the original transmission of the gospel. It remains for us to strategize, plan, and then act to take advantage of this kairos moment that God has prepared.

Brian Walck is an Entrepreneur and thought leader on the movement of Business and Mission. In addition to being a regular contributor on the Business as Mission Network site, he’s heavily involved in supporting God’s work around the world through Business as Mission Efforts, Missions Agencies and the local church. If you’d like to continue the conversation, email him at bwalck@yahoo.com.

[1] See Tom Steffan & Mike Barnett eds., Business as Mission: From Impoverished to Empowered. Evangelical Missiological Society Serier Number 14 (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2006) and Business as Mission, Lausanne Occasional Paper No. 59. (Pattaya, Thailand, Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, 2004), available online at http://www.lausanne.org/documents/2004forum/LOP59_IG30.pdf. These are some of the best resources available on Business as Mission. Other excellent resources are Tetsunao Yamamori & Ken Eldred, eds. On Kingdom Business: Transforming Missions through Entrepreneurial Strategies (Wheaton: Crossway Books, Good News Publishing, 2003), Steve Rundel and Tom Steffen, Great Commission Companies: The Emerging Role of Business in Missions (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2003), Ken Eldred, God is at Work (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2005) and R. Paul Stevens, Doing God’s Business: Meaning and Motivation for the Marketplace (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006.) While there are several other resources listed in the bibliography of this paper the reader who focuses on the set above will come away with a very good understanding of the BAM movement as well as a biblical understanding of work in general. Several of the titles above also contain excellent lists of supplementary resources. See in particular, the Lausanne article.
[2] In my view, social responsibility is a corollary of glorifying God in all aspects of business operation. However, because so many advocates of BAM explicitly state this in their definitions, I include it here so there is no question that I agree with them.
[3] Rundle and Steffen, 14-17.
[4] Doing Business In Saudi Arabia: A Country Commercial Guide for U.S. Companies (U.S. & Foreign Commercial Service and U.S. Department of State, 2008), available online at http://www.buyusa.gov/saudiarabia/en/41.html, 65.
[5] See http://www.myanmars.net/myanmar-business/
[6] For an enlightening discussion of this separation and its impact see Bryant Meyers, Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development (Maryknoll, New York, Orbis Books, 2006).
[7] Lausanne, 14.
[8] William Danker, Profit for the Lord: Economic Activities in Moravian Missions and the Basel Mission Trading Company (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1971).
[9] The Pura Vida story is told in Rundle and Steffen, pp.143-163.
[10] Danker, 103-4.
[11] Ken Eldred, “Kingdom Based Investing,” in Yamamori and Eldred, 203-212.
[12] João Mordomo, “Unleashing the Brazilian Missionary Force,” in Steffen and Barnett, 225-26.
[13] Ralph D. Winter and Bruce A. Koch, “Finishing the Task: The Unreached Peoples Challenge” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader, 3rd Ed. (Pasadena: The William Carey Library, 1981, 1992, 1999), 514.
[14] Patrick Lai, Tentmaking: Business as Missions (Waynesboro, Georgia: Authentic Media, 2005), 47.
[15] Anna Marie Aagaard and Lesslie Newbigin, “Mission in the 1990s : Two Views,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 13 no 3 (Jl 1989): 102.
[16] Bureau of Labor Statistics, “American Labor in the 20th Century” (originally published Fall 2001) accessed online at http://www.bls.gov/opub/cwc/cm20030124ar02p1.htm#18 on Feb. 29, 2008 and “Time Use on an Average Work Day for Employed Persons Aged 25 to 54 with Children” accessed online at http://www.bls.gov/tus/charts/home.htm on Feb, 29, 2008.
[17] Dwight Baker, “Missional Geometry: Plotting the Coordinates of Business as Mission,” in Steffen and Barnett, 44.
[18] Wayne Grudem, “How Business in Itself Can Glorify God,” in Yamamori and Eldred, 138-39.
[19] Rundle and Steffen, 60-61.
[20] Eldred, God is at Work, 170-182.

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posted by Justin Forman | 2.22.2009 - 10:00 PM


great work Brian! Keep up the effort to expand the field of knowledge. Passion produces perspective. Inspire us all to dig deeper. God bless!
commented by Anonymous David Bryant, 8:04 PM  

Dear Brian, i am a newbie to BAM and your paper gave me so much information to learn from. thank you and God bless you and your work.

john chin singapore
commented by Anonymous Anonymous, 10:12 PM  

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