Picture the scene. Hundreds gather for the valedictory service of a couple soon to fly overseas as missionaries. Church leaders and friends pray their blessing on them, a representative of the enabling missionary organisation adds his words of encouragement. There are tears, but joy too at the prospect of God’s work advancing.
Not a familiar scene, but one that most believers have witnessed at some time. But this is a valedictory service with a difference. Uninformed onlookers are surprised when they hear the words of the Senior Minister: “Lord draw near and encourage them as they set up a business overseas.”
A business? Surely not! Missionaries teach the Bible, evangelise the lost, train leaders. We know that some missionaries enter countries as professionals; in engineering, accountancy, or as research scientists. Known as tentmakers after the apostle Paul’s trade alongside his gospel work, the church is happy that Jesus is preached to unreached peoples in this way. But why send missionaries overseas at great cost, to run a business? Surely there must be some mistake. Don’t they realise that Jesus’ words, ‘I must be about my father’s business’ were not to be taken literally? A missionary with a bowler hat is scarcely a more pleasing image than the pith helmet caricature so fondly nurtured by some. Business is about efficiency and profit margins. Mission is about planting churches and transforming society. How could anyone in their right mind defend such an unholy alliance as mission and mammon?
Why are a few pioneering mission organisations promoting this idea? How is it worked out in practise? And how does all this impact the church in the UK? Here is five reasons why money-making missionaries are good news:
1. Establishing Kingdom Values
How can we share the gospel of Christ? This is the key question that has exercised the minds of all missionaries since the apostle Paul left Antioch in Syria with a commission to reach the Roman world. Those promoting the place of business enterprises in the mission of the church are continuing to ask this question and, sometimes for a variety of reasons, have concluded that sending people gifted and equipped to set up businesses or engage in business activity is the answer.
For some it is the only way. As Richard Nash, National Director of Arab World Ministries (AWM), explains: “One hundred and twenty years ago, there was one model that was practiced all over the world. The Muslim world presented no more challenges than any other. “But then politics, war, economy, development, religious fighting back changed all that. It is no longer possible to be a traditional missionary with the M word stamped on your visa.” And it ’s not just Muslim nations. Missiologists have coined the terms Restricted Access Nations, (RAN)or Creative Access Nations, (CAN), (depending on whether you see the glass half full or half empty), to describe nations closed to Christian missionaries. They are mostly found in what is known as the 10/40 window, an area that extends from 10 to 40 degrees north of the equator and stretches from North Africa across to China and southeast Asia.
Some 90%of the unreached people groups in the world live here, numbering around 1.8 billion – a staggering number to be outside the regular contact of Christians. So with a passion to reach these peoples, but barred from entering as missionaries, a few pioneering missionary organisations are encouraging people to set up businesses in these lands hoping to communicate Christian business values, and looking to communicate the gospel where and when they can.
Jason Smith worked with a mission organisation for seven years in south-east Asia (his name has been changed to preserve anonymity). He told Christianity+Renewal : “We were convinced of the importance of establishing a software development business in a country where we couldn ’t have gained access as missionaries. We employed local people and worked alongside the church in its witness in the neighbourhood. People asked me ‘when do you find time for ministry?’ I would reply, ‘this is my ministry’.”
Peter Gray is a missionary with AWM in North Africa combining a love for off-road bikes with a concern to reach people with the gospel. “I saw a gap in the tourism market and so set up the project to provide off-road expeditions. I advertise in a motor cycle magazine and via the website and see people from overseas and local areas sign- ing up. Half of my time is spent with bikes and half working with the local church.”
But it’s not just creating businesses but also offering business advice that can make an impact. Richard Emery, an Independent Business Consultant who works as an advisor to businesses in Eastern Europe and works in both Christian and ‘secular’ contexts, told Christianity+Renewal : “I stress four values in my training seminars with business leaders: integrity, servanthood, excellence and financial management. They are all values a Christian should incorporate into his/her business dealings.”
Some Christians in former Soviet Union states have found the government and business world so corrupt they have urged other believers to stay clear of the market place. But this is the very place that Christians can make an impact. In one leadership development programme I ran in the Ukraine, half of those attending were not Christians, but they recognised that the Bible had something important to say about how we do business.”
All of this means of course that the walk really does have to match the talk. Businesses where Christian values are poorly practised have the very opposite effect to those intended. But where good values are communicated the impact can be considerable. Mike Perreau,Managing Director of PI Management Ltd, who advises a number of mission organisiations on business strategies, explained to Christianity+Renewal: “Christian business leaders can reach an echelon of society not reached by projects aimed at the poor and destitute. The rich marketeers need the gospel too.” The activities of business provide an atmosphere where relationships with nationals can be easily formed. The reason for the ‘missionary/business person ’being in the country is clear and opportunities for the gospel more natural as a result.
2. Multiplying Benefits Locally
Business activity isn’t just a clever way of getting people into countries closed to missionaries – it is of positive benefit to locals. Lives have been turned around for a number in squatter camps in South Africa, for example. “We go to the squatter camps and seek out suitable people to train to set up a small business,” says Mike. “We then lend them the capital (£100). They pay it back when their business (such as dressmaking) has seen a £100 return and we plough it back into the fund. Some get together to form mini co-operatives and are able to expand. We have a 92% success rate, though women tend to be more successful than men, who often squander the money on alcohol. The project aims to give dignity and independence to people.”
Some business developments are slightly unusual. John Ayrton, Northern Team leader of Interserve explains: “A guy has developed a way of manufacturing breeze blocks using local materials in a country in Asia. He is going to start a company which will provide jobs for local people.” “In nations where Christians are marginalized, businesses can provide employment for those who can’t get work because of their faith. In time we hope to provide greater opportunities for local believers.” explains Gray..
True missionaries work themselves out of a job,training up locals to take on the church.The business missionary can do the same.Emery explained:“I met a couple who set up a small busi- ness distributing plastic merchandise in Romania.They employed local people and trained them up to lead it.When the time came to leave they signed the business over to the locals.”
3. Minimising Tent-making Weaknesses
For all its benefits in creating access to closed countries, tent-making does carry some drawbacks. Smith explains:“We can split the jobs taken by missionaries into three categories: job takers, job fakers and job makers. Job takers ‘take’ what’s available in their skill base in order to enter the country i.e.the classic tent-making role. Job fakers take a job in a business set up by Christians with little intention of actually spending time on it. Job makers however have a clear cut reason for being in the country, and can provide employment for local people.”
But some tent-making could be classed as job fakers and Michael McLoughlin, Director of Youth With a Mission, Marketplace Ministries British Columbia, is concerned about the message this gives: “Businesses must be well established in the sending nation with a profitable track record before attempting to set up in another nation. There must be no deception. It is not appropriate to set up a shell company just to give the appearance so as to get a visa and access as a business person.” Smith agrees and adds: “If the business-mission split is 50/50 fair enough, but if less than half of the time is spent on the business activity questions should be asked. National Governments are becoming wise to this and now insist on more stringent documentation for those seeking to gain access.”
But it is not just a problem of integrity: “The problem facing job takers or job fakers is that they are completely at the mercy of the employers. If the job finishes, they are out”, adds Smith. Others would question whether someone can adequately combine tent-making with evangelism: “It is very difficult to combine running a successful small to medium sized business and find time to engage in evangelism,”says Emery. “How many business people in the UK are able to put quality time into personal evangelism?”
So there are situations where tent-making could for a number of reasons be a well-meaning but inappropriate vehicle for mission. The ‘job makers’ have a bonafide reason for being in the country, and can provide employment for local people. Some will simply conduct their business and look for opportunities just as they would if they were in their home-land. Others may be able to combine the two safe in the knowledge that they have their own means of support.
4. Using Entrepreneurial Gifts
The beauty of encouraging individuals with a knack for business to get involved in mission is that it provides a way for those with entrepreneurial gifts to use them for the kingdom. Emery says:“God said to me that he wanted to use my gifts and experience of business. “When my wife and I came to faith 10 years ago it was clear that we should stay in the business world and use our gifts for the kingdom from that base.” says Perreau.
But it seems the church is not always amenable to business input. Emery explains: “My visits to former Soviet Union states have been illuminating. One church felt that Christians should not get involved in government or business. I was able to explain that providing business is conducted using Christian principles, there is no problem. There is a difference for example between profit and profiteering. Receiving a good return on your investment is an appropriate reward.”
In some cases missions know that they need to raise money but have few people with any entrepreneurial flair or background. “Many missions have come to me for help in developing a business enterprise. Effort and energy are less as a result of limited skills and dilution of focus as their businesses are either not viable or act as a distraction.” But where the best in entrepreneurial talent is combined with a concern for mission progress can be made. “Since we have returned from south-east Asia we have been involved in projects helping raise venture capital. Now mission partners can ask us for loans to develop their own projects,” says Smith. “We are currently considering three such proposals.”
“As a mission we were unable to support a housing rehabilitation project in Bangladesh,four years ago, because of lack of finance”, says Ayrton of Interserve. “Developing a means of raising capital would be an enormous bonus.” Perreau ’s latest project involves developing a global English project which could be offered to missionaries. It will provide materials to enable missionaries to set up a language school, with appropriate training and consultation to enable it to get off the ground.
5. Increasing UK Church Understanding
If Christians in the UK are surprised to see business and mission being linked so closely it is probably because no-one has explained how the world of commerce is inextricably linked with the mission of Christ. Asked about his perception about whether the church is supportive of the marriage between business and mission Perreau says “Our experience is that there is a deeper issue that needs addressing. I speak to Pastors who say that business people aren’t committed. I speak to business people who feel the church is suspicious of them and threatened by their gifts. We have been very fortunate in our own church experience however.”
So the business person is hit with a double whammy. The message seems to be ‘we’ll have your money, but not your talent.’ Consequently many churches are poorly led by Pastors gifted as Bible teachers, but incompetent at the sort of management practised by entrepreneurs who attend the church. But the other more insidious message is that the business life only has value for the money produced and that any gift utilised in the market place is somehow second class. No doubt there are men and women who are too focused on money-making to be of much value to the kingdom, but many more are left frustrated by the lack of concern and interest in their lives Monday to Friday.
But this focus on using high fliers in the market place in mission is an additional step which could impact the work of the gospel in the UK. Global Connections (formerly Evangelical Missionary Alliance) is an organisation bringing together missions in the UK is actively promoting the exploration of business and mission and is concerned that too often business people are under-valued. Its launch of Business Associates hopes to tap into the expertise of those in the marketplace. Perreau is often invited to speak at Bible Colleges on the theme of business and mission, as individuals considering serving God overseas consider their options.
Maybe one day the penny will drop that making-money in itself, isn’t a problem. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has a favourite joke.“When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. And then they said ‘Let us pray’. But when the prayer was over; and we opened our eyes, we found out that we had the Bible and they had the land.” It is the kernel of truth that makes the joke work. In the past commerce, colonialism and Christianity went together in ways not altogether appreciated by developing nations. Maybe in time the impact of money-making missionaries will be so great,that the joke could be told and no one will laugh.