Is Business as Mission Honest?

by Stephen Bailey

Tentmakers who embrace the idea of a Christian vocation can see themselves as Christian business people.

By now the mission community is almost in danger of making a mantra out of the 10/40 Window concept (Johnstone 1998, 215). But it has also served to push the mission community to realign resources and personnel to reach the unreached people in our world. While the 10/40 Window idea has its critics, few would argue with the figures that tell us that if the remaining unevangelized people in our world are to hear the gospel then Christians will have to enter nations that restrict the access of foreign missionaries. Many of the people who live in these nations are religiously confident with long traditions in Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. They are generally poor nations (see Myers 2003). They are nations that also often violate international standards in the area of religious freedom and consider the propagating of Christian faith a disruptive Western influence. Some refer to these nations as “creative access nations” or CANs.

My wife and I spent six years attempting to enter a CAN that actively persecuted local Christians for their faith. Finally, we were allowed to enter the country as foreign investors in a handicraft company that was established with some local businesspeople who were not believers. Fourteen years later, that company is still operating. It is run entirely by local people and makes a small profit. After four years of involvement in the handicraft company, my wife and I entered into a second joint venture with local investors. This company worked with farmers who produced silk as a cottage industry with the purpose of developing local silk products and establishing markets to sell them to increase the incomes of village farmers. The primary means of accomplishing these goals was the establishment of a for-profit silk company. As a tentmaker in mission, my primary motivation for involvement was a religious conviction that the people of this nation needed to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In hindsight, I understand how grossly under-prepared I was for this strategy of business as mission. But experience is a wonderful teacher and so while we never got it perfect, we did learn a great deal and made a number of midstream adjustments. For the most part, I believe our efforts were fruitful and honoring to God and the local people. Nevertheless, doing business as mission is a highly complex path that requires us to consider carefully what we are doing. In this article I reflect on my efforts at mission through our silk company in light of several ethical dilemmas we faced. Mainly, I want to address the question, “Is business as mission honest?”

The ethical controversy regarding doing mission through the platform of a local business is a familiar one to tentmakers. Even Time magazine has discussed the issue in the public forum (Biema 2004, 36). The basic question is whether it is ethical to present yourself to a local government as a businessperson without disclosing your missionary agenda when the government is clearly opposed to the propagation of Christian faith by foreigners. Rather than address this at the abstract level, I want to reflect on my personal experiences in dealing with this dilemma. ‘

First, it was very clear to the government that I was a Christian and that I worked for a Christian non-government organization (NGO). While they never asked me in an official meeting if I was a Christian, they did ask indirectly. Interestingly enough, they did directly ask if I was working for the CIA. It was thought by some that the US government was using Christian missionaries to stir up political resistance. Their case study was Poland where the Catholic Church had played a key role in bringing the Communist-led government to its knees. I was asked directly by government people later in an informal context if I was a Christian. I made a decision to always be upfront and sincere with the government. I always communicated directly that I was a Christian and that Christian people had sent me to try to contribute to the development of their nation. The government kept tabs on all foreign Christians and occasionally would let us know that we were crossing lines that might threaten the renewal of our visas.

When a CAN allows tentmakers into their country they do so with eyes wide open. The idea that these governments are somehow ignorant to the Christian faith of the people they grant business, diplomatic and expert status visas to is nonsense. Thinking otherwise only reveals that we see this issue with a worldview that most of these governments do not share. In most CANs, governments regularly say things for political (and sometimes geo-political) reasons and then act differently. The practice of looking the other way when something violates policy but benefits the nation is a common occurrence.

Most tentmakers, on the other hand, consider the issue with a very black and white understanding of law and ethics. They assume that if the government knows you are a Christian with a religious agenda they will enforce the law and throw you out. I suggest that these governments throw people out of their countries more often for reasons related to honor and respect than they do because tentmakers violate their laws. Law plays a different role in these societies than it does in the West. Authority does not rest in the abstract legal system but is directly placed in the hands of real people. These societies remain steeped in a tradition of personal power and are only beginning to adjust to abstract concepts of law.

This begs the question, “Why did the government tolerate our presence in the country even when they did not completely feel confident about why we were there and were certainly opposed to our desire to share the gospel with their people?” There were several reasons.

1. The government became convinced that we were worth having in the country. The business we started was developing an ancient local skill and making it productive for the nation and for villagers who needed to generate income. Since most of the buyers of the silk were foreign people or businesses, foreign currency was brought into the country. By investing in this sector, we demonstrated our sincere desire to assist the nation. Most foreign investors would not consider handicrafts or silk because they were so underdeveloped that making them a profitable venture required too much investment and effort. The risks from a business perspective were simply too high for most business people.

We were serious about developing the silk industry in the country and serious about contributing to the prosperity of the nation because we were Christians. The ethic of the Kingdom of God required us to be concerned for our neighbors, risky venture or not. Acting on this Christian impulse taught us a more holistic sense of Christian vocation. We became thoroughly convinced that our work in the company was an act of worship to God and of witness to the people. Our work with silk farmers was our ministry. It was every bit as important as anything we said. Any identity conflict that we initially felt evaporated in the context of doing our work. Indeed, many tentmakers struggle with their identity. Are they businesspeople or are they missionaries? Which should take priority? How should they allocate their time?

The first step in dealing with the ethical questions regarding business as mission is in understanding and embracing the idea of a Christian vocation. Whatever Christians do, they must do to the glory of God. A double-minded person will not only become frustrated in a tentmaking role, but fail the ethical test. A double-minded person sees a silk company as just a platform for ministry. They do it because they have to and not as unto the Lord and in service to others. Tentmakers who do not understand Christian vocation almost always have an identity crisis when serving in so-called “secular roles.” They have something to hide. But when we embrace the idea of a Christian vocation, we are free to see ourselves as Christian business people. We are in mission because all Christians are to be in mission and to live by the principles of the kingdom that require the disciples of Jesus to care about their neighbors.

2. The government tolerated our presence because we had partnered with a local group of people whom the government trusted. In fact, the government made our entry into the country possible only after we agreed to partner with this group. We met with the group and had a positive recommendation from another foreign organization before we agreed, but it was clearly a risk. The local partners were not Christians; however, they were sympathetic with our goals for working in the country. Most of them are followers of Jesus today.

In most CANs, the societies have a high sense of group. They do not like un-integrated entities and they want everyone on the same page. That is why they do not like multi-party elections, a free press and religious diversity.1 By becoming partners with trusted insiders, we had in a sense been sponsored into the nation. Coming without a sponsor into a high group society is always seen as suspicious.

3. The government accepted us with a “well, we-will-see” kind of plan. If we had crossed the line we would not have seen our visas renewed. But what exactly was the line that could not be crossed? The government knew that people around us—even some of the business partners they had given us—were becoming Christians. On a couple of occasions they sent word indirectly that we were pushing the limits of our welcome. When more directly confronted with this issue, I always answered in a relaxed and interested way designed to acknowledge their concern, show respect for their authority and assure them that my intentions were for the good of the local people. Sometimes I said something like, “Yes, my faith is important to me as I am sure your Buddhist faith is important to you” or “Thank you for bringing this to my attention. We want to always be good guests who show respect for the authorities of the nation.”

What they were looking for was my acknowledgement that they were in control of the situation. I tried to fully respect and even to ritually acknowledge this reality by visiting the authorities at important holidays with gifts and by thanking them publicly every time I had the opportunity. In nations oriented around personal power, how you do things is often more important than what you do. Showing ritual respect for authority is key. Many people from the West feel that they need to defy authorities that oppose them; however, this is not always necessary. Many times we are better off saying with Jesus, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:16).

The context of most CANs is such that if the tentmaker is clear of his or her calling vocationally, sponsored by insiders and careful to respect the authority structures of the group, any question of the ethics of being a businessperson in mission disappear. I found that this ethical question in the missional context simply lost the urgency it seemed to have when asked from afar. Business as mission can be an appropriate missional strategy when we have a holistic understanding of vocation, live out the kingdom and show respect for local authorities. Not all tentmakers, however, are clear sighted on these issues. Some are suffering from identity conflicts and are frustrated by the ethical dilemma they feel in CANs. Some are failing to reconcile the role of conflict between businessperson and religious guide. Some feel they are not effective because they are looking for avenues of witness unsuited for these contexts. But it does not have to be that way. The answer is a change in perspective that allows tentmakers to see everything they do and everything they say as an offering to God and a sign of the coming kingdom of Jesus.

1. It is interesting to see in Bryant Myers’ book (2003) how frequently freedom, poverty, restricted access nations and Islam, Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism overlap.

Biema, David Van. 2004. “Missionaries Under Cover” in Time. June, 36-44.

Johnstone, Patrick 1998. The Church is Bigger Than You Think. Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications.

Myers, Bryant. 2003. Exploring World Mission. Monrovia, Calif.: World Vision International.


Stephen Bailey is director of the Alliance Graduate School of Mission and is associate professor of Intercultural Studies at Alliance Theological Seminary in Nyack, New York. He serves as a senior associate with the Institute for Global Engagement and on the advisory board of a Christian relief and development agency. He and his wife served as missionaries in refugee ministries for six years and then as tentmakers for eleven years.

Copyright © 2007 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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