Business Is Mission: An Integrated Model

by Ron Wismer

When an organization decides to develop a business in a country that does not allow missionary visas, it must understand why that business is created. 

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The country of Zongistan (a fictitious name) does not allow missionaries to reside in the country and has a Christian population well below one percent. The country’s government is promoting and developing its private sector, thus there are incentives for foreigners to become involved in business. One mission organization that is heavily involved in church planting decides to develop a team that will start a business in order to reside in country and begin planting a church—so far, so good. 

The team decides to open a bookstore since many of the team members are rabid readers and they know a great deal about books. The business is a means for the organization to obtain a visa and remain in country to complete its mission of planting churches. Could there be some problems with this model, and if so, what would be some possible scenarios that would be more effective for the kingdom?

Four Models of Kingdom Business

When an organization decides to develop a business in a country that does not allow missionary visas, it must understand why that business is created. The above example illustrates the Business as Shell model. This business is primarily (or even exclusively) created in order to obtain legitimacy for the people living in the country, usually in the form of a visa or long-term work permit. 

A second model, Business for Mission, is one in which the business provides some form of revenue enhancement or cash flow. In a third model, Business for Discipleship, the business is intentional about discipleship both within the company and as it interacts with the community. A fourth model, Business is Mission, is that of a company which is intentional in both social responsibility and discipleship. 

The four models above are delineated in Table 1 below. While there are other models that we might add (e.g., the international professional working for a multinational corporation), my focus is on the differences between these four models. Of the four models, only in the Business is Mission model does discipleship take place within the confines of a socially responsible business.

Table 1: Four Models of Business

  Rationale
Type of Business Visa

Revenue
Enhancement

Discipleship Social Responsibility
Business as Shell x      
Business for Mission x x    
Business for Discipleship x x x  
Business Is Mission x x x x

My hope is that this article will help leaders of organizations understand the different dynamics that occur when team members do not understand what type of business has been created. I will not discuss what type of business needs to be created or the nuts and bolts of how to go about creating businesses. Rather, I will focus on the importance of integrating a socially responsible business with one’s walk as a Christ-follower serving cross-culturally. 

In order to fully understand the integrated model, we must unpack the different business models mentioned above. Confusion reigns among team members when no one is certain which type of model the organization is utilizing. The resultant misalignment can lead to frustration and eventual failure of both the business and the ministry intent.

Business as Shell 

As previously noted, the Zongistan example falls into the Business as Shell model, and is certainly not new. In this model, there is typically no real business plan. The company is created and exists solely to obtain and maintain visas for those wishing to minister in the country. Shell companies often employ very few locals—if any—and frequently fall into the service sector (e.g., restaurants, Internet cafes, or computer training centers). They may include small-scale sales ventures as well (e.g., bookstores or coffee/tea shops). 

There are several difficulties with the shell model. The primary one is that it is increasingly difficult for the owners of the company to maintain legitimacy in the eyes of the government. Most countries understand that businesses must make money to continue and therefore a business that does not appear to have a sustainable revenue stream might come under unwanted scrutiny. 

Additionally, many of today’s developing countries are in need of outside investment in businesses which will help build local capacity. One significant means to do that is by training and/or educating local employees. A shell company typically does not have plans to improve or educate their national employees. A company without a staff development plan can again come under unwanted scrutiny. 

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of a shell company is the tension it causes between what is considered ministry and what is considered the requirement of work. Business as Shell practitioners have a natural progression towards a dichotomist view of their work. They view the business as a necessary evil in order to facilitate the important work of ministry. 

This viewpoint can lead to frustration for all those working in the business. Local employees pick up the negative feelings of the business owner and may come to see that they are simply being used. The result is no different from a secular multi-national using local cheap labor to increase profits. The owner of the business desires to be involved in ministry rather than working at a business that provides no perceived value. As a result, he or she may become frustrated with time constraints imposed by the business itself, leading to frustrations with his or her life and work. 

Business for Mission

The Business for Mission model is a business that is developed to generate a revenue stream that legitimates a business visa. The basic premise of Business for Mission is a for-profit business that not only allows expatriates to live in the country of ministry, but also provides funds for living expenses and ministry. The revenue stream may be utilized to provide operational funds for the organization in the country, and the cash flow may be sufficient to provide funding for other ministry functions outside of the country of operation. This model is a legitimate one in the eyes of the local government and society. To succeed, these businesses must follow a business plan and adhere to sound business principles. 

Even though the Business for Mission model is legitimate in the business sense, there are still several difficulties. Our own organization has used this type of business in many countries and has found that the ambiguity inherent in this type of organization can lead to confusion. 

The driving force of the business is to create revenue for the mission or organization. The resultant motivators for those working in the business revolve around making as much revenue as possible, which can lead to misalignment. Even a for-profit business will have difficulty sustaining motivation based solely upon making money. The misalignment occurs when a team member believes that he or she needs to develop relationships with customers or local employees of the business (discipleship). The time needed to develop those relations can put a strain on the required time needed to maintain a profitable business. 

The Business for Mission model has little room for relationship building because profits are considered critical to the business. While the business is more than a platform and can provide much-needed revenues for the organization, the dichotomy created by this model eventually places a tremendous strain on personnel. 

Those who have been called by God to work in cross-cultural situations desire to see more than just a successful business and a generous profit—they are motivated by seeing God increase the kingdom through their ministry. This model does not allow a complete integration for the workers who desire to build relationships with all those whom God puts in their path. A total focus on revenue generation will hardly sustain someone motivated to increase God’s kingdom while doing business.

One other area of difficulty for a Business for Mission practitioner is the temptation to allow profits and revenue to control the business to the point that ethical rules are broken. The leadership may not start with the intent of being unethical, but the pressures of needed cash flow and revenues can be overwhelming for the practitioner. In fact, the company may seek to justify its actions because it is providing the means for other ministry to develop and grow. The dichotomist paradigm is perpetuated because the business is simply a compartment that provides funds for the ministry and has no value for ministry or relationship in day-to-day operations. 

This temptation is particularly severe in countries with an environment of corruption and pay-offs. In those settings, the desire to maintain profits and revenue enhancement will pressure the business into compromising situations. The company leaders note how other businesses avoid paying taxes or required fees and can fall into the trap of doing business in the same manner. Discerning what is normal business practices for the country and what is actual corruption can be difficult, but compromising on safety issues or ethical treatment of employees cannot be considered by anyone trying to maintain a business with kingdom influence. 

Business for Discipleship

The Business for Discipleship model incorporates elements of the first two models, but goes beyond both. There is intentionality in the business that provides legitimacy. The business functions normally in the local setting and follows a business plan. The company management works toward turning a profit, but with the intention of discipling the employees and perhaps some of the clients. The idea is that a well-run business would allow for a legitimate witness within the country. Business for Discipleship is a good model, but does not go far enough. 

Business Is Mission

The integrated model of Business Is Mission defines a more biblically-based presentation of a kingdom business. The intention of the business from the start is to provide an integration of social responsibility, discipleship, and making a profit. Some have referred to this concept as the “triple bottom line” (Elkington 1998). It is crucial that the owners and management maintain balance in all three areas. The Business Is Mission company certainly provides all of the elements of the four models mentioned, but goes a step further to provide the means to minister in the creative access country in a more holistic way. 

Social responsibility has several facets and takes on different meanings depending on the context. One aspect of social responsibility is caring for the environment and leaving a place better than it was before. A business that destroys or harms the environment is disobedient to God’s command to tend and care for the earth. A second aspect is a concern for social justice as a means to maintain social responsibility. A business that is considered a sweatshop has no kingdom impact upon society. The Business Is Mission model promotes both forms of social responsibility in order to be true to a biblical calling. 

Discipleship by definition involves training. Organizations founded on the Business Is Mission model will be intentional about training. Wherever possible, they will integrate biblical ethics and principles into their business plans from the very beginning. No country will outlaw the use of customer service training that includes kindness, gentleness, patience, and so on—nor will they outlaw fair living wages of employees and opportunities for advancement based on performance rather than family ties to ownership. 

Such biblical principles can be a basis for a successful employee training program, which in turn begins the successful transformation of the business culture. When these principles are part of the corporate ethos, local staff will be trained in them. This provides a basis for discipleship training among the staff. 

A Business Is Mission approach can be very challenging and requires a great deal of effort in order to succeed. This challenge is greater in countries that do not follow ethical business practices or devalue biblical principles. In those cases, Business Is Mission owners must recognize that the profits enjoyed by other businesses in the country will not necessarily be realized by their businesses. Integration does not mean a company can cut corners, but rather requires an alignment by all stakeholders to the mission/vision/values of the company.

The lower returns of a Business Is Mission venture can cause heartache for investors and may even derail some investors from providing funds. Even without the challenge of lower returns, it has long been difficult to find capital and investors for kingdom businesses. One step is to educate investors that not all returns are measured monetarily; sometimes, returns are measured in terms of what might be called a Kingdom Return on Investment that measures worth in light of eternal values rather than simply monetary gain. 

Application

The Business Is Mission model allows a foreign worker the possibility to be transparent and sustainable, as well as provide a legitimate visa for living in the country. However, to establish and maintain a Business Is Mission business, alignment cannot be overstressed. The reason several groups have failed in the process of creating businesses is often due to a lack of alignment. The axiom is true in the secular world as well as the world of missions.
A company that will make a difference in a closed or restricted country needs to have clear objectives about how it will operate and be able to develop a corporate culture that is easily transferable to all stakeholders. 

Many difficulties arise when different team members are not sure which model is being promoted or cultivated by the business. Once again, alignment is the culprit and must be over-communicated as well as modeled by leadership.

In order to maintain alignment, communication must be stressed over and over again. No organization or business fails due to an issue of too much good communication. The paradigms are changing in the mission world and leaders must communicate well and often in order to help team members understand where the Lord is leading. If team members do not receive frequent and proper communication then they begin to develop their own expectations and directions. These directions and expectations lead to misalignment and eventual unhealthy conflicts.

Finally, any missionary contemplating a business in a foreign country needs to determine the method he or she believes will work best for the outcomes of the business. Missionaries without any business training will do well to get some training before starting a business, or at the very least, enlist the aid of those who have started businesses to guide them through the process. 

Conclusion

The principles of the Business Is Mission model are applicable to all believers wherever they work. The dichotomist thinking that work is evil and spiritual ministry is good must be changed. The alignment of the team around a simple mission statement and a list of values will create space in which the work may blossom within a context of integrated ministry. An integrated model is in many settings the only model that is sustainable for a long-term presence in cross-cultural ministry. 

Reference

Elkington, John. 1998. Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business. Stony Creek, Conn.: New Society Publishers.

. . . .

Ron Wismer has been with Mission Aviation Fellowship since 1985 and has served in the DRC, Central African Republic and Mali. He is the field advisor for ministry initiatives based at MAF headquarters in Nampa, Idaho.

EMQ, Vol. 51, No. 3 pp. 268-275. Copyright  © 2015 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.

 


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