by Sung Bauta
While women continue to sacrifice immensely for God’s mission, they are victims of sexism and marginalization.
The numbers indicate that more women around the world practice Christianity than men (Hastings 1999, 225). In China, Christian women are a vital element in the apostolate from the beginning of the missionary enterprise there (Jenkins 2011, 384). In Australia and New Zealand, the shape of Christianity is changing, especially as women participate more fully in church government and in theological studies (2011, 531-532).
Also, women make up a majority of Christians in the Global South. In fact, women are critical to the growth of new churches across the Global South (Jenkins 2011, 246). Throughout Africa, for instance, women are the backbones of most rural churches (2011, 226). Most importantly, the largest numbers of missionaries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were women through fundraising, prayer, and support as missionary wives, participants in missionary teams, and trailblazers in active missions (Nigerian Lausanne Congress 2013).
However, while women continue to sacrifice immensely for God’s mission, they are victims of sexism and marginalization (Robert 1996, 115). The majority in the Church have failed to recognize women’s immense contributions to the spread of the gospel (Robert 1996, 115). The fact is, however, that women have a lot to offer as the Church accomplishes its mandate of making disciples (1996, 119).
Using Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA) as a case study, I suggest that by using some key principles of business as mission (BAM), Christian women should engage in Christian mission through entrepreneurship in the predominantly Muslim region of northern Nigeria. I will also cite the Ambam widow initiative to suggest ways to effectively implement BAM principles. I argue that despite the dissenting voices on the roles of women in mission, the constancy of God’s activity through the Holy Spirit continues to engender the spread of the gospel through women.
Empowering ECWA’s Women for Missions
The Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA) is the largest Christian denomination in the predominantly Muslim region of northern Nigeria. However, the monthly updates I receive from some of our missionaries on the field reveal two issues hindering their effectiveness: poverty and persecution.
While ECWA boasts of a holistic approach to ministry, ECWA’s missionary efforts have favored the expression of the gospel through words more than through deeds. And in an increasingly hostile northern Nigeria, there is need for a more robust evangelistic vision (Yamamori 2014).
Because ECWA’s women represent the number of Christian women whose role in Christian mission has been “unrecognized, undervalued, diminished, overlook and even prevented” (Nigerian Lausanne Congress 2013), ECWA’s mission-strategy must include empowering its women to reclaim their role in Christian mission.
In the 1960s, when Christian men were disallowed from interacting with women due to the religious custom of purdah—the seclusion of Muslim women from the eyes of other men—Christian women (largely ECWA women) were welcomed in Muslim homes. Eileen Lageer describes the reality this way: “Womanhood, emancipated and elevated through the preaching of the gospel, now proved itself to be invaluable to the Church” (Lageer 1969, 78-79).
Lageer tells the story of successful Nigerian Christian businesswomen in northern Nigeria who attached Bible verses to the products they sold. Lageer narrates an incident in which a Muslim man noticed a portion of the Gospel of John attached to the salt that his wife had purchased from the market. He curiously read it the first time, and soon returned to it again and again. When he was approached by a Christian later on, God had used scripture to soften his heart, and prepared him and his family to receive Jesus Christ (Lageer 1969, 82). This happened by the initiative of Christian women. One can only imagine if we invest our resources to train these women to do more work for the kingdom.
Lageer’s account is reminiscent of the story of Dorcas from Joppa (Acts 9:36-42), which demonstrates that while the widening discussion of BAM is fresh; the basic idea of BAM is not altogether new (Winter 2007). Dorcas is a modern-day missionary who used the BAM model by sewing and knitting clothes for widows. Through her compassionate business, she sowed the seeds that led to many conversions like ECWA’s women. Thus, like Dorcas, ECWA’s women are capable of kingdom business if supported (Maxwell 2007, 24).
So, what mission strategy would better serve ECWA’s mission in restricted-access regions like northern Nigeria? Because BAM’s focus is also on the 10/40 Window (Tunehag & Plummer 2013), the BAM model, through the power of the Holy Spirit, would serve ECWA’s mission endeavors in northern Nigeria.
ECWA Women as Missionaries to Northern Nigeria
Why is business the proper channel for ECWA women’s participation in Christian mission? Before I respond to that question, it is important to highlight the fact that other than their role in outreach, ECWA’s women belong to the number of women that make up 80% of the labor force in sub-Saharan Africa, producing 70% of food crops, and representing 30% of heads of household in rural areas (Lewellen 2002, 82).
As the most populous country in Africa, Nigeria plays a decisive role in the advancement of the gospel and in today’s global economy, roles largely played by women. And this reality—women leading the charge in missions and industry—are evident in ECWA’s churches. Therefore, ECWA’s women should be empowered to play a pertinent role in reaching northern Nigeria with the gospel.
Entrepreneurship is a proper channel for ECWA’s women’s participation in Christian mission. This is because other than the fact that ECWA needs to provide avenues where its women can actively participate in mission or that missional entrepreneurship empowers and dignifies ECWA’s women, church history and contemporary trends reveal women’s immense participation in global missions, especially in some of the most hostile regions of the world.
With purdah still enforced and a growing resistance to the gospel in northern Nigeria, Christian men’s chances of reaching this restricted-access region is slim. And while Christian women were once allowed to interact directly with Muslim women, Muslim men have realized the transformation of their wives due to these interactions, and are preventing their wives from interacting with these women missionaries.
The BAM model can ensure that these interactions between Muslim and Christian women continue, because BAM can be influential in areas where other methods fail (Forman 2007). Since they make up the majority of vendors or patrons in the market, and with their industrious nature, ECWA’s women are capable of running principled businesses for the sake of the kingdom.
Principles for Effective Engagement
To ensure effectiveness in reaching restricted-access regions like northern Nigeria, these women missionaries must ensure their engagement in these restricted regions is done ethically, honestly, and with concern for the people (Maxwell 2007, 24).
Ethically grounded. There is no substitute for a morally-sound business. Moral and biblical values are pertinent in conducting business for the purpose of God’s overarching mission. This underscores the value of leadership. Everything stands and falls on leadership. The BAM model advocates for Jesus’ servant leadership model, which is applicable in every situation (Blanchard and Hodges 2003, 13). Servant leadership involves defining and modeling the operating values, structure, and behavior norms (2003, 59).
To effectively reach Muslims in restricted-access regions like northern Nigeria, missionaries must exemplify a servant’s heart inspired only by the Holy Spirit in order to bring transformation.
Honest engagement. The large Muslim population of northern Nigeria is known for their honest business dealings. Therefore, running a dishonest business would tarnish one’s credibility, and undermine one’s Christian witness. The BAM model emphasizes honest interactions with people to whom we minister God’s eternal truths. Thus, if Jesus is the truth, then our business should be done in “spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24).
Concern for people. A servant leader cares about people and helps them experience God in fresh ways (Blanchard and Hodges 2003, 57). Friendship is an important tool for reaching Muslims (Livingstone 1993, 140). The BAM model insists that effective evangelism must take time for preparation, which includes studying the people and their cultures.
This demonstrates to the people that you value them. The Gospels note that Jesus acknowledges everyone he encounters despite their social status. Jesus’ concern for everyone even earned him the sobriquet “friend of sinners.” The Holy Spirit will help us ‘see’ people the way God sees them.
When we conduct business ethically, honestly, and with concern for people so as to fulfill God’s overarching mission, we help build communities, enable healthy relationships, and enhance human flourishing. A reflection on the widows initiative in my village of Ambam, Nigeria, demonstrates how these three ways of implementing BAM could serve ECWA’s missionary endeavors in restricted-access areas like northern Nigeria.
Business as Mission: Transforming Lives and Communities
A few years ago, a not-for-profit group conducted some research of the village of Ambam to understand a few of its major problems. In the process, they found that in this village of 1,200 people, there were over 100 widows (Bauta 2014, 10). Their husbands died of various reasons (e.g., snakebites, violence, and diseases), and in most cases the widows’ in-laws confiscated their property. Thus, widows are left to care for their children alone and with little-to-no income.
Business as a means for community-building. One of our major objectives in this initiative is to create an environment for dialogue, where the community listens to these women’s stories. The community, in turn, is shaped by the stories, and engages first in restructuring its views on widowhood.
Therefore, engaging with people in restricted regions must include helping them overcome poverty and religious dogmatism that has crippled their communities. Because missionaries in northern Nigeria would be engaging with Muslim women in the marketplace, they should create an avenue for dialogue. In dialoguing with Muslim women, the missionaries should praise redeemable aspects of Islam that promote transformation in their communities. Thus, the missionaries should not fall into the trap of undermining Islam, as this would only discredit their witness. It is important that these conversations stem out of genuine relationships.
Business as a means for enhancing relationships. In the case of the Ambam widows, when a woman’s husband dies, social boundaries inhibit a direct interaction between her, other people, and other widows. This isolation intensifies her pain.
However, creating an atmosphere for her to (re)tell her story provides nurturing relationships to enable her to thrive. In a short period we witness that these relationships offer renewed hope to the widow, since through those healthy relationships she experiences the love of Jesus.
To love God and neighbor underscores the fact that in God’s kingdom, relationships are central (Baer 2006, 19). Therefore, Christ must be incarnated before the eyes of a Muslim through Christian witness.
The BAM model holds that business missionaries could assume important roles in a community, build trust with locals through business relationships, and serve employees, vendors, suppliers, and customers every day of the week (Moll 2009). In Christ-like manner, the missionaries’ service to the Muslim women should involve a lot of listening, as the missionaries discern how God desires to use their relationships to draw communities to himself.
Business as a means towards human flourishing. The missionary’s interaction with Muslims must acknowledge their humanity foremost, and not as subjects for evangelism alone. God loves these people whether they accept him or not. Yes, they can only fully understand their human capacity when they embrace Christ, but our witness falls short if all we care about is getting them to heaven, rather than bringing heaven to them (Wright 2008, 45).
The fact is that, like the Ambam widows, most of the Muslim women in northern Nigeria have a warped view of themselves. They are not projects, but human beings who need to experience a relationship with Jesus. This view influences our interactions with the Ambam widows so that the widows’ brew cooperative is now owned and operated by them.
Knowing their value as human beings empowers them. The BAM model emphasizes that a great business transforms lives, improves communities, and glorifies the Lord (Maxwell 2007, 24). When these missionaries affirm the humanity of these women, the women, in turn, become instruments that God will use to transform their communities and the world.
Missional Implications for Christian Mission
Although ECWA is the focus of this study, there are lessons that can serve both similar contexts and/or in different settings. Three areas are applicable across diverse settings.
First, the effectiveness of Christian mission is contingent upon the directive of the Holy Spirit. This study suggests that if the Holy Spirit is present in the church’s conversations about mission, then it should be readily assumed that everyone is gifted for Christian mission.
Therefore, Christian education curriculum must emphasize the role of the Spirit in Christian mission. Such emphasis must be reflected in the preaching and teaching of churches and mission organizations. This assumes that churches and mission organizations are seeking to understand their ministry contexts.
For instance, Western missionaries in Nigeria must know that Africans affirm the presence of spirits. Thus, missionary strategies in African contexts must be influenced by the spiritual realities that affect the communities being reached with the gospel. Seeking to understand the context means that the missionary needs to invest in relationships that would take her deeper into the lives of the people. Most of it would not come through conversations alone, but keen observations of the people.
Second, Christians must overcome the sin of dualism, specifically in regards to male-female roles in Christian mission. Churches and mission organizations must emphasize the priesthood of all believers. For most churches and mission organizations, this would mean sponsoring single women for Christian mission. Moreover, it would mean that missionaries are seeing the need to disciple both men and women on the field to carry on the task of taking the good news to the ends of the earth.
Finally, if we believe that God reigns over all, then Christian discipleship that aims to draw people to God cannot be restricted to a particular means of expression. If God can use anyone, then God can use any means to transform communities. Jesus’ modeled this BAM model during his earthly ministry.
For instance, when he “saved” the business of some fishermen, a friendship developed that day that transformed these men, and subsequently, the transformation of many who heard about Jesus through them. That we have the Spirit of God means that Christian mission is about empowering others. Training is needed for Christian missionary endeavor, but we must empower people to see the potential of their vocational skills for extending God’s kingdom wherever they are.
The presence of vast numbers of Christian women, especially in the Global Church and its economies, warrants their involvement in Christian mission through enterpreneurship. I suggest that because ECWA’s target areas for missionary endeavors are becoming increasingly restricted, ECWA must mobilize women to use BAM’s principles to enhance the spread of the gospel in word and deed.
Similar to many places today, missionary activity in northern Nigeria is in decline, especially due to poverty and persecution. New strategies are needed to reach restricted-access regions of the world (Moll 2009). These strategies must involve greater roles for women in Christian mission, since our calling into the mission of God is not dependent upon our gender, but on the presence of the Holy Spirit, who empowers us for the task before us.
Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen notes, “We have a world to win for Christ. The ship is sinking and we [stand] on the shore arguing about who should go to the rescue, men or women” (Van Leeuwen 1990, 36).
The BAM model states that missionaries do not only do ‘church work,’ but start businesses that would assuage diverse human problems with the ultimate goal of spreading the gospel (Winter 2007). Wisdom and discernment, however, are needed to integrate the cultural values of people into kingdom business practices that would bring people to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
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Tunehag, Mats and Jo Plummer. 2013. “Business as Mission in Hostile Environments.” Business as Mission.
Van Leeuwen, Mary Stewart. 1990. Gender and Grace: Love, Work, and Parenting in a Changing World. Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press.
Winter, Ralph D. 2007. “When Business Can Be Mission.” Mission Frontiers. November/December.
Wright, N.T. 2008. Surprise by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York: HarperCollins.
Yamamori, Tetsunao. 2014. “Holistic Mission: An Overview.” Lecture, Wilmore, Kentucky.
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Sung Bauta is a PhD candidate at Asbury Theological Seminary, with women in mission being his focus for research. He is also a visiting lecturer at the Jos ECWA Theological Seminary, where he will return to teach full time.
EMQ, Vol. 52, No. 4. Copyright © 2016 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.