Adult Business

I have been getting phone calls and emails lately about a movement among businesspeople — inspired, I think, by others whose vocation is in nonprofit ministry — called Business As Mission, or BAM. This has me thinking again about why InsideWork has never identified withBAM.

A decade ago, The Cluetrain Manifesto laid out 95 theses for the emergent marketplace. The first five are particularly instructive:

  1. Markets are conversations.
  2. Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors.
  3. Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.
  4. Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived.
  5. People recognize each other as such from the sound of this voice.

I’m convinced there is a new apologetic of authentic presence in the marketplace. The strength of this presence can be measure by its authenticity. Conversations among human beings sound human…They are conducted in a human voice…the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived…People recognize each other as such [as people rather than institutions] from the sound of this voice…

My initial coolness to BAM was driven by the fact that I didn’t recognize the voice — it didn’t sound like the people I work with, it sounded like missionaries in business suits. More than a few of those voices regard commerce as little more than a front for evangelistic outreach. This is a problem for people like me who believe work is a reflection of God’s image that needs no ulterior motive — people who don’t believe we can express what we believe to be the truth about God, starting with a lie about ourselves.

I find I am not alone in this. A recent post at the Business As Mission Network site notes a similar concern aired at the gathering of “A large group of foundations and high worth individuals:

Foundations expressed frustration in funding requests being “repackaged” as BAM and were particularly interested in having a better understanding of BAM so they could support the movement by making wise grants. They also expressed disappointment that only a few mission agencies were embracing this new strategy seriously – most are still looking at business as only a method of getting a visa and not as a self funding mission strategy way to have a legitimate place to influence employees and community.

I find myself wondering if, for some at least, BAM may be the mirror image of people who go to church so they can troll for business.

I think I understand why a person might view religious activities as a context for acquiring contacts — like the character in The Player who takes a call from the office as he drives across town:

When can you be back?

After my AA meeting.

I didn’t realize you had a drinking problem.

I don’t really, but that’s where all the deals are being made these days.

That may be what drives some missions minded people to insinuate themselves into the world of commerce — because, evangelistically speaking, it seems like, “that’s where all the deals are being made these days.”

Add to that the fact that it’s not getting any easier for traditional cross-cultural missionaries to actually cross cultures. More and more, missionaries are being denied visas to get into . . . or remain . . . in countries where they want to evangelize. And more and more organizations have tried to gain entry to those nations by having their personnel apply for business visas . . . but governments have gotten wise to the approach and it is no longer succeeding. Now some organizations have begun to create “businesses” . . . which are less than businesses . . . to raise funds and get people into countries that are increasingly closed to outsiders. The problem from my viewpoint is that these companies are “Trojan Horses.” They are not the genuine article . . . and will be found out.

Dan Wooldridge and I had a conversation about this with an attorney whose practice serves prominent church and para-church organizations and he told us this is already happening — missionaries presenting themselves as businesspeople have been expelled from some countries, not for preaching the gospel but for misrepresentation. The attorneys are very concerned about this approach. They believe it will eventually affect real businesspeople doing business as expatriate insiders in countries that see no upside to allowing Christian religious workers to proselytize and plant churches among their citizens.

I think the concerns of these attorneys ring true.

To put it plainly: The impatience of some in the nonprofit sector is putting the free and natural voice of Christian people in commerce at risk…people who conduct business as trusted insiders — whose faith stories, bible discussions and open lives doing business spiritually engaged — are put in jeopardy by outsiders who present themselves falsely.

I donʼt believe the geographical expansion of the gospel of God’s kingdom followed the ancient trade routes and Roman roads because vocational missionaries hitchhiked on commercial caravans and sailing ships (though there is little doubt some of that occurred). Iʼm convinced the bigger reason the kingdom migrated the way it did is that merchants, craftsmen, traders, exporters, bankers, scribes, security companies — all sorts of businesspeople — took their faith in Jesus Christ with them into the global marketplace — a marketplace in which they conducted themselves with integrity and skill; building genuine relationships wherever they went. Their influence as agents of God’s kingdom emanated from the marketplace not the “ministry” side.

There is a remarkable, organic movement among businesspeople who understand this…Iʼm convinced itʼs a work of Godʼs Spirit…built on the ancient wisdom of honesty, integrity, win/win negotiations, fair weights and measures, and adding value. People walking this path regard their work as a vocation in and of itself — a calling in the classic sense of that term. They are not trying to earn the right to be heard, they are doing business spiritually engaged. They are not interested in bait and switch transactions in which they hope to be excused for their weak business performance once people understand why they are really there. They believe, with Dorothy Sayers, that work,

…should be thought of as a creative activity undertaken for the love of work itself; and that man, made in God’s image, should make things as God makes them, for the sake of doing well a thing that is well worth doing” (“Why Work?” Creed or Chaos, Sophia Institute Press 1949, page 89).

The world has almost always been, and likely will always be, open to businesspeople who approach working relationships in that spirit.

I’m afraid Business As Mission — at least as I hear it described and see it practiced — is an attempt to put new wine in old wine skins. Not only will it not work in the long term, but it will have a negative affect on the what-you-see-is-what-you-get practices of sincere businesspeople. Itʼs not worth it.

In January 2008, the International Bulletin of Missionary Research (Vol. 32, No. 1) found about 12 million clergy and laypersons in Christian ministry around the globe — about half a million of them serving in cultures other than their own. Looking at the cost-effectiveness of these dedicated ministry professionals, the research projected the cost per convert (measured in baptisms) at $345,000. I hardly know what to do with that number.

We are in the middle of a great reframing. We are seeing a role reversal in which the influence of religious professionals wanes as the spiritual influence of ordinary workers grows. The vanguard of biblical spirituality isn’t talking about God from church platforms where they are elevated six feet above contradiction nor from within the walls of compounds separated from the world as it is. They embody the good news of God’s kingdom by their lives in the marketplace. Pastors/priests/missionaries/parachurches/theologians will increasingly engage and serve the vision of this emerging tribe of practitioners or they will find themselves increasingly disintermediated from a conversation that no longer depends on — or even requires — their voices.

Since the early 1980s, our friend Brett Johnson has helped 250 companies (in South Africa, India, the United States and Indonesia) themselves around the principles and practices of the kingdom of God. Brett is clear about the vital nature of being who we say we are:

We are not missions masquerading as business. We do our work with existing business leaders helping them figure out how to align their business both with Godʼs business, and with Scriptural principles for every facet of business.

People who work in that spirit — as expatriates or in their native cultures — cannot be easily replaced by outsiders who are, for some reason, blocked from practicing traditional missions and choose represent themselves as businesspeople. Insiders canʼt be replaced, but — in some contexts — they may be displaced by the actions of people whose behavior generates suspicion instead of trust.

InsideWork supports the efforts of business insiders who add value to their stakeholders and customers and attend to the deep longing in peers who are coming to see in that longing a hunger for God. InsideWork is a business unit, not a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization. Our business activities are driven by our passion to love God and serve people in the life of commerce we believe is our vocation. We mean no disrespect to ministers and missionaries, but, at the end of the day, we agree with Paul Minear, whose 1954 essay, Work and Vocation in Scripture, declared:

….a book by workers, about workers, for workers—that is the Bible.