Is Business as Mission really the Traditional Approach?

Is Business as Mission really the Traditional Approach?

Note: A few weeks ago I wrote an article for Business as Mission Network.  Since a few weeks have gone by, I think I can post it here without raining on their “content parade,” so here it is:

There has been a lot of talk in the past few years about Business as Mission (BAM) and its implication for the “traditional” mission agency.  I work for Pioneers and I don’t like it when people say we are a traditional agency – probably more because of my pride than anything else.  Lately, however, I have begun to wonder about what it means to be traditional.  Could it be that BAM really is the “traditional approach?”

As I write this I am sitting in a roomful of BAM practitioners – about 75 of them from around the world of Pioneers – a small representation of the many BAM staff in our movement.  There are over 40 types of business represented in the room, from cottage industries to some of the largest manufacturing firms in their sector.  Many in the room are among Pioneers’ finest missionaries.  As we have heard from case studies, speakers, theologians and, most importantly, missionaries who are businesspeople (or is it “businesspeople who are missionaries?”) a few things stick out to me.

The first observation is that many of these people have never felt embraced by the missionary community. If people within Pioneers are feeling this (I am biased, of course, but I consider Pioneers to be fairly forward thinking) I can only imagine what others have felt.  It is time for agencies to fully embrace the BAM model of ministry.  This means re-thinking our structures that are mostly built around the full-time Christian worker mentality.  God will continue to call people into “full-time service,” but that doesn’t mean that we should continue to be one-key pianos.

Another point that has been repeated by these business oriented church planters is that we must focus more attention on the holistic nature of ministry. Holistic ministry meets the needs of people.  BAM is a natural outgrowth of a ministry philosophy that stresses this holism.  Business meets many of the needs that people have.  Who doesn’t want to see their family provided for in a way that is not only financially sustainable but also empowering?  Commerce is a cultural universal.  If we are serious about transforming societies it must include business.

Yet another theme that I heard was a need for pragmatic assistance.  BAM practitioners are often working in business-hostile environments with high taxes, corruption, and poverty.  There is a complexity introduced by cross-cultural realities.  It is tempting for me to write that, “Agencies need to cope with these issues.”  That’s the wrong answer – the church is full of experts that can help with these issues.  Agencies need to learn how to make a connection for these experts and then get out of the way.

A final observation was that a BAM philosophy benefits from good missiology.  Missiology is no more than the accumulated theology, learning, and experience of the “church on mission.”  The men and women at this conference were eager to hear from others who are in business and seeing spiritual fruit.  Analyzing these various models together and highlighting the things that worked was very well received.  It was a rich time of learning for all.

There was a small businessman (whom I have never met) that got a yearning to love a very unreached part of the world. Church leaders derided him as ill prepared – even questioning the value of his vision.  He did his best to get appropriate training before setting off but was never fully embraced by his denomination.

He landed in a hostile country. His goal was to create a self-sustaining model using commercial enterprise.  Opportunities were very limited in his new home but he soon found himself managing a small production facility, creating inks for the textile industry. As he worked he learned the local language and culture.  He found new opportunities and built up a printing business. As he went, he shared his faith and soon had a small group of believers meeting and worshipping – the first in this people group.  His business was burnt to the ground, rebuilt, his wife went mad, and he was physically threatened.  Yet he persevered.

This small businessman was, of course, William Carey, now known as the founder of the modern missionary movement.  He was a holistic entrepreneur. He not only conducted business, he learned the language, dress, and customs of the people among whom he worked.  He knew the scriptures and took difficult positions for the sake of the gospel.  Carey’s model has reverberated throughout the past two hundred years and continues to influence what we know as “mission.”

If it’s true that the modern missionary movement was based on a BAM model, lets return to our roots.  Here are specific steps, culled from BAM practitioners, that agencies can take: recognize the valuable role that BAM is playing in the world today, focus on holistic strategies, provide practical assistance, and encourage good missionary practice.  There are some structural issues to address as well.  The businessperson who does not raise their funds through donations needs to sit at the table alongside other missionaries as full members of our agencies.

The traditional approach to mission might not be as old fashioned as we think.  It’s a BAM approach!

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