By Fenton Lewis
More than 20 years ago, I found myself wrestling with a desire to serve God beyond teaching Sunday school or giving to the church. The advice I received—as have many others—was to quit my job, go to seminary, and become a pastor. But I questioned that. God had given me a unique combination of education, work experience, and spiritual gifting, and I believed he had done that for a reason. I thought my unique skill-set could be used to help fulfill the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.
So, I began an adventure that took me around the world and eventually led me to launch the Marketplace Ministry of Team Expansion. I now help others navigate their own journey of integrating faith and work to join the cause of multiplying disciples and churches among unreached people groups.
The idea of integrating faith and work is nothing new, as we see clear examples of it in Scripture and throughout church history. But there has been a resurgence of it in the last 40 years. Christians are intentionally and strategically transforming lives and communities through their vocations.
Today, this phenomenon goes by many names: tentmaking, Business as Mission (BAM), Business for Transformation (B4T), and marketplace ministry, to name a few. It includes job makers and job takers. It’s happening around the block and around the world. Sometimes it’s one-on-one, and sometimes it involves huge projects that affect entire nations. Regardless of approach, scope, or place, one common thread is that God is using obedient followers to demonstrate and share Christ in and through their work.
What Is Business As Mission?
While the faith and work movement crosses denominational lines, numerous examples of it can be found in Christian churches and churches of Christ. Let’s take a look at Business As Mission, a model proven to develop sustainable microeconomies.
In Business As Mission: A Comprehensive Guide to Theory and Practice, C. Neal Johnson defines BAM as “a for-profit commercial business venture that is Christian led, intentionally devoted to being used as an instrument of God’s mission (Missio Dei) to the world, and is operated in a cross-cultural environment, either domestic or international.”
I also like the way an international business specialist with New Mission Systems International described BAM: “Legitimate businesses create economic activity that benefits society and raises people out of poverty. It also provides, for the believer, a [vehicle] for integrating faith and work in the forum where the life of a community takes place: the marketplace.”
I think of BAM as bringing Jeremiah 29:7 to life. “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you,” God said through the prophet. “Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” It’s seeking the peace of the community by bringing a tangible benefit, with integrity, while also addressing the spiritual condition of the people.
One practical way BAM seeks the peace of the community is through job creation, which is vital to lifting people out of poverty in a sustainable way. This is in stark contrast to the approach often taken, which is simply to give aid. In her book Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa, economist Dambisa Moyo said no people or nation has ever been “given” their way out of poverty through aid.
BAM can be a great model for developing self-sustaining microeconomies that bring both tangible and spiritual blessing to the people. But what does this look like in practice?
Ann* was working as a community health evangelism (CHE) specialist in a West African town of about 85,000 people. The country, racked by political instability and occasional coups, faced a crisis due to numerous HIV-positive patients. These people were also dealing with many opportunistic illnesses common to HIV. While their medical needs were being met and many were accepting Jesus as their Savior, a new problem emerged.
The family breadwinners often were too ill to work, so healthier family members needed a way to generate income. Rather than simply give out money or food, local CHE trainers took the nationals through a microenterprise training course. As a result, a small breakfast bar was started, with the revenue used to fund the HIV program and reinvest in small businesses for HIV-positive families.
A variety of businesses were launched, including a juicing enterprise, a laundry business, a bakery, and a street snackery. The national Christians then began a small chicken farm that not only supplied eggs for the breakfast bar, but also sold their product at a minimal price to the HIV-positive community. Practical needs were met, medical treatment was received, poverty was addressed, dignity was restored, efforts were self-sustaining, and people came to know Christ as Lord.
BAM is making a difference in places other than Africa.
Eddie* had been working as a traditional missionary in the Middle East for several years, ministering to Syrian refugees during a humanitarian crisis. After dealing with their immediate needs, Eddie wondered how he might give the refugees a hand up rather than a handout. He also wanted to find ways to model small business for local Christians. His solution? Start a modest restaurant, train locals to run it, then fully transfer the business over to nationals.
Eddie recognized the power in training people to launch self-supporting businesses—that he could multiply his impact if he trained others in how to start and manage small BAM businesses that had a kingdom impact. So, to figure out the best way forward, he connected with an elder from a supporting church who had business-training experience. That elder brought other business professionals and partners to the table.
The outcome was a new initiative partnering four U.S. organizations with four Syrian organizations and a major regional bank. Together, they are implementing a local entrepreneurship training institute that will teach from a Christian perspective. This will bring much-needed help to the refugees, strengthen the local church body, and serve as a bridge for building trust while they model the love of Jesus.
Keys to Success
Starting a business is hard. Starting one cross-culturally with kingdom impact is even harder.
“BAM is fraught with well-intentioned agencies, churches, and individuals who may understand the opportunities of taking a BAM approach, but who are unprepared for both the cultural and business challenges that face them,” said Kevin*, a seasoned business professional now working with GlobalHOPE.
Kevin’s experiences in North Africa showed him that successful BAM initiatives have several components in common: a competent human resources team (business, legal, and cultural competencies); their own skin in the game (personal investment or capital from friends and family); business and culture coaching from the beginning; and the fact that they are intentionally transformational (including agency input and involvement).
Here are four more factors we have found to be essential when approaching any new BAM venture (if you want to make an eternal difference, start by checking these four areas in your life and work):
Prayer: Any business venture that seeks a kingdom impact must be grounded in prayer. It is essential, as ultimately we’re talking about a spiritual undertaking that is happening through the venue of the workplace. Prayer also enables us to bring God’s best—rather than just our best—to the equation.
Posture: The way we approach our overseas partners (or the local community), and our attitude toward them, can play a major role. Newcomers should seek ways to restore dignity and value to the ones being served, rather than acting like an outside expert with all the answers. Walking alongside, rather than telling, makes a huge difference in both entry strategy and the final outcome.
Preparation: Once we know of the possibilities, we often want to jump right in. But that can be more harmful than helpful. If you’re considering getting involved, ask yourself, “Am I a disciple worth reproducing?” It’s important to make sure we have the right DNA before passing that along to the next generation. A quick check in three areas of your life can provide insight:
- Head: How’s my spiritual maturity and Great Commission worldview?
- Heart: What’s my level of cross-cultural understanding and attitude toward those with whom I partner?
- Hands: How developed are my vocational skills and to what extent have they been transformed by the gospel rather than simply mimicking the pattern of the world?
Growth in one or more of these areas can make us even more fruitful for what God wants to do through our work, so be prepared.
Partnerships: The Great Commission is not a spectator sport, nor is it an individual effort. We can’t do this alone. Thankfully, there are numerous ways that individuals, churches, and agencies can work together to be more fruitful. Many cities with BAM efforts bring together like-minded professionals and businessmen to impact their community and the world. Churches are becoming increasingly interested in how to equip and engage members from all occupations as “missionaries” right where God has placed them. And many solid mission agencies are using BAM and other strategies as avenues to fulfill the Great Commission around the world.
Take the Next Step
Is God calling you to join in the faith and work movement or to invest your time supporting a Business As Mission initiative? Is your church seeking to redefine the term missionary and engage all members from all vocations in fulfilling the Great Commission (both where they are and also cross-culturally)? Is your mission agency looking to develop partnerships to reach the world through the marketplace? If so, send me an email or check out the new networking website www.marketplacerestoration.com for ways to connect, equip, or collaborate with BAM and other faith and work efforts.
The world says we should keep our beliefs in a box, but every Sunday pastors across the country encourage us to let our faith permeate every aspect of our lives. Our workplace is no exception. Plus, we can shine there five or six days a week!
Our workplaces are in desperate need of the gospel, and communities around the world are trapped by injustice and overwhelming needs. God has equipped us, through our vocations and with a clear understanding of the gospel, to be part of the solution.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of workers in sensitive countries.
Fenton Lewis serves as vice president of marketplace ministry with Team Expansion. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.