It turns out that finances aren’t the problem, and neither are language or culture. One of the biggest obstacles to mission today is access.
Perhaps I should clarify: travel is easier than ever, so Christ-followers on mission don’t have too much trouble getting to pretty much anyplace God leads them to go. But missionary access is more than just arriving, it’s moving into social positions, (called “platforms”) that allow them to proclaim the gospel and live it out incarnationally. This, it turns out, is the tricky part.
“Tourist” is only good for a short while, and brings with it a certain expectation of exploitation. Tourists visit a place not to give, but to take. They take in the sights, take photos, and take their time. Might they share their faith along the way? Of course! But is the tourist-host relationship the best for gospel incarnation? Probably not.
“Non-profit” can turn the tourist mentality on its head. A non-profit worker serves at her own expense for the benefit of others. Non-profit and charity, both religious and secular, are by far the most utilized platforms. However, these can certainly have their drawbacks. Charity is viewed differently by different cultures. India’s caste system, for example, considers poverty and suffering as the payback side of karma. A person is re-incarnated as, say a dog or a woman, as punishment for bad behavior or until an important life lesson is learned. Easing the discomfort of extreme poverty is like robbing them of their penance. In other places, charity is the work of the government, and non-profits (especially foreigners) ought not compete.
“Business,” on the other hand, is largely underdeveloped as a social-access platform. The problem, historically, is the mixture of money and ministry. Time spent building the business is often seen as competing with time in ministry. A minister’s altruism often makes him a poor businessman.
Consider the benefits of business as mission:
- legitimizes presence (everyone knows what a businessman is)
- assigns culturally-acceptable motives (you’re here to make money)
- moves you into ethic-revealing relationships
- business people are networked
- it uses gifting not often associated with ministry
- dissociates fund-raising from missions
- could assist the local economy and provide jobs for nationals
So clearly, business is a good platform.
We must consider the competitive nature of business. Anytime an outsider enters a market, he does so against existing ventures (and usually with the benefit of outside resources, knowledge, and experience). A good platform provides more and better jobs than it takes. Some examples of good business platforms:
Some typically troublesome business platforms:
- medical (maybe better left non-profit)
- retail (competition, unfair practices)
- large-scale manufacturing (working conditions)
- tourism (guides, hospitality, travel, etc. )
- agriculture (land ownership)
Business platforms to avoid:
- security (anything that involves weapons)
- banking/investing (holding other people’s money)
- religious goods/services (appearance of “selling” the gospel)
All that said, there are some interesting models out there.
Tom’s Shoes: though they’ve been accused of killing the market for shoes in their target areas, the “buy-one-give-one” model tells a great story and appears to exploit Americans’ materialism to benefit others. As a business, Tom’s definitely has earned access into many nations that would otherwise be closed to gospel influence. I’d like to see a bit more creativity in their design, a certified fair-trade manufacturing process, and maybe improved overall quality of the shoes. Tom’s has recently started selling sunglasses, too.
Unnamed (for security reasons) Coffee Roasters: Though they operate in what is technically an open-access area, this coffee roasting company provides social access to many strata of society. They import coffee from developing nations, roast the beans on site, and distribute the final product to cafes across their host country. The key to their business model is the employment of nationals (many buyers don’t realize the company was started by outsiders) and the sale of coffee to the U.S. Like the Tom’s Shoes model, taking advantage of high-demand (and high-generosity!) markets can underwrite much of the in-country business. Of course, they do compete with national coffee importers, roasters, and distributors. But cooperating with nationals mitigates the negative impact. Their presence benefits the local economy.
Finally, I like the transfer model. A junior staff member of a transnational investment firm recently put in for a transfer to a closed-access country. Inside the company, his stock went up (the business had so far struggled to find anyone to take that job). Outside the company, this Christ-follower found himself a guest of honor in the home of local clan leaders, businessmen, and politicians. His willingness to move to another country on that country’s terms put him in a very unique place of influence there.
Just to be clear– we don’t need a bunch of pastors moving overseas to start business. We need Spirit-led businessmen to live out the gospel among the different peoples of the world.
As you can tell, I’m a big fan of business as mission. If you’d like to connect with other believers who are serving as Christ-following businesspeople around the world, join the Skybridge Community.