by Mike Barnett
I recently had lunch with a veteran tentmaker missionary whom I shall call “Bill,” who has served twenty years in East Asia. We shared an interest in “creative access” or marketplace missions in the 10/40 Window.
I recently had lunch with a veteran tentmaker missionary whom I shall call “Bill,” who has served twenty years in East Asia. We shared an interest in “creative access” or marketplace missions in the 10/40 Window. As we talked shop about our tentmaking experiences, our exchange turned to creative-access platforms and their application in missions work. The term “platforms” describes the means whereby a missions worker gains and maintains access to a region and its peoples. The term came into its own in the 1990s when many missions workers engaged in regions of the 10/40 Window that barred professional missionaries from entry and residence.
But soon Bill and I realized we weren’t on the same strategic (or at least semantic) page regarding platforms. Platforms, he assumes, are simply a cover for missionaries working where missionaries are not allowed. They are counterfeit, covert ventures that promise much but deliver little in the way of marketplace or missions produce. He thinks of them as “visa cows” or “shell” companies worth nothing more than the paper on which their business cards are printed.
My concept of platforms, however, couldn’t be more different.
Creative-access platforms are viable, God-given means for providing missions workers the opportunity and relational basis for effectively completing their main objective or mission. Far from a “cover” for covert activities, platforms are a basis for living among, interacting with and communicating the gospel to those around us with a sense of integrity. Platforms provide the basis from which we communicate the gospel. They allow us, like the Apostle Paul, to “become all things to all men so that by all possible means [we] might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). Closely related to God’s calling, equipping and gifting, they provide a legitimate reason and right for sharing our faith among the nations, an essential part of our natural witness (Gibson 1997, 56). As believers and disciples of Jesus Christ, we all stand on one or more “platforms.”
Wait a minute—how could Bill and I differ so much in our grasp of the nature of platforms? Could we even be talking about the same thing? Are platforms for real, or are they simply an ill-conceived and doomed experiment in the gamut of “managerial missiology” (Neff 1999, 28)? The purpose of this article is to challenge stereotypes held by many and to present creative-access platforms as viable realities for reaching least-reached peoples for Christ.
Where did this term “creative-access platforms” come from? How could there be such disagreement in its meaning and purpose? Like most missions strategies, the concept grew from the grassroots of the mission fields. The most fertile grounds for creative-access and platform development were found in the 10/40 Window (Johnstone 1998, 214). After the Lausanne conferences of the 1970-80s, the evangelical missions community focused on reaching the world’s “hidden” or “unreached people groups” (Johnstone 1998, 102-103). Thus many teams and strategies were launched to identify, engage and evangelize thousands of unreached ethnolinguistic people groups.
But with the unreached peoples task came challenges. Long gone were the days of going only where professional missionaries with missionary visas were welcomed or invited. How could we access the world’s unreached peoples if professional missionaries were not allowed to live among them? How were we to preach and teach the gospel behind the iron and bamboo curtains of communism? How could we plant churches in the heart of the Islamic world? What were we to do in these “restricted-access” countries?
As the missions community faced the challenge of restricted access, strategists came up with creative approaches. This was nothing new. Paul’s “tentmaking” model has survived throughout the ages of missions. He was a tourist, philosopher, lecturer, fund-raiser, prisoner and tentmaker. In response to the new mandate to reach the least-reached peoples, tentmaking moved from the bottom of missionaries’ tactical tool box to the top shelf. Veteran missions workers like J. Christy Wilson and Tetsunao Yamamori documented their tentmaking tactics (Wilson 1987; Yamamori 1993), and an entire industry of tentmaker facilitators and sponsors emerged. Business delegations traveled to restricted-access nations to find opportunities for entry and access. Intercultural and educational exchange agencies launched projects in hopes that doors would open to the restricted-access world. Humanitarian relief and community development alliances were formed, aiming to meet real needs in lands where Western missionaries were unwelcome but Western aid was well-received. Reports from these restricted-access fields began to trickle in. A pattern emerged.
Western missions workers prepared to engage restricted areas, expecting insurmountable barriers to access. One agency even developed a category of missionary service called the “nonresidential missionary” (Garrison 1990) as a strategy for engaging these unreachable peoples. The nonresidential missionary became the prototype for the now-familiar role known as “strategy coordinator.” Agencies assigned nonresidential missionaries a specific unreached group in a restricted-access area and asked them to build a strategy to reach them. They often set up residence in an “outside” world-class city with a large diaspora (or immigrant population) of their people group with natural networks in and out of their restricted-access area. Nonresidential missionaries researched their people group, mobilized prayer, strategized, traveled in their unreached region, and facilitated others with access to share the gospel and plant churches.
These nonresidential missionaries returned from their initial travels “inside” with remarkable reports. Much to their surprise they found many opportunities for long-term residency and access among their unreached peoples. They merely had to think a bit outside the box and develop legitimate means—or platforms—from which to serve. What had been considered restricted areas simply called for missionaries’ ingenuity, determination and creative thinking. Missions workers just needed to get out of their “professional missionary” mindset and enter the real world of marketplace witness—the modern-day version of the Apostle Paul’s world. The term “restricted access” gave way to “creative access.” The strategy of developing creative-access platforms took root.
So how did we end up with such confusion about what platforms mean? Why were Bill and I on opposite pages? The problem arose in the 1990s as mission agencies and teams defined and applied their concepts of “platforms.” Purists like Bill continued to facilitate and develop the one hundred percent self-supporting “tentmaker” platform model where the missionary is a full-time marketplace person and also a strategically-focused missions worker. A few tentmaking success stories emerged, mostly in East Asia, but critics pointed to persistent tension between time spent on “business” versus “ministry.”
Others focused on the development of extensive “platform entities” such as NGOs (non-government organizations) that provided community development services ranging from cultural exchange to disaster relief. Perhaps the best NGO platform examples were seen in the early 1990s in the emerging Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union. Dozens of these non-profit service-oriented platforms provided a solid basis for entry and sustained presence among least-reached peoples. Yet critics pointed out that the energy and resources spent on such platforms often resulted in the NGO becoming the missionary’s “end goal,” or the proverbial “tail wagging the dog.”
Many creative-access workers took the individual approach to platform development. Rather than focus on setting up an NGO or company, they sought overseas jobs or positions that met their strategic needs. These jobs seldom provided all of their financial needs but they did provide a legitimate reason for living and working among their unreached people group. These “hybrid tentmakers” served as English teachers, business consultants, agricultural advisors and tour directors throughout the 10/40 Window.
A persistent school of thought and practice among platform strategists is the “missions corporation” or “for profit” business developed by “kingdom entrepreneurs” as Tetsunao Yamamori refers to them (Yamamori and Eldred 2003, 8). These “entrepreneurial tentmakers” support missions strategies through business ownership that results in real economic and social “value added” to the local community. Though these success stories are few, they seem to be increasing.
But others took the quick and dirty approach to platforms, using them as access-only vehicles that are really little more than covert platforms. Covert platforms include such tactics as using tourist or student visas to stay long-term in restricted countries without doing much by way of touring or studying. These platforms conceal, hide or disguise the missions purpose of those who use them. They are facades.
These platform artists gave the word “platform” a questionable reputation to my friend Bill and others. Yet they defend their use of platforms as a practical vehicle for getting the gospel to the least-reached peoples on earth. Some argue that this is the most effective approach. Pros and cons of these shades of tentmaking and platform development are regularly addressed in journals and at missions conferences (EMQ July 2000).
So the complex question of platforms is about more than semantics. It depends on the ethos and understanding of the missions agency or team. The issue of platforms was central to the June 30, 2003, Time magazine article “Should Christians Convert Muslims?” (Van Biema 2003) and to Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry’s Afghanistan saga. It is still the most frequently asked question I face today when advising young missions workers around the world.
Perhaps the best solution to the platform question is the strategic one. Let’s define and decide on platforms by answering the simple question, “Why do we need a platform?”
Accessibility. The first answer is the most obvious. Creative-access platforms provide access. As Paul put it in Romans 10:14-15, “How then can they call on one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent?” Here we might add, “And how can they be sent unless they have a way to gain access?” In other words, missions workers need a reason to live or travel among their unreached people group. The platform provides their reason for entering. It answers, “Why are you here?”
A relief worker, for example, can gain permission to travel to remote corners of a region based on her role of providing relief for those in need. Asked why she is there, she responds, “I am here to help you.”
Legitimacy. Accessibility can lead to more than mere presence. An effective platform also offers legitimacy or a real, credible activity that validates the reason for staying. A relief worker gets permission to enter a city or region, but if she doesn’t provide real relief services, she won’t be allowed to stay or return. If, on the other hand, she provides relief for the community, she will be encouraged to remain.
Relief services provide “value added” to the community or government. Not only does the platform provide access and a reason for being there, it also answers, “What do you do while you are here?”
Identity. Among the strategic reasons for a platform is to give the missions worker an identity that also naturally provides the right to be heard. The local resident knows why the worker is in his land. He sees what the foreigner does in his land. As he encounters the worker, the local can answer the question, “Who are you?” Are you an American? Are you a husband, a father, a family man? Are you a professional woman, a mother, a sister? As the worker lives and works from the platform, the locals observe his or her true character.
This opens the door for the local to hear the worker. It lays the foundation for bridges to be built between cultures and worldviews.
Strategic viability. Well-thought-out platforms offer a basis for relationship between the workers and their local friends. Strategically viable platforms lead to life-changing relationships. Again the concept of adding value to the lives and communities of locals is vital. Humanitarian aid and development platforms, schools, hospitals and the like often result in favor and good will among the locals that leads them to be open to the gospel. Such a platform answers, “What do you have for me?”
Some platforms are more viable than others. A platform that provides a job for an international accountant to “crunch numbers” sixty hours a week in a skyscraper surrounded by English-speaking expatriates may not let the worker connect with his or her unreached people group. It may not be a strategically viable platform. On the other hand, one that allows that same accountant to travel throughout the region training local non-English-speaking business people in accounting practices might be highly viable. Such a platform enables the development of meaningful relationships within the unreached people group. It even sets the pattern for a mentoring or discipling model. This is strategic viability at its best.
Integrity. Finally, an effective creative-access platform offers a way for the worker to show his or her character. It establishes a witness for discipling new believers. Paul applied this aspect of platforms when he refused to become another peddler of the gospel in Ephesus, a city rife with profiteers of religion. Paul says he supported himself and others through the labors of his own hands. He chose to set an example. He modeled the principle that true disciplers should care for their disciples out of love and obedience to Christ and not for profit. He reminded the elders,
In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:33-35)
In the same way, missions workers can model the lifestyle of a Christ-follower through their daily life and work in a way that leads to transformed lives. This aspect of creative-access platforms answers, “What kind of a person are you?” and therefore, “What kind of a person is a follower of Jesus?”
TYPES OF PLATFORMS
So what do these creative-access platforms look like? They come in all shapes and sizes. Selecting the right one for the task at hand is critical.
Student. The full- or part-time student is an effective, frequently used platform. Missions workers spend years as students in another culture (accessibility). In East Asia hundreds of workers study the language and culture of their host nation in state universities (legitimacy). This enhances the missions worker’s bonding with the people group, familiarizes them with their host culture’s worldview and foments the development of witnessing and discipling relationships among the crème de la crème of their host society (strategic viability). From the fertile and open environment of a university, missionary students model the life of a disciple of Christ as they live, study and work alongside fellow students (identity and integrity).
Tourist. As a tourist, for example, one strategy coordinator in Asia maintains a ten-year multi-entry visa from a host country as a tourist (accessibility). This platform has its advantages and disadvantages. Since tourists are vital to the economy, this platform can provide a positive starting point for building relationships. Tourists find open doors for in-country travel, sometimes to remote areas where the people group resides (strategic viability). But a tourist platform doesn’t provide a real reason for staying (legitimacy) because few tourists stay long. The tourist’s short-term nature limits potential for long-term relationships (identity), though for those who have an itinerant role (traveling in and out of a region) the tourist platform can get the job done.
But the main downside of this approach is integrity. Few missions workers have the time and money to be real tourists for long. So you say you’re a tourist? Why aren’t you touring? Do we have an ethical problem here? On the other hand, many governments issue a general “tourist” visa to all foreign visitors who live temporarily in their country regardless of the nature of their visit. So, it may not be an ethical issue. The strategy coordinator mentioned above uses the tourist platform for accessibility but develops another role or platform for establishing long-term viability. He is an active, highly respected community development volunteer who does education projects (integrity). He has discipled new believers and planted churches among his people group through a creative-access tourist platform.
Educator. Thousands of English-speaking missions workers have responded to the universal demand for English teachers. Teaching English as a Second Language (TESOL) is a viable platform that allows long-term employment (accessibility) (McCarthy 2000, 310-316). TESOL adds value to the host culture (legitimacy) and provides a solid basis for relationships that result in sharing the gospel and planting churches (strategic viability). The role of teacher is transcultural and universally recognized and respected (identity). Good teachers demonstrate strong character and earn the right to share their faith (integrity).
One US-based non-profit agency provides education and vocational training services at centers around the world. Missions workers with the right credentials and skills represent the agency. They promote faculty/student exchange networks between major universities from every continent. They sponsor cutting-edge business management and entrepreneurial seminars for junior executives in the Middle East. They partner with micro-business venture capitalists and business development companies in Central Asia. They facilitate TESOL programs and professors around the world. The role of educator is among the most effective choices for creative access. After all, it was the platform of the great rabbi-teacher, the Messiah himself.
Sports developer. Sports are a natural bridge for crossing cultures. People connect with each other when they talk, view or play sports together. The platform industry of sports is being approached from all angles. An effective, viable strategy is the sports development company, which connects interested organizations, schools, clubs and even governments with the rest of the sports world (legitimacy). Every country wants a sports hero. The world-famous long-distance runners of Kenya and Ethiopia have become supreme ambassadors for their countries. Sports figures often get asked to tell their life stories and challenge others with the gospel (strategic viability). The sports developer serves as a middle-man or broker for sports contacts, events, sports personalities, training clinics, equipment companies and so on. Such an approach results in stable long-term platforms for missions (accessibility).
Businessperson. Everyone wants to do business. As a legitimate business person, the missions worker reaches the unbeliever’s basic point of need, entering his or her “real world” where the gospel is uniquely relevant. The businessperson may be the most effective but least developed platform option.
In fact, businesspeople are often the most direct and proactive communicators of the gospel in a creative-access environment. A committed Muslim businessman will respect a foreign businessman’s request to offer a public prayer in the name of Jesus before a meal with no offense. The testimony of a Christian businessperson often greatly impacts the unbeliever. Accessibility, legitimacy, identity and viability are givens for the missions businessperson. The last item of integrity depends on the worker’s character and quality of work.
Though business platforms offer all this, they remain among the most challenging platform options for today’s missions workers. Some consider mixing faith with the unethical world of mammon is risky. Others point out that some of the world’s least-reached regions don’t offer prospective markets for good business practice. A business platform that cannot totally support the missions worker without outside support is invalid or unethical, some believe (Lai 2002 and Guthrie 2000, 117). The list goes on. The bottom line may be that most missions workers today come from a culture of professional witnesses or a clergy mentality. The challenges are great, but the potential of legitimate business platforms is huge.
So how do we respond to the “Bills” of our missions community? Are platforms an inherently bad thing? Are they illegitimate attempts to provide a “cover” for missionaries? Or are they legitimate, strategic opportunities for bringing the gospel and planting churches?
I believe we should take advantage of these biblical, God-given means of effectively engaging the least-reached peoples on earth. If we start by asking, “Why do we need a platform?” and carefully match the creative-access options with our strategic purpose, we are more likely to get it right. God seems to be raising up a new generation of creative-access workers who can effectively and naturally communicate the gospel. What was once deemed a “restricted-access” world is now accepted as a “creative-access” field poised for a sweeping movement of marketplace disciples on mission with God among all peoples. Let it be so.
Garrison, V. David. 1990. The Nonresidential Missionary. Monrovia, Calif.: MARC and New Hope.
Gibson, Daniel. 1997. Avoiding the Tentmaker Trap. Hamilton, Ontario, Canada: WEC International.
Guthrie, Stan. 2000. Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century. Waynesboro, Ga.: Paternoster Press.
Johnstone, Patrick. 1998. The Church is Bigger than You Think: Structures and Strategies for the Church in the 21st Century. Bulstrode, Bucks, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications/WEC.
Lai, Patrick. Tentmaking: In Search of a Workable Definition. Online: ; [3 January 2002].
McCarthy, Teri. 2000. “A Call to Arms: Forming a Christian Worldview of Teaching English as a Second Language.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 36 (July): 310-316.
Neff, David. 1999. “Market-driven Missions.” Christianity Today 6 December, 6, 28.
Wilson, J. Christy. 1987. Today’s Tentmakers: Self Support: A Model for Worldwide Witness. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House.
Yamamori, Tetsunao. 1993. Penetrating Missions’ Final Frontier: A New Strategy for Unreached Peoples. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Yamamori, Tetsunao, and Kenneth A. Eldred. 2003. On Kingdom Business: Transforming Missions Through Entrepreneurial Strategies. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.
Van Biema, David. 2003. “Should Christians Convert Muslims?” Time, 30 June.
Mike Barnett and his wife, Cindy, worked in the 10/40 Window for twelve years with the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. He has a business background and continues to work in international business development. A former professor at Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, Barnett currently teaches at Columbia Biblical Seminary and School of Missions, Columbia, South Carolina.
EMQ, Vol. 41, No. 1, pp. 88-96. Copyright © 2005 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.