Five Business As Mission trends and best practices

Recently I was invited to teach on Business as Mission (BAM) at a Midwest Christian university.  One of the sessions was a combination of classes, plus members of the community, and I was asked to talk on trends and best practices in BAM.  There are many ways one could approach this subject, so I chose to use the following five Ps as the catalyst for my thoughts.

1. Person

There is a growing realization that God has gifted all people uniquely and for some that means a wiring for entrepreneurship and business.  Slowly but surely the church may be coming to realize the great value that marketplace people bring the Missio Dei to the world.  And business people themselves are excited to know that they can and must do more than PRAY and PAY (give to missions), but they can also PLAY (be in the game of making disciples through their business).  The gifts, abilities, and skills range widely and can involve the likes of accounting, management, engineering, Information Technology, Marketing, HR and much more.

Thankfully the past twenty years has demonstrated that just as in business the right person is important – that right person can have a dynamic impact on kingdom themes while immersed in the marketplace.  As Mats Tunehag suggests, “If God has called you to be a business person, don’t stoop to be a pastor or a missionary.”  He goes on to affirm also that, “If God has called you to be a pastor or a missionary, don’t stoop to be a business person.”  There is no spiritual hierarchy; every believer is in a high and holy calling (I Cor 10:31).

9-year veteran DB of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cedric Brown (who is now a business man) told me that most Christian business people he knows have not associated their faith with their work.  They do not see themselves as a “person” with a high and holy kingdom calling.  I believe that is true, but it is gradually changing.

2. Purpose

Twenty years ago, Christians upon hearing about BAM were thinking, “Oh what a cool strategy; it will allow missionaries to stay in country x, rather than being expelled.” No! No! No!  We are gradually realizing that is not the reason to be in business in a country closed to missionaries.

Informed people today realize that it is a best practice to affirm three purposes for starting and growing kingdom businesses for the greater glory of God.

a.) To create wealth as God told Moses in Deut. 8:18. While some Christians and even pastors think that work was the result of the fall of man, more and more understand through teaching of scripture, that profit and sustainability is God-ordained by the Creator-God. Only business creates wealth, provides dignity, and abolishes poverty.  All other institutions consume wealth while never creating it – government, the church, education.

b.) To create jobs is a premier purpose of Business as Mission and a growing number of writers, pastors and believers understand that the highest form of social impact is to have a job. A job is the most desired thing worldwide, according to Jim Clifton of Gallup, in his book The Coming Jobs War. Mark 12:30-31 speaks of the Great Commandment of Jesus; that Christians love their neighbor.  In the spirit of “Trade not Aid”, what better way to love our neighbor in locations where unemployment tops 50%; where poverty brings starvation and death; where human slavery brings human dignity to an all-time low; and where injustices and corruption have sucked the life out of the citizenry?

c.) To create disciples is certainly a desire of Jesus. It is gradually coming to be acknowledged that people are more likely to follow Jesus when they see it lived out in the realities of where life happens, and in normal growing economies that is in the marketplace, where people spend most of their time. It is a best practice that every Jesus follower worker in the world sees his life on the job as a way to make other Jesus followers, and that is a key purpose of BAM.  KP at Barrington Gifts stated that “every day on the factory floor, is an opportunity for discipleship.”

3. Perspective

It is a growing trend to realize that BAM is not “business as usual”.  The mission of God as noted in the 3-fold purpose above, doesn’t just happen.  It is a unique and specialized task to start a kingdom business in a faraway culture with a distant language. Hence people must do this with a learning mentality. This is not working for a multinational company, speaking English as the corporate expert, while attending an English church.

BAMers need to enter countries like missionaries of old, giving attention to learning the local culture and language.  Some consultants recommend spending a couple of years on this at the beginning, and then making it a life-long commitment to continue to grow.

It is a trend also to realize that “every business leader needs a coach” (Bill Gates).  The world is changing so fast, the nuances of foreign cultures are so complex, and technology can be complicated. The right perspective is to listen to advice, develop an advisory council, and find consultants who bring necessary expertise to the business.  Consulting and coaching are important to all elements of the business – product development, research, HR, capital development, marketing, integration of faith with the work, accounting, and much more.

4. Product

The product one chooses matters, and that is because you do not have a business if you do not have a customer.  One must listen to the market and the needs of the consumer.  What does he/she want; what is the pain point; what is the problem to be solved?  Good businesses start with a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), starting small and imperfectly and then pivoting toward positive change.

Such product strategy comes out of the lean startup movement in Japan fifty years ago, and more recently in Silicon Valley. Some call it a “soft launch”.  Don’t wait to be perfect but start focusing on creating community value and then improving upon it.

One BAM startup in a former Soviet country in central Asia, assessed the community needs and discovered that young people wanted to immigrate away from the unemployment, pollution and poverty of their country.  When this was understood by the BAM team, they said to themselves – if they were to immigrate to America, they need three things:  a) understanding of the Judeo-Christian heritage, reformation and renaissance which helped create capitalism; b) learn the English language; c) learn to love coffee (theirs was a tea culture).

The net result as the ABC Coffee company which did just that – served coffee, taught English and economic history in side rooms, and met real and perceived needs.  When I visited, there were two outlets, 22 employees, and many who had learned English and come to follow Jesus.  Such a product was not the work of traditional missionaries; neither was it an outside business bringing what they thought was important.  It was a business which met community needs, solved problems, and addressed a pain point.

5. Plan

Traditional theory suggests that one makes a detailed business plan before beginning.  That is old school.  Business plans are important – but not at the beginning.  The trend now is to produce a simple 2-page business “model” which answers basic questions following the 9-category lean canvas.  This can all be accomplished in 1-2 pages.  The next step is to get started with an MVP (see above) which is low cost, low time involvement, and with minimal expertise.  Another suggestion is to use Drucker’s five questions (Who is the customer? What is your mission? What does the customer value? What are the results? What is your plan?) and start with an imperfect product or service – improving immediately and continuously.

In addition to the mini plan (model), there must be a missional plan with a similar sketching of how faith and missional living will be integrated into the business. As time goes on, this can be developed into a full-scale plan, similar to the business plan. But to start with there must be a commitment to living and functioning with integrity (with what that looks like in the culture) and providing ways to involve employees, vendors, customers, neighbors etc. with faith issues.

IBEC learned this the hard way after helping the owner of a tourism company in North Africa develop a 50-page plan.  The team was qualified, dedicated and was there for all the right reasons; they even spent two years learning language and culture, but they made a fatal mistake in misjudging the customer’s wants.  If they had started smaller and quicker, they would have learned that the tourists did not want to come to the destination upon which the plan was based.  The business failed.

These five BAM trends may indicate that God is up to something in the world and we can join him in that endeavor.

Larry Sharp, Director of Training, IBEC Ventures
larry.sharp@ibecventures.com 

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