Friday, November 13, 2009

Business Missionaries

Interesting editorial today on business missionaries, Earning Commissions on 'The Great Commission':

Christian missionaries have always brought institutions from home and planted them in foreign lands. Schools, hospitals and social services are staples of missionary activity. But recently those who spread the faith overseas have realized that it's not enough to educate and provide health care. In the midst of a world-wide recession, people need jobs, and a growing number of missionaries—many of them working outside traditional missionary organizations—are taking their business skills and starting for-profit companies in the mission fields.

Missionary activity is in decline because of the recession. The Southern Baptist Convention and the United Methodist Church, two of the largest Protestant denominations, are making steep cuts to their missionary institutions. Yet Jesus' command to disciple all nations still pulls strongly on the hearts of many Christians. While mission agencies are tightening their purse strings, many business owners are turning to their practical, 9-to-5 skills to help fulfill this Great Commission.

The Business as Mission movement began in the 1990s, when globalization allowed Christian business people to build companies overseas. Often they did so without the help of churches. This missions model required some initial capital but no long-term subsidies. Business missionaries could become integral parts of a community, build trust with locals through business relationships, and minister every day of the week—not just Sunday—to employees, vendors, suppliers and customers. In the late '90s Neal Johnson was at Fuller Seminary in California planning a career change. He'd worked overseas in banking and law for decades, and he wanted to combine his business skills with missionary work. But his initial dissertation proposal on business as mission was rejected. "I was told it was not a subject for someone pursuing a Ph.D.," he said. Eventually, the committee relented. Today, Mr. Johnson is the dean of the business school at Bakke Graduate University—an international Christian school based in Seattle but offering courses from Hong Kong to Hungary—whose business program focuses solely on training students to integrate faith and missions with business. When I spoke with him, he was teaching an MBA course in the Philippines.

In the past decade, the movement has exploded, at least in interest among missionary agencies. Steve Rundle, an economics professor at Biola University in California, has been studying business as mission for 15 years. Prof. Rundle says that much of the movement is still informal, led by individual entrepreneurs. Because many business owners work outside of traditional mission agencies, it can be hard to quantify their numbers. But surveys of U.S.-based agencies found that about 5% of their missionaries are working in business, up from almost nothing 20 years ago. At a handful of agencies, as many as a quarter are using business as mission principles of profitability, the production of marketable goods and services and integration of Christianity and evangelism into the business.

The normal model of mission work, at least as we have experienced it, is of full-time professional missionaries doing mission work in a far away land supported by the offerings of Christians back in the U.S. I think I like this idea of missionaries starting businesses in foreign countries and supporting themselves while integrating themselves into the community plus perhaps providing jobs to the community they are ministering in. Instead of some Westerner coming to your country and telling you your religion is wrong, you have a neighbor and someone who lives in your community as part of your community.

What do you think?

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Steve Scott said...


I'm not an expert in Greek, but a number of different pastors and teachers I've been exposed to have said that a more correct interpretation of the verb tense in the Great Commission than "Go, therefore" is "Having gone." (Somebody can correct me here if needed.)

I have long thought about this in terms of missions. If the objective to the Great Commission is to disciple the nations, and not merely to win souls via profession of faith, then how to live a day to day life (i.e. working for a living and providing for one's family and neighbors and the poor) will be a high priority on the list of the one who has gone. "Having gone" places a reason in front of discipleship. Discipleship is a by-product of why one goes instead of the main goal. Endless professions of faith don't mean anything unless all of life is changed. I'm glad to hear that more pepole are going this route.

Steve Martin said...

I think it's a good idea.

Charla said...

I think you brought up a very good point. I look at Paul's life, and how he was a tentmaker in addition to all of his missions work.
I'm starting to wonder if it isn't along the same lines as supporting our pastors with their salary. Somehow we've gotten into our theology that anyone doing God's work is supported by the people who are working in the "secular" world, rather than having outside jobs the rest of the week. I agree completely that people will be much more likely to listen to you if they see you in the marketplace as well as with a Bible in hand.

JamesBrett said...

I served as a "missionary" in China for three years by teaching English in a university there. And I am now a "missionary" in Tanzania, East Africa, being supported by churches and individuals in the U.S. (and China). I also prefer the method / strategy of living and working in a country, all the while doing what all Christians are called to do -- glorifying God and enjoying him in such a way that others will also choose to worship him.

I thoroughly enjoyed my experience in China, and was very pleased with the arrangement there. There are so many benefits to not being paid as a missionary:
- no reinforcement of idea of clergy vs. lay
- no questioning of motives being for money
- service seems to mean more when from a "regular" person
- no hassle of finding support, and then replacing support later
- I think it's healthy to glorify God in a secular job, while practicing balance and discipline in life
- your business and career supply you with relationships in which to be intentionally redemptive
- I could go on

But my real purpose for posting is that, although I prefer this method for mission, there are places in the world where it would be incredibly difficult to do business as mission. It would be tough to find or create any job in the small town where I'm now living that would produce even the income to move a family to that area and return to the states occasionally (every 2 1/2 years for us) to visit -- much less to have adequate funds to be in a position to use the internet or occasionally eat a western-type meal (even cooked in our own home).

Now the level of (dis)comfort in which I live can definitely be questioned -- and I think that's fair. But it's not only a question of comfort. Having a vehicle definitely is not necessary for the work I do -- but it does allow me to work in a variety of areas at greater distances from my home. It also gives me the opportunity to serve people in the community needing rides to a hospital from the village, etc. Therefore I've opted to receive moneys from the states to aid / make possible this work.

However, I still am not comfortable being paid to be a "missionary." Our team strategy is an holistic one, and so (although it may be a mind trick I play on myself) I prefer to think of my job as that of one paid to do agriculture development, helping local farmers to learn better how to themselves solve various problems in their community. And that is how I want to be viewed in the community -- as someone who has come to do development work, not to teach Bible.

[It is also interesting (though a discussion for another time) that it is unimaginable here for a system of development or help of any sort to be separate and apart from spiritual things. There is not that distinction here -- so a health education program that doesn't address spiritual issues would be suspect.]

Arthur Sido said...

James, thank you for that insight. For most American Christians this is an academic question because we have never done overseas "mission" work so your perspective is valuable.

Arthur Sido said...


I think in many ways this is exactly the same question as paying pastors. I am far more supportive of paying missionaries (and it is easier to back up from Scripture) than I am of paying local elders to lead and serve the church, especially in America where despite the recession it is still possible for able bodied, college educated men to get jobs to support themselves.