‘Business as Mission’ Mixes Work with the Great Commission
- Paul Filidis CEO of WorldChristian.com, one of the premier sources for discounted books that nurture a world Christian perspective.
- 2011 14 Apr
One of the more exciting developments in the Great Commission enterprise of the church during the past decade or two is the emergence of Business as Mission (BAM). It is a conceptual framework and a movement that affirms and encourages Christians with professional and business skills to apply them within a mission field context.
This perspective surfaced largely as a result of the rapid increase of countries that no longer granted visas to fully supported traditional missionaries. Newly independent countries, especially those coming out from under colonial rule, began to feel protective toward the kind of external influence, typically exercised by missionaries, that would unsettle their national identity, including established religious ways.
I believe the BAM approach is one that suits the needs of our world and connects with the passions of young people to go out into the world to achieve a redemptive impact. The following insights can help you introduce the BAM concept to the young people you serve, some of whom may be called to this form of outreach.
While in response, many missionaries attempted to remain in (or find creative access to) countries by subverting the residence requirements in one way or another (e.g., by simply adopting different labels for their activities or finding job opportunities that allowed them also to pursue their primary work), mission thinkers reviewed contemporary and historical mission methods.
One of them, the late Dr. J. Christy Wilson, reminded the mission community that the gospel throughout history spread largely through ordinary people participating in the ordinary work activities of the marketplace. His book Today's Tentmakers (Tyndale, 1980) popularized tentmaking as an approach for missionaries to embrace careers that would be income-generating, as well as applicable to their particular mission field calling (the word referred to the apostle Paul's tent-making skill that provided some of his support needs).
Thus, the term tentmaking became a code word for engaging in missionary work under the cover of another label more acceptable to a country's visa-granting agency. It quickly and understandably aroused the suspicion (in particular) of Islamic institutions that tracked missionary activities and slowly has fallen into lesser usage.
The Secular/Sacred Divide
The continuity between tentmaking and the BAM movement is obvious, but the underlying perspective of BAM goes beyond the scope of tentmaking. It is also the result of a larger development in Christian worldview thinking. While it is probably still far from captivating the hearts and minds of most Christians, there has been a significant dismantling of what this writer considers the simplistic and unbiblical partitions that have for too long divided life into secular and sacred.
Influenced by such dichotomizing, we have, for example, tended to judge church and ministry vocations as superior to other vocations. Frequently, we have appreciated business people (who are engaged in providing products and services, and in building and maintaining many of daily life's infrastructures) primarily for the money they are able to contribute to church and ministry.
The BAM movement is doing its part to affirm the equal call on the lives of business people, to be active participants in advancing the cause of Christ across the street and around the world.
BAM also has come about as part of a renewed and more holistic understanding of our life and mission in this world, a mission that, in the words of Christopher Wright's endorsement of The Missional Entrepreneur, "flows from a truly biblical integration of the creational and redemptive dimensions of our responsibility." In light of that, the blessing God wants His people to be and to seek on behalf of the nations of this world cannot consist merely of seeking conversion to Christianity.
God's promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 ("…and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you") is much more encompassing.
BAM, therefore, is neither a new fundraising method for missionaries to finance their ministry activities, nor simply a new scheme to be able to get into a country, and then to disingenuously focus on one's real agenda. Rather, it is the sincere pursuit of a real, appropriate and sustainable business that operates with a perspective toward the kingdom of God, aims at being profitable and seeks to demonstrate tangibly the good news in the marketplace by contributing intrinsic value to the good of a community.
A Holistic Approach
Christianity may not grow deep roots in many mission fields if it is not allowed to influence, transform and empower every dimension of life, including the ordinary yet essential and legitimate economic aspirations, capabilities and opportunities of day-to-day life.
The practice to support pastors and lay church workers financially in poorer areas of the world, while certainly understandable and even necessary for periods of time, all too often leads to negative outcomes. Apart from the fact that this usually sustains the view of Christianity as an outside religion and imputes ulterior motives to its financiers, it fosters dependence and drives a wedge between the larger community and Christians. It ultimately neither builds up nor is sustainable.
A far more appropriate approach is to address the physical needs of young churches in practical ways that are economically sound. Financial investments (instead of handouts) to launch new economic activities that fit the local context, or to expand existing ones, easily are comprehended and accepted as legitimate activity by everyone, especially if they meet real needs and still aim at even a modest profit.
Such activities not only will provide Christians with opportunities for skill training, employment and dignity, thus enabling the church more likely to grow and stand on its own, but also will make it a productive member and example to the surrounding community.
This calls for a new kind of missionary, one not only at home in the Bible and adept at cross-cultural communication, but one who also has acquired a marketplace skill and is equipped with a more holistic outlook able to apply Christ's teaching to the marketplace of life. At least he or she has to be able and willing to welcome, encourage and cooperate with the businessperson whom God may have called to work nearby.
What Skill Will You Bring to Market?
Do you think your motorcycle repair skills are useless on the mission field or that managing a Dairy Queen was a waste of time in preparing you for a career in missions? Think again. I know of a successful ice cream shop in Central Asia, and a cheesecake shop in a Middle Eastern city—both somewhat unlikely on the surface—but both operated by Christians with a strong kingdom perspective and with eyes wide open and employing locals on whom they have a discipling influence.
Here is the story of Joseph who started a motorcycle repair shop in a predominantly Muslim village (as told in Business as Mission by Michael Baer, YWAM Publishing). "He understood God's heart to show mercy to the lost, and he looked at this particular village, he realized it had no gospel witness at all…His business gave him a reason to be there that did not arouse suspicions…and actually enabled him to establish relationships with Muslims. This became his kingdom purpose—to live and work among Muslims and, through words and the way he conducted business, to share Christ's love with them. The latest report I received on Joseph was that a local imam (a Muslim holy man) was telling people that Joseph was the only person he could recommend for motorcycle repairs because he was an honest, Christian man."
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