by David R. Befus
Productive economic activity is a means to enhance and support Christian ministry.
The Centro Evangelico church in Blas de Leso, Cartagena is growing by leaps and bounds. Many have come to the church through its elementary school programs in the slum villages, others through the Saturday training sessions in basic business skills and some through other programs designed to create income opportunities for the poor. The two morning services filled to overflowing and the multiple venues for evangelism and discipleship are attributed, to a large extent, to programs of outreach in economic development.
We are used to thinking of missionary doctors and teachers, but business and economics can also be a tool for Christian ministry in many contexts. Jesus taught us to pray: "give us this day our daily bread," and people want a job, not a handout. In environments like Northern Colombia, where thousands are displaced by the civil war and unemployment is over 50 percent, the instructions of the Apostle Paul to "make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your own hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody" (1 Thess. 4:11-12 NIV) are seldom quoted. "How do we do this?" would be the question, should any preacher dare to use this as a sermon text.
Yet productive economic activity is a means to enhance and support Christian ministry. This phenomenon of "Kingdom business," though relatively unknown, has seen successful implementation in the church since the Apostle Paul first discussed his own work habits in his letters to young churches. He was quite clear that people should work to make a living, and returns to this theme in the second letter to the same church where he says, "if a man will not work, he shall not eat" (2 Thess. 3:10 NIV). But this is not always so easy to put in practice (either working or eating) in a world where poverty and unemployment abound.
Models are needed that combine economic development with a clear focus on holistic Christian outreach. They must be integrated with church ministry and a clear emphasis on Christian witness.
MINISTRY SERVICE BUSINESS
The most common example, and one that is seen in the church projects in Colombia, is the service business that has the capability for generating revenue to cover its costs. These generally start out as ministry projects begun in response to a specific need for promoting health (clinics, hospitals, etc.), education (schools, literature distribution, etc.) or other ministry outreach such as camp programs and radio stations. The specific services may be initially offered for free, but a fee for service is often introduced to guarantee that the service is being valued and to help pay for costs. Over time, as donated support deteriorates, the cost of services generally increases and, in many cases, a two-tier fee structure allows ministries to charge commercial rates to clients who are able to pay, thus allowing the ministry to subsidize services to poorer target groups.
MINISTRY ENDOWMENT ENTERPRISE
Another type of economic enterprise that has evolved in relation to overseas ministry is the ministry endowment enterprise, commercial activity that is developed solely for the financial support of local ministry. The concept of "endowment" is quite popular in Western Christian institutions, a contemporary cornerstone of the financing of most Christian colleges and seminaries. Overseas institutions also struggle with the need to create a long-range foundation for financial sustainability, facing fewer opportunities for local self-support due to a poorer national population and also confronting donor fatigue. In this context many overseas ministries have created innovative businesses organized solely to generate funds for ministry, managed as completely separate units.
Related to the "endowment" approach is the use of "tentmaking" enterprise to support ministry for the mobilization of missionaries from Latin America to the rest of the world. The local church in Latin America is generally not able to fund the full cost of expatriate ministry overseas. Innovative international business concepts are being developed to allow Latin American missionaries not only to generate a substantial portion of their costs from business activity, but also to secure visa permits. These "tentmaking" operations require business concepts that exhibit a comparative advantage in technology or markets that result in a viable and profitable enterprise and are not just a "platform" to get into a country. An added benefit of this enterprise activity is that it creates a social context to meet and minister to local people that is often more understandable than "full time Christian worker."
BUSINESS AS INCUBATOR
The church in the developing world is increasingly confronted by the poverty that surrounds it, as economic globalization has resulted in declining levels of income for the poor majority. Responding to this situation, many ministry programs have added job creation to the traditional missionary outreach of health and education. The business incubator development approach is being used in many mission contexts to increase income levels and generate employment for church members, and as an evangelistic tool targeted at specific populations. The business incubator promotes viable business projects to create employment or generate income.
Another increasingly popular approach to helping poor people in developing countries is micro credit programs. These require the development of sustainable revolving loan credit programs for people who have business experience and the capacity to manage a loan. The reason that many mission organizations are interested in developing these projects, rather than relying on existing specialist agencies that do such work, is that the poor populations served by the church are generally not eligible for assistance from any other source. Furthermore, many existing Christian organizations that offer programs in the area of micro credit shun integration with church programs overseas, for fear that any direct involvement with church programs might adversely affect their rates return. At the same time, the interest rates that these agencies offer are often considered too high.
Many church-based models have been created to do micro credit on a small scale that also allows for close ties to church and ministry outreach. The success of these models is seen not only in rates of return and sustainability of the projects, but also in the economic benefits to those in the church, and the outreach opportunities for those who do not know the gospel. Involvement in helping a person with their business allows for direct contact on an intensive level and many opportunities for witness.
Though the type of productive economic activity varies in each of these five programs, there are common economic training issues such as how to identify a viable business idea, where to obtain funding, definition of ownership, management oversight and marketing. The organization of business enterprise as a ministry is a serious matter that also requires definition of technologies, prior definition of distribution of profits and connections with ministry or church institutions. A critical point is to define and monitor the connections between the enterprise activity and ministry outreach and local church.
The context of a business project presents wonderful opportunities for Christian witness. Beyond Sunday or evening participation in church, one can see how a person relates to their family, to their employees and how they use their time and money. The Bible is rich in lessons drawn from the world of business, and it is very easy to integrate administrative training with faith lessons.
New expatriate staff are being recruited for these types of programs, resulting in the creation of a new type of missionary-consultant able to provide these elements of training and assistance. The promoters of Kingdom businesses need to assess the viability of economic projects, and promote governance and staffing structure that is self-reliant. They are responsible for on going training and the maintenance of the relation of the business to ministry objective. They use business as their social context for ministry.
The economic development program of the Centro Evangelistico Church was started after unsuccessful attempts to get help from other Christian organizations. Many have tried to promote programs related to economic development with Christian non-profit organizations that specialize in this area, but have found that their prospective "clients" do not qualify for loans or assistance. It may be that the prospective beneficiaries are not in the right geographic area or do not have sufficient experience or collateral. The phenomenon of "mission creep" seems to take place very quickly in business projects, where integration with the church and focus on the poor can quickly disappear. For whatever reason, outsourcing such programs is often not an alternative, and missions need to develop the capacity to implement such programs themselves.
This is why there is currently a great interest in the potential of economic development and job creation programs with Christian missions. Like programs in health and education, the economic development tools are great resources for ministry outreach, ever more relevant in a world where poverty and unemployment are rampant. The growth of economic enterprise that serves mission means that there are tremendous needs for a new type of expatriate professional worker-the missionary businessperson.
Ministry Service Businesses: The development of self-sustaining enterprises such as Christian clinics, dental offices, schools and bookstores, where the ministry charges a fee for services. Some of these projects, like the Clinica Biblica (hospital) in Costa Rica, have grown to have multi-million dollar budgets. The Colegio Latino-americano in Cartagena, Colombia (elementary and high school) has over 800 students. Both of these projects were initiated by missionaries, developed national leadership and have been run for several decades by national boards recruited from local church leadership.
Ministry Endowment Enterprises: A local foundation for long-term support of Christian ministry in the field. For example, the Granja Roblealto, an agricultural farm that produces chickens and pigs in Costa Rica, employs more than 90 people, but was created to support children’s ministries. It channeled over $200,000 in direct financial support to local Christian day care centers and other children’s ministries in 1999. Scripture Union of Lima, Peru operates a fleet of taxis that employ people and fund a major portion of their ministry costs. Entrepreneur missionaries and donors began both of these projects.
Tentmaking Enterprises: To provide legal entry, financial support and a ministry context for expatriates. A Mexican family is able to minister in a Muslim country because they set up a retail store, which provides the major part of their monthly income, as well as a context for ministry. Another group in Mexico is sending out people with training in specialized ceramics and in the restaurant business. In all of these cases the initial business concepts, loan funding for the projects, technology, product supplies and overseas connections involved expatriate missionary consultants.
Business Incubators: The creation of new business for target populations needing income or employment, but not having a background or experience in productive economic activity. The ministry generates the business ideas and controls training, production, sales and all assets until the participants have learned to make products on their own. For example, street teenagers from a youth center in Mexico (street children trun into street teenagers!) are taught how to make puppets and stuffed animals. Through business activity, these young people learn to support themselves and stay off the street. As they are able, the production activity is transferred to their homes, the equipment provided is paid back and these funds are used for new enterprises. An entrepreneurial missionary started this.
Micro Credit Programs: Revolving loan programs fro people who have a business idea, and usually some experience and who, with additional capital, can generate funds to pay back the loan with interest. Generally requires an administrative unit capable of organizing basic paperwork, evaluating loan proposals, disbursing loans, providing training, collecting loans, and financial reporting. The OPDS program in Barranquilla, Colombia, is an LAM affiliate ministry with assignment of one LAM missionary family. It operates a small loans program averaging $350/family to allow poor people to begin to fully support their families and many of these are displaced people from the civil war in Colombia. The economic programs are integrated with church outreach of the AIEC denomination.
David R. Befus started many of the Opportunity International programs in Latin America, and also helped World Vision develop its micro-finance programs in Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe. He is now the president of Latin America Mission and has written a book for missions on the implementation of economic development programs called Kingdom Business.
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