Mission Is Our Business

Chef Josh Adams, June Restaurant

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:

  • Import/export
  • Art
  • Food/Culinary
  • consulting
  • legal
  • tech/media
  • engineering/architecture
  • construction
  • education
  • marketing/advertising
  • sports/coaching

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.

The Mormons Own Coca-Cola

…or is it Pepsi?

Surly you’ve heard this rumor repeated as evidence the the widespread and subversive influence on American culture. It was repeated to me recently during a conversation about missionary businessmen. Several church leaders were talking with a young man who is starting an internet research company so that he and his family could live wherever God sent them without having to raise support or look for a job. A noble concept, for a businessman. As soon as he’s up and running, I’ll post a link to this entrepreneur’s website.

The church leaders were intrigued. The idea of developing a business that would make money while fulfilling the Great Commission seemed like the silver bullet to “getting the job done.”

That got me thinking. If the rumor that Mormons own Coke was actually true, how awesome would that be for, you know, the Mormons? A single share of the Coca-Cola Company is worth over a billion U.S. dollars. That would buy enough white shirts, black ties, name tags, and bicycles to put pubescent Latter-Day Saints elders in every city in the world (with enough left over to keep their families in trampolines and special underwear).

The biggest problem in missions today isn’t a lack of willing workers. In this economy, any eight-year seminarian would jump at the chance of a full-ride to missionary superstardom. Nevermind what the Bible says, the problem isn’t people, it’s money.

Missions would be a lot easier of the churches didn’t hold the purse strings. Churches who get no say in what happens on the field, or even who is sent, but are expected to bankroll every initiative missionaries want to push– clearly, they are the problem. If churches are too stingy to fund strategic requests (church planting among some people groups require a Range Rover), I say we go Silicon Valley on them.

Why not start a business (or network of businesses) that would support the work around the world? Something that would fund missionaries while allowing them the flexibility to travel, plant churches, and disciple nationals. A legitimate business that would secure access into closed places and help develop community in positive ways without requiring them to do any actual work. Something like Google, but without all of the programming; like Coke, but without the overhead. Like Amway, but respectable and not so predatory.

Insurance comes to mind.

Why don’t we own anything that might help fund our missionary ventures? Why don’t regular old missionaries get in on the business-as-mission game? Banking, for example, would be an obvious choice. Or stocks– shares of Google, Apple, or even The Clapper, would buy a lot of plane tickets and ship a lot of peanut butter (everyone knows that Skippy is the key to retention of field personnel).

The answer is simple: most missionaries on the field today (and nearly all of the students coming out of the seminaries) are not business people. Many are talking about business as mission. It’s a great way to show businesspeople that what they do can have kingdom value. Whether it’s coffee shops, agricultural irrigation specialists, or pharmaceutical consultants, we need more businesspeople on mission. Folks who run and own companies naturally think strategically. They tend to be very good at networking (business often depends on it), and, except for the occasional used-car salesman or investment banker, they understand the need for a good work ethic.

Missionaries, not so much.

“Start a business” is not the answer to decreased giving, a right relationship to the sending church is.

Don’t Do Me Any Favors

When you’re a carpenter, people pay you to build things out of wood. Mechanics earn their living by fixing cars. Authors are paid for writing books, lawyers bill for their counsel, and teachers are compensated for teaching.

What is a missionary paid for? There’s really no tangible service being performed, and we don’t produce any material goods. The people who pay my salary will likely never even meet me, much less benefit from my services. Nevertheless, they give.

I’m humbled by the sacrifice and generosity of those who support us on the field. But there’s something strange about missions offerings. Many supporters talk about missions money as though by giving, they’re doing me a favor. I’ve had a number of conversations with church leaders who talk about their missions offerings like they were a big gift to me, their charity case. Again, I am grateful for the sacrifice of those who give, but money given to missions is supposed to be given to God.

Thanks. Really. But don’t do me any favors. If God called me to the field, He will provide everything needed to keep me here. Since He doesn’t need your money, I don’t either.

People support missions for lots of different reasons. Many feel some sense of obligation. Some give to satiate their guilt. Others give as an act of worship. The pious give out of pity and duty. I’m sure certain people feel led by God to send their money, and it’s obvious (to me) that most give out of their own kindness and generosity.

If giving money to support missions keeps you from actually being involved personally in what God is doing around the world, you should keep your money.

The Nations Are Poorer Than You

Global WealthYou may not be aware of this, but even the “working class” in the United States is richer than most of the people in the world. This economic discrepancy is known in even the most isolated of places, and certainly everywhere missionaries go.

The image on the upper right is a cartogram (a map deliberately distorted to illustrate global statistics) of the projected global distribution of wealth for the year 2015. The actual dimensions of the map are exaggerated according to where the wealth is. The bulging United States, Europe, and Asia show the concentration of material wealth. Compare that to the cartogram below that illustrates the world’s population. If wealth were distributed equally around the world, both maps would be the same.

Global Population CartogramBefore anyone complains about my use here of the term “distribution of wealth” instead of something more guilt-assuaging, like “earned wealth,” consider the luxuries we take for granted: clean water, choice of diet, education, the protection of a local police force… At this point in history, we are not all on an even playing field.

To make matters worse, the images of American culture that are aggressively exported around the globe is one that flaunts our excesses. A common international news item is, “what’s news in America,” which usually has more to do with celebrity gossip than international crises. I’m not trying to make anyone feel guilty. I just want to be sure you realize the ramifications for international missions of the uneven distribution of wealth around the world.

  • When American missionaries come to a place, their arrival is usually viewed in one of two ways: 1) excitement over the potential material help, 2) resentment that the rich would presume to tell the poor how they ought to live and believe.
  • Often, people extol the virtues of mobilizing missionaries from within unreached cultures. In developing countries, it is very easy to find people who would be willing to accept our money to do pretty much anything.
  • Great needs must be met before people will listen to any sort of gospel message. But by meeting those needs and then calling for repentance, the behavior is inadvertently tied to the material gifts. Jesus met the same problem when he performed miracles; some were healed and didn’t even thank Him. Others followed Him around, expecting Him to put on a show. The difference, however, is that Jesus wanted people to be totally dependent on Him. We don’t want people to depend on our handouts.
  • Every report (substantiated or not) of the mismanagement of funds by anyone who calls himself a “Christian” negatively affects our reputations on the field. Same goes for the major building campaigns, and fund raisers.
  • American missionaries and volunteers often (unknowingly?) perpetuate stereotypes by the way they live and present themselves to the people they work with. That said, in most parts of the world, for an American family to move in and live just like their people group would be strange enough to prevent real relationships from being built. People resent missionaries who live in mansions, but they are suspicious of missionaries who move their families into the slums and ghettos.

There are but a few of the implications of being an American missionary. The reality of global discrepancies make for a sensitive dynamic in strategic missions engagement. These are some of the things we have to think about on a daily basis.
By the way, check out Worldmapper. It’s a site that redraws the world to illustrate global discrepancies.

I’m Not Doing This For You

So I’ve had a couple of inquiries about the “new” “trend“(it’s really neither, but more on that later) away from full-time, professional missionaries and toward volunteer and short-term mission endeavors. I’ve made no secret of my own discomfort with being a professional missionary, so some of my readers ask if I’m excited by the potential shift toward an alternative that might facilitate broader involvement.

I’m not.

What I do is not something you can do on a week-long visit to the Old World, no matter how many language-courses-on-tape you’ve listened through. The cultural immersion required for relational and incarnational ministry is a long-term investment. I believe in the short-term involvement of volunteers, and I expect divine appointments through which God can affect tremendous change, but I believe that hit-and-run evangelism will not communicate the gospel to Western European peoples better than sharing life with people over time. We need both long and short-term people on the mission field in order to be effective in contextually-appropriate ministry. I’m not special, but I’m here.

With that said, people (especially those who support me) need to realize that I’m not doing what I do so that they don’t have to. Sending money to me (through my organization, of course) is not what you get to do instead of being a missionary yourself. The Commission is not one you can or should hire out, and I’m not your stand-in. In fact, if you give to missions for any reason other than obedience to God, please stop. We don’t need your money.

A missions organization asking about the “trend” toward volunteers is like a travel agency asking about the “trend” of customers using the internet to make travel arrangements. The democratization of missions activities means that the professionals no longer have a corner on the market. We need to take extra measures to spell out the benefit (relevance?) of career missions. If people don’t see the point, or see better way (say, missional expatiratism, or incarnational immigration?), of course they’re going to pursue it.

Heck, if we’ve got professional missionaries wondering about the validity of professional missions, maybe we’re not doing a very good job of rationalizing our system.

I’m Not Asking

Every Christmas season, the International Mission Board launches its annual fundraising campaign, “The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.” All of the money raised through the drive goes to missions. That’s the money that pays our rent and covers our ministry-related expenses. If you are Southern Baptist, I would encourage you to give generously.

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The above paragraph is true. It also happens to be the only that way I, as an IMB missionary, am allowed to ask for money. The Board has clear policies against “solicitation of funds.” These rules make sense for an organization that does not require its workers to raise their own support. Were we allowed to, I’m sure at least a couple of us would make a career of raising money (for ministry, of course) . This would be a distraction from church planting, to say the least, and would result in what amounts to competition between missionaries for funding. In order to avoid such chaos, I cannot, and will not, ever ask for money.

Despite the restrictions against soliciting funds, there is quite a bit of “channeled monies,” and “designated offerings” floating around the mission field. I’m not insinuating any wrongdoing here. The logical limitations on my freedom to ask for money does not preclude Stateside sponsors from offering it to me. It happens quite a lot, actually. A partner church might ask, “What are some of your ministry’s financial needs?” An extended family member who hasn’t spoken to me in years might try to assuage his guilt for never having shown even the slightest interest in our work here might ask, “You doing okay money-wise?”

The answer is always: “If you’d like to contribute financially, I’d encourage you to give to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.”

But there’s something more I need to say here. Something that you, dear reader, need to know: None of us are getting rich as missionaries.

The cost of living here in Wester Europe is high. Add to that what we spend on hosting parties and going out with nationals, and joining clubs/gyms. On top of all that, there’s the trip back to the States every once in a while, and, well, you can imagine how difficult it can be to respond with the party line when someone offers money. Of course my Starbucks habit would love a little extra pocket change.

I’m not asking for money. I don’t want it or need it. But I have a suggestion: give to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, and then consider paying for a missionary’s family to fly to the field for a visit.

We don’t get to see too much of our families while we’re on the mission field. We usually chalk it up as one of those small sacrifices God has called us to. But many of my colleagues have never had their parents come to visit. There are MKs on the field who have never met their grandparents. It’s expensive to fly half way around the world, so if you really want to minister to us, by our parents a plane ticket.

Think about how great an encouragement it would be for a missionary to have a church send their parents for Christmas. Consider how far such a gesture would go toward making our people on the field know they are appreciated. Sponsored family visits would help family members back home get an idea of what we’re talking about when we share stories of our life here. They would be able to pray more specifically for our ministries. They would know what we go through. They would stop wasting their money sending packages of peanut butter (which, by the way, we can actually get here)! The parents and siblings of missionaries would be even better missionary advocates in our churches, and they’d be able to help our churches keep up with what’s happening on the field.

We could even make it a big, shiny new denominational program. Operation: Missionary Family (or some other, pseudo-militaristic task-oriented brand name.)

Thank You

It happens every week. The shiny silver saucer floats down the pew, picking up fingerprint smudges and wadded-up bills. Or maybe your church uses those velvet bags with the wooden handle horns that jingles with change and does cartwheels as it’s passed from hand to hand. We call it the “offering.”

You put in some money, 10% of your income, maybe more. Maybe less. You give some pocket change or a check, you might even use pink little envelopes that have your name pre-printed on them next to little boxes you can check if you read your Bible that week or brought a friend to church with you. You might give with joy, celebrating God’s provision. Maybe you give begrudgingly, out of duty or guilt or tradition. Or maybe you’re excited to give, knowing where the money is going and how it will be used.

Thank You.

Thank you for giving money to support us. I know it isn’t really us your giving to, but God. But without your gifts, we couldn’t be here. Without the faithful giving and cooperation of God’s people back home, we wouldn’t get to know the blessing of seeing God work in these different cultures. I have benefited from your generosity. I have been able to follow God’s lead in my life and represent you on the mission field. He is using your obedience and sacrifice to support mine. I understand that with your support comes great responsibility. I don’t deserve the funding I receive. I haven’t really earned the trust you put in me. But I know how important it is for me to be a good steward of that support, and to administer the money in a way that pleases God, and extends the Kingdom.

Thank you.

Financing the Machine

I get a paycheck on the 15th of every month. I know that isn’t the norm for most professional “missionaries,” but the IMB funds us so that we don’t have to raise our own support. We’re not getting rich, (in fact, we just got a decrease in pay), but we’re not going hungry either. The financial support is a blessing that really frees us up to do our work without wondering how we’re going to pay next month’s rent.

Every year, the IMB collects the “Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.” The Board uses this heavily-advertised season of fund-raising to ask Southern Baptist churches to give to the Board’s international endeavors. In 2003, the LMCO brought in $136,204,648.17. This year, the goal is 150,000,000 (that’s 150 million). When people give to the Board throughout the year through the Cooperative Program, some of that money is used for stateside operations such as administration, publicity, etc. (Most people aren’t aware that a large part of daily operating costs is funded by investment returns- money made through stocks and bonds.) The entirety of the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, however, is used in support of overseas personnel. You can see, then, why the offering is a big deal to us.

The Board really knows how to do things. They use quality media productions and publications to educate the people in the pews about our church planting efforts around the world. They have a department that analyzes the financial needs for the budget year and sets giving goals for the churches. Thousands of people give sacrificially to the organization because they believe in what the Board is doing and they want to be involved however they can.

I’m trying not to get too comfortable, though. It’s not that I don’t think the IMB knows how to raise funding. Times change. In the past, churches were proud of their Southern Baptist identity. Today, many SBC churches don’t use “SB” in their name; I’d venture to say that most members don’t even know what the Convention is or whether their church belongs to it. The only real denominational identity these days is that of “Crusading Conservatives” who are caught up in divisive politics and culture wars.

People are tired of sacrificially giving their hard-earned money to a faceless corporate institution that both defines “the Task” and measures its own progress in fulfilling that task. “It’s going to cost us $800 million for us to finish the task,” the organization might say. But beyond that, there is no real accountability as to how the money is spent or even as to where the financial figures come from.

The changing times has changed the way people feel about giving, but it has not changed their desire to give. “We know Jack and Suzy Brown. They’re part of our spiritual family. We know they’re called to and equipped for missions, and we’ve seen them be intentional in ministry here at home. We’ll support them. We have a relationship with them that will insure accountability, we can remain involved in their ministry, send them volunteers, and house them when there home for a visit.”
The Board’s efforts at personalization and fostering partnerships cannot compete with the relationship that Jack and Suzy Brown have with their home church. Nor should it.

Only when you know your supporters can there be true accountability. One of the biggest problems our field personnel have is the feeling of entitlement. This attitude of “I get what’s coming to me” and “It’s MY money” is everywhere. Regional policies only serve to reinforce the selfishness. “The Policy Manual says that we are entitled to 30 days vacation.” “Regional guidelines clearly state that we get an apartment of 1400m2. Ours is only 900.” It goes on an on. Because our money comes in the form of a paycheck every month from a well-oiled machine that raises support for us. We don’t see the little old ladies who give as much as half of their social security check every month, or the families who give inheritance money or vacation savings. We don’t know the people who give so that we can live and work overseas, so their money means much less to us. There is great financial accountability to the Board, but little accountability to the churches that give to support us.

So what’s the solution? Well, the megachurches are sending their own missionaries. Denominational splinter groups are too. The Board is trying to put on a more personal face by encouraging partnerships between missionaries and stateside churches. They push missionaries to speak in churches and conferences whenever possible. I say, stop it. I say, dismantle the machine and let local churches send their own people through the Board. When they don’t have anyone, or can afford to fully support them, let them cooperate through existing associations. But make sure every church that gives, no matter how little it might be, knows personally the missionary they are sending. If thirty churches in rural Arkansas want to give, make sure they have the opportunity to know the people who receive their offerings, and insure that they have some relationship with that overseas ministry. Instead of selling people groups, the Board needs to be representing us, the field personnel to the churches back home.

What do you think?