BAM: The New Colonialism

BAM: The New Colonialism

There has been a lot of energy directed at business as mission (BAM) strategies over the past few years.  Book after book, conference upon conference, Internet sites, and national speakers all point toward the coming era of Christian mission in which BAM will be the dominate strategy.  The agency that I work for, Pioneers, is similarly excited about BAM.

What concerns me about most of the information I read on BAM is that it grossly oversimplifies the missionary task while bypassing centuries of learning by missionaries in the field.  There seems to be a conclusion that missionaries have been largely ineffective (a case which is actually difficult to make given the growth of the global church over the past 30 years) and that pragmatic, smart, and efficient business thinking will reverse this.

BAM proponents emphasize the positives while glossing over the difficulties.  These difficulties, if discussed at all, usually focus on the launching and management of the business.  They seldom emphasize the ministry objectives and missiological insights.  Even more rare is the impact of the strategy (BAM) on the culture in which it is being used and the integration of BAM and ministry.

Straw Man

One reason for the lack of BAM critique is that missionary agencies are fearful of being labeled as embracing a traditional form of missionary endeavor that is hostile to BAM.  The polemic that BAM proponents use regarding the “sacred versus secular” divide makes critique by the “traditional missionary” a difficult task. 

Last year, an open letter was signed by Steve Douglas (President of Campus Crusade for Christ), Mark Anderson (President of GPN/call2all), and Loren Cunningham (founder of Youth With a Mission) in which they apologize for focusing on the sacred and secular divide regarding the mobilization of “full time Christian workers” (click here for letter).  They write, “We have realized that for too long we have focused on the ‘professional’ mission agencies and churches to get the job done. We now want to release the other 95% of the Body of Christ to join us.”  Who could ever argue with that sentiment?  Certainly not me!

As I discussed this with colleagues I realized that I felt no need to apologize on behalf of my organization and that we felt little guilt about how we have focused our energies.  We recruit many (actually, mostly) businesspeople very purposefully. 

In fact, from the earliest days, the modern missionary movement has been filled with BAM practitioners.  William Carey is considered to be the founder of this movement.  He was a BAM practitioner, opening indigo factories, a publishing house, a newspaper business, and many other entrepreneurial efforts.  Perhaps his biggest opposition came from the business community.  The East India Company, the dominant business of his day, worked against his efforts to bring the gospel to India because, in part, he highlighted their exploitation of the people of India.  Even so, he did not label business as evil.  The missionary movement that he spawned has been open and actively pursing BAM models ever since.

To be sure, there is a strand of “churchmen” who use language in a way that reinforces the feeling of discrimination that businesspeople often describe.  While I am very sorry for this, I don’t believe it should become the rallying cry for the recruitment of BAM workers.  Instead, a positive, engaging empowerment of both the BAM strategist and the full-time Christian worker should be our focus.  My experience with effective BAM models leads me to conclude that the best efforts combine on one team both BAM team members with team members focused exclusively on traditional missionary roles.

Anything less than an “all hands on deck” approach to reaching the world for Christ sells short the Great Commission. 


Another area of disconnect for me is in regard to the type of person necessary for doing the Great Commission.

At a presentation by a prominent BAM speaker I heard this question asked, “Is it easier for you to train a businessperson to be a missionary, or a missionary to be a businessperson?”  The reply was predictable and swift, “Missionaries don’t make great businesspeople and it’s better to start with the right raw materials.” 

As the presentation unfolded, I was amused to see a slide of his executive team that included himself and two former long-term missionaries, one of them from my own organization.  Both of these missionaries had the advantage of training and preparation under the care of a “traditional missionary agency,” multiple years of supervised culture and language acquisition (paid for by faithful donors back home), and then a hearty blessing as they left to get involved in a Kingdom business.  This little anecdote highlights the problem with much of what I read, see, and hear from the BAM community.  It is a gross oversimplification of what is needed on the ground in BAM globally.

The need in mission today is a much stronger focus on those parts of the world where missionaries have been least effective.  These are not typically business-friendly environments.  To succeed one must be an entrepreneur.  Entrepreneurs are needed whether one is starting a church, a business, or both.  CEO’s and upper management types will have a limited role in this type of startup-oriented setting.

Is this to say that there isn’t room for larger businesses or existing business to become involved with BAM?  Heaven’s no!  Please, bring on the SEO’s!  However, the “M” in BAM requires entrepreneurship even if the business piece doesn’t.

The question should not be “Who is better, a businessperson or a missionary?”  This sets up a false dichotomy.  Rather, we should recognize that entrepreneurs are the ones that start things and starting things is the need of the day.  Give me an army of people who love to start things.  They will start both businesses and churches.


Colonialism and economic gain go hand in hand.  The East India Company is, in the view of many Indians today, emblematic of the exploitation of their country.  For two hundred years missionary work and economic exploitation were synonymous.  They still are in the minds of many.

It’s very easy for us as Americans to think that this is not our problem because we don’t believe we are currently participating in colonialism.  This is a serious mistake.

Consider with me for a moment how this might look to a person in an poverty stricken culture which is hostile to Christianity:  The white people from the West come in with money, create a business to make money, own that business, hire people who are Christians (or become Christians), and ultimately profit from the company.  It sounds pretty much like the model that was used in a less enlightened era of missionary endeavor.

In our hearts and minds we are working from the best motives.  In the hearts and minds of a hostile culture, we are working with the worst motives.  We see business as redemptive.  They see it as one more example of colonialism.

This should give us great pause.  We should be critically assessing the models of business we are using, asking big questions particularly about ownership and profit, and working very hard to gain local understanding of our goals and objectives.

Are there models that avoid colonialism?  Yes, there must be, as evidenced by teams that are, in fact, able to be effective doing outreach utilizing BAM strategies.  There are also historical models that might provide us with some insight as to what is working.


Let’s tell people the truth. Doing business cross culturally is tough.  Doing cross-cultural ministry is tough.  When you put them together, it is doubly tough and adds elements of difficulty not present in other models.  The expertise of traditional missionaries is sorely needed to assist in the BAM effort.  BAM is not a panacea for recruitment or on-field success.

BAM will be the new colonialism without deeper missiological reflection and application.

3 thoughts on “BAM: The New Colonialism

  1. Ted, there was an article in the recent issue of Leadership Journal that explored some other implications of the business/ministry divide, mostly in terms of local churches. See "Good to Great to Godly."
    A friend of mine who works in the Middle East blogged about seeing the same tensions playing out in his agency:

  2. Thank you…good points!
    In our organization we have embraced several key BAM principles to address much of what you very perceptively identify as issues.
    1. We start from the "missional" purpose, relying on in field, culturally informed partners (especially local believers). Only if there is a clear missional objective that can best be served by a BAM effort do we move to the next…
    2. Solid business planning. We only get behind efforts that can meet the twin test of missional/cultural "fit" and business viability. Next…
    3. Our policy for BAM forbids personal profit. We only solicit funds as donations, and our legal structure is based on the non-profit organization owning the business ventures. Individuals can certainly earn a fair salary in a venture. But no one owns shares or invests in hope of financial gain.
    Those are jst a few of the ways we have sought to address some of the issues raised in the posts…
    Kevin Higgins

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