Business as Mission under Scrutiny

by Christopher R. Little

If mission historians and theologians are to positively assess Business as Mission, they will need to take into consideration seven cautions.

There is an unprecedented and concerted effort underway to promote business as mission (BAM) as a strategy to disciple the nations in the early twenty-first century (cf. Rundle and Steffen 2003; Eldred 2005; Steffen and Barnett 2006; Russell 2010). C. Neal Johnson describes BAM as “a for-profit commercial business venture that is Christian led, intentionally devoted to being used as an instrument of God’s mission (missio Dei) to the world, and is operated in a cross-cultural environment, either domestic or international” and clarifies that it “is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The endgame is bringing God glory and effecting kingdom impact by introducing lost people to Jesus and by making their lives better” (2009,  27–28, 225).

That there are indeed positive aspects to BAM is beyond dispute. These include: (1) the ability to gain entry to mission contexts which have hitherto been inaccessible (cf. Eldred 2005, 261–262); (2) the potential for liberating indigenous Christian movements from foreign financial dependency (cf. Eldred 2005, 262); (3) the capacity to empower emerging mission movements in the Majority World (cf. Mordomo 2006, 234); and (4) the provision of means for “the only long-term solution to world poverty” (Grudem 2003, 150).

In fact, there is great promise for BAM to further God’s mission through his Church to the world for Christ’s sake. However, if mission historians and theologians in subsequent generations are to positively assess this movement, it will need to take into consideration the following seven cautions.1

Caution #1: Be careful of “Conceptual Parallelomania”
This term refers to those who operate with a “mirror hermeneutic” when interacting with scripture, whereby their experience and aspirations are poured into the text and in turn used to justify and sanction any given course of action (cf. Carson 1984, 136). For instance, Steve Rundle and Tom Steffen ask, “Why did [Paul] work?” Their answer is because “Working was a central part of his missionary strategy” (2003, 38). Mark Russell adds that Paul

…worked more often than is commonly assumed and that his reasons for it were numerous, not just to sustain himself on occasion….Rather,…it was the best option for the advancement of his cause….[T]he whole of the biblical account suggests that his tentmaking work was… something he used to gain an advantage in spreading the gospel message. (2010, 94, 97)

These viewpoints, however, do not square with the New Testament material regarding Paul’s modus operandi.
First, to postulate that the marketplace was central to Paul’s strategy amounts to a selective reading of the biblical record. There is only one verse in the New Testament which specifically speaks of Paul witnessing in this context—after recently arriving from Berea while in Athens, “he was reasoning…in the market place every day with those who happened to be present” (Acts 17:17). In reality, Paul’s preferred location for fulfilling his missionary mandate was the synagogue (cf. Acts 13:14ff; 17:1, 10, 17; 18:4ff; 19:8).

Second, in accordance with Rabbinic tradition, Paul was taught a trade in order to keep religious matters separate from worldly interests. As F. F. Bruce notes,

Paul had been brought up to believe that the teaching of the Torah should not be made a means of livelihood or personal aggrandisement. ‘He who makes a worldly use of the crown of the Torah will waste away’, said Hillel. . . . Many rabbis practised a trade so as to be able to impart their teaching without charge. Paul scrupulously maintained this tradition as a Christian preacher. (1977, 107, 220)

This disposition toward work is clearly represented in Paul (cf. Acts 20:33–34; 2 Thess. 3:8). Hence, Paul’s activities as a leatherworker in the first century were not fundamentally driven by a strategy to impact the marketplace, but rather reflect his Jewish upbringing which conditioned him to separate ministry from profit-making.

Caution #2: Be Careful of Identifying Christianity with Capitalism
With the arrival of BAM, the connection between the Christian faith and the capitalistic mindset has taken on new dimensions (cf. Eldred 2005, 24, 94; Johnson 2009, 159, 383). In the late eighteenth century, Adam Smith argued that capital is best deployed for the production and distribution of wealth under conditions of governmental noninterference (1966, 66ff). Since that time, capitalism’s love affair with unrestrained autonomy has only deepened. Yet as Charles Taber observes,

…a marketplace totally unregulated is nothing more nor less than the economic version of Darwinism….Whether or not economics has any moral accountability has become an even more urgent issue in the last few decades, as the prior colonial, mercantilist system…has given way to a global market economy that is far more ruthlessly imperial than any preceding system….[This] increasing hegemony of the economic sector over all other areas of life…needs to be understood and critiqued from a Christian ethical perspective. (2000, 74–75)

A part of this critique should address the thorny issue of how a person can claim “to be both ‘for him [i.e. God]’ and ‘for-profit’—profit enjoyed, by definition, because of entrenched competitive advances over rivals, customers, suppliers, and other ‘competitive’ entities’” (Case 2003, 276).

Other questions which Christian capitalists must wrestle with include: How much profit is enough or too much? (cf. Eph. 5:3); Why is not profiting less rather than more also Christian? (cf. Phil. 4:12–13); and Since there is a significant portion of the Church in the twenty-first century which is not amiable toward capitalism (even to the point of labeling it the “mother of corruption” as it does not meet “the requirements of the common good” [Ilo 2011, 159]), how would a Christian socialist or communist who does not hold to “the survival of the fittest” mentality do BAM differently?

Thus, as “BAM considers new opportunities in foreign lands, economic ventures must take existing social and economic structures into consideration and strive to work within them rather than imposing western economic principles out of context” (Pointer and Cooper 2006, 176).    
Caution #3: Be Careful to Realize that the Messenger Is the Message
Jacob Loewen tells the story of what transpired when jungle Indians in South America were Christianized by Northerners less than fifty years ago. While discussing Clark Wissler’s cultural universals, he asked his audience, “You say that you have known the missionaries for about twenty years. Can you suggest one of the items in this list which you would consider to be the axle of the missionaries’ way of life?”

“Money!” they responded. Loewen replied, “But do missionaries really teach about money?” They answered: “No, they usually talk about God and religion, but money is still the most important thing in their way of life.

Because…” Then, according to Loewen, these Indians recounted real-life experiences which revealed how money was “the ultimate yardstick (value) in both the material and spiritual areas of the missionaries’ life and culture.”

Loewen queried further, “And now that all of you here are Christians, is the Spirit of God the axle of your Christian way of life?” They responded, “No, our axle now is…money….because that is what we have learned from the missionaries” (1975, xi–xii).

This incident shows that the law of unintended consequences is at play whenever servants of Christ seek to follow him into the cultural highways and byways of the world. On this subject, Sherwood Lingenfelter observes, “[Cross-cultural workers] reflect the values of the social game of the culture of which they are a part. [They] carry their social values and expectations with them” (1998, 172).

That BAMers are susceptible to such tendencies is now evident:

Western business people [are] arriving …determined to stick to a task-focused, “time-is-money” schedule. They don’t ask questions of cultural insiders and act as though they can impose their own agenda and solutions—solutions that were decided upon even before arriving…. [D]amage control [is] necessary after business people [leave]. (Swanson 2011, 478)

Consequently, while BAMers hope to convey a different message, others perceive Christianity as being “closely attached to Western values of global business and prosperity, rather than the cross of Christ” (Reese 2010, 115). If such outcomes are to diminish, then better training of workers will need to be placed at the top of the agenda by those advancing BAM.

Caution #4: Be Careful of Redefining the Kingdom of God in One’s Own Image
Several authors link the growth of the kingdom to economic prosperity (cf. Suter 2003, 182; Eldred 2005, 56, 67, 71; Johnson 2009, 271, 278). But the opposite is actually the case in the New Testament since those squarely in the kingdom suffered deprivation on various occasions. For instance, the Jerusalem church during a time of famine (cf. Acts 11:27–30); the Macedonian believers for an undisclosed reason (cf. 2 Cor. 8:1–5); the Hebrew saints at the confiscation of their property (cf. Heb. 10:34); and the saints which Peter addressed who were suffering for doing right (cf. 1 Pet. 3:14–17). All of these incidents were due to a variety of forces out of the early Christians’ control but did not affect their relationship to the kingdom in the least bit (cf. Rom. 14:17).     

Caution #5: Be Careful of Taking Up the “White Man’s Burden” in Support of “Civilizing Mission”
That this is one of the ambitious objectives of BAM is beyond question (cf. Miller 2003, 281; Eldred 2003, 21–22; Johnson 2009, 56). However, those well acquainted with the expansion of Christianity over the last few centuries remain wary that such an agenda is unnecessarily repeating the mistakes of the past.

According to Steven Pointer and Michael Cooper, in the seventeenth century the English Puritans experimented with civilizing mission at the Massachusetts Bay Colony. As a result of “the presumed linkage for the English between ‘civility’ and religion (and usually in that order), it was assumed that growing familiarity by the natives with English ways would automatically create a desire to embrace both the culture and faith of these newcomers.”

With the establishment of “praying towns” by John Eliot and others, “Indian proselytes improved their economic standing through paying jobs, apprenticeships, new cottage industries, and the various consumer goods supplied by the New England Company.” At this time, the Puritans literally “unleashed an entrepreneurial energy that brought economic success and, simultaneously, the means of fulfilling their divinely-appointed mission.” But in the process, they became “enamored with the promise of business principles, the prospects of mercantile capitalism, and especially the allure of the potential of corporations.”

In the end, their achievement was a “double-edged sword: it signaled both divine approbation and covenant blessing, but also served as perpetual temptress.” Indeed, the Protestant work ethic faithfully adhered to by the Puritans increased wealth but led to a decline in religious zeal to the point “that spiritual apathy became a reality” (Pointer and Cooper 2006, 172–173).

BAMers must realize that the positive reception of Christianity on the world stage is not based on any particular civilizing scheme (contra Eldred 2003, 22). The idea that it is harkens back to what Roland Allen confronted in his day, as Lamin Sanneh notes:

Allen was correct in his diagnosis of the problem. Missions subordinated Christ to their social preconditions, conditions that favored sta­tionary centers built under European direction. Those conditions became the preoccupation of missions; they crowded out the gospel….When missionaries assumed that enlightenment and improvement would issue in acceptance of faith in Christ, they made it reasonable to conclude that faith in Christ was not the foundation but the copingstone of social and moral progress. They put the cart before the horse. (2008, 228).

Caution #6: Be Careful of Pursuing the Two-fold Agenda of Profit-making and Disciple-making
BAM authors have gone on record admitting the inherent tension between these two goals (Tsukahira 2003, 126; Rundle and Steffen 2003, 7; Russell 2010:164). The BAM paradigm thus demands a balancing act, but such an act entails inbuilt inconsistencies and liabilities.

First, there is the matter of dual allegiance. Historically, this phenomenon has occurred in societies most influenced by the cultural subset of religion and relates to “those who pledge allegiance to Christ but retain their previous allegiance to traditional power sources” (Kraft 1996, 201).

However, being fashioned in Western contexts dominated by the cultural subsets of “economics and control of the material world” (Kraft 2008, 146), BAM gives rise to another form of dual allegiance—one which vacillates between greed and contentment (cf. Luke 12:15; Eph. 5:3; Phil. 4:11; 1 Tim. 6:6; Heb. 13:5). Whereas Jesus presents the dichotomy, “No one can serve two masters….You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt. 6:24) and Paul states that he “never came with …a pretext for greed” (1 Thess. 2:5), BAMers contend that the way to serve God is through the acquisition of ever-increasing wealth.

Second, there is the ever-present risk that the mission of business will subvert the business of mission. Stephen Neill said it best: “A mission which becomes a commercial concern, may end up ceasing to be a mission” (quoted by Lai 2005, 370). In other words, “Business, in essence, has the potential to take the place of missions” (Pointer and Cooper 2006, 175). Consequently, BAM should really be renamed “Business for Mission” in order to ensure that it will maintain focus and not be derailed from the duty to disciple the nations.

Caution #7: Be Careful of Self-justifying Ethics
The subject of ethics is without doubt the most serious when it comes to BAM. Patrick Lai reports that some BAMers presume “deception” is acceptable in order to ensure on-going access to creative access nations (2005, 352) and Steffen reasons that since Peter, James, and Paul violated human laws in obedience to God’s law, workers today can do likewise (2012, 519–520). But such views raise several concerns.

First, it is unwarranted to compare the lives of such biblical figures as Peter, James, and Paul to the predicament BAMers face. None of these individuals entered restricted contexts in which they were requested by governmental authorities to not proselytize. Prohibitions regarding their religious activities were placed on them only after they were accepted members of their communities. For example, it was the decision of the Roman judicial system that Paul was “not doing anything worthy of death or imprisonment” and would “have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar” (Acts 26:31–32).

Next, the notion that deception is a trait which ambassadors of Christ should adopt as a means to accomplish their mission must be opposed. It is arguably acceptable to lie in circumstances where life is at stake (e.g., Rahab and the Israelite spies; Josh. 2:4–5). But it is altogether a different matter to lie or deceive people in order to secure one’s initial or ongoing access to a particular missional context. Christian virtue cannot be sacrificed on the altar of mission strategy (cf. Matt. 4:1–10; Luke 9:51–56).

Last, the vital issue of building trust cannot be overlooked. Anthropologist Marvin Mayers insists that all cross-cultural workers need to ask themselves, “Is what I am doing, thinking, or saying building trust or is it undermining trust? Is what I am doing, thinking or saying potential for building trust or potential for undermining trust?”  (1974, 32–33).

The purpose of presenting these seven cautions has not been to simply register the problems associated with the BAM initiative, but to provide stimulus toward resolving these problems as the Church continues to work hard at making genuine disciples of Jesus Christ of all nations.

1. Elsewhere I discuss ten cautions (2013), but due to space limitations present only seven here.

Bruce, F. F. 1977. Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Carson, D. A. 1984. Exegetical Fallacies. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker.

Case, Randolph. 2003. “Advantages, Disadvantages, and Lessons Learned.” In On Kingdom Business: Transforming Missions through Entrepreneurial Strategies. Eds. Tetsunao Yamamori and Kenneth Eldred, 271–280. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.

Eldred, Ken. 2003. “Introduction.” In On Kingdom Business: Transforming Missions through Entrepreneurial Strategies. Eds. Tetsunao Yamamori and Kenneth Eldred, 19–27. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.
______. 2005. God Is At Work. Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books.

Grudem, Wayne. 2003. “How Business in Itself Can Glorify God.” In On Kingdom Business: Transforming Missions through Entrepreneurial Strategies. Eds. Tetsunao Yamamori and Kenneth Eldred, 127–151. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.

Ilo, Stan Chu. 2011. The Church and Development in Africa: Aid and Development from the Perspective of Catholic Social Ethics. Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick Publications.

Johnson, C. Neal. 2009. Business As Mission: A Comprehensive Guide To Theory and Practice. Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press.

Kraft, Charles. 1996. Anthropology for Christian Witness. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis.

_____. 2008. Worldview for Christian Witness. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

Lai, Patrick. 2005. Tentmaking: Business as Mission. Waynesboro, Ga.: Authentic.

Lingenfelter, Sherwood. 1998. Transforming Culture: A Challenge for Christian Mission. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker.

Little, Christopher. 2013. Polemic Missiology for the 21st Century: In Memoriam of Roland Allen. Kindle.

Loewen, Jacob. 1975. Culture and Human Values: Christian Intervention in Anthropological Perspective. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

Mayers, Marvin. 1974. Christianity Confronts Culture: A Strategy for Cross-Cultural Evangelism. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.

Miller, Ralph. 2003. “Key Concepts and Lessons Learned.” In On Kingdom Business: Transforming Missions through Entrepreneurial Strategies. Eds. Tetsunao Yamamori and Kenneth Eldred, 281–296. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.

Mordomo, João. 2006. “Unleashing the Brazilian Missionary Force.” In Business As Mission: From Impoverished to Empowered. Eds. Tom Steffen and Mike Barnett, 219–239. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

Pointer, Steven and Michael Cooper. 2006. “Seventeenth Century Puritan Missions: Some Implications for Business as Mission.” In Business As Mission: From Impoverished to Empowered. Eds. Tom Steffen and Mike Barnett, 167–180. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

Reese, Robert. 2010. Roots & Remedies of the Dependency Syndrome in World Missions. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.

Rundle, Steve and Tom Steffen. 2003. Great Commission Companies: The Emerging Role of Business in Missions. Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press.

Russell, Mark. 2010. The Missional Entrepreneur: Principles and Practices for Business as Mission. Birmingham, Ala.: New Hope Publishers.

Sanneh, Lamin. 2008. Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Smith, Adam. 1966. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations Volume Two. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House.

Steffen, Tom. 2012. “Creative Access Platforms.” In Discovering the Mission of God: Best Missional Practices for the 21st Century. Ed. Mike Barnett, 517–534. Downers Grove, Ill: Intervarsity Press.

Steffen, Tom and Mike Barnett, eds. 2006. Business As Mission: From Impoverished to Empowered. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

Suter, Heinz. 2003. “Starting Kingdom Companies.” In On Kingdom Business: Transforming Missions through Entrepreneurial Strategies. Eds. Tetsunao Yamamori and Kenneth Eldred, 181–194. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.

Swanson, Bruce. 2011. “The Integration of Business and Business as Mission.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 47(4): 478–481.

Taber, Charles. 2000. To Understand The World, To Save The World: The Interface Between Missiology and the Social Sciences. Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press.

Tsukahira, Peter. 2003. “The Integration of Business and Ministry.” In On Kingdom Business: Transforming Missions through Entrepreneurial Strategies. Eds. Tetsunao Yamamori and Kenneth Eldred, 117–126. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.

Christopher R. Little, PhD, teaches Intercultural Studies at Columbia International University in an effort to equip God’s people to be more effective in fulfilling God’s mission among the nations for God’s glory alone.

EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 2, pp. 178-185. Copyright  © 2014 Billy Graham Center.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.

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