The missionary task, as commonly understood by Evangelicals, involves the communication of the Christian message to the unbelieving nations, intentionally crossing cultural, linguistic, social and/or geographic barriers. The hope is that the gospel will be received and that new believers will become obedient followers of Jesus.
Missionary anthropologist Paul Hiebert has described this spiritual transformation as “people . . . leaving their false gods, and their self-idolatry with its obsession with wealth, power, price, sex, and race, and to return to God as their Creator and Lord.” (Paul Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change, Baker Academic; 2008, p. 307). This is a profoundly spiritual task. Some may ask what role work and business plays in the missionary task. This post will address this question.
In their international bestselling business book The Go-Giver, Bob Burg and John D. Mann point out the three universal reasons for working:
- Survive – to meet your basic living needs
- Save – to go beyond your basic needs and expand your life
- Serve – to make a contribution to the world around you
(Bob Burg & John David Mann, The Go-Giver, expanded edition, Portfolio; 2015, p.55)
They observe that the majority of workers only focus on the first two aspects. For these people, a job is merely a source of income that provides for current and future needs. But we can leverage work as a tool for building up others and serving those with whom we come in contact. Whether it is money earned, an opportunity presented or the actual task of the job, the real value of work can be found in how it makes the world a better place.
Missionaries do well to keep these categories in mind as we pursue God’s mission of seeing the nations worship the risen savior. Work is a crucial social institution; it shapes the calendar and informs the priorities of a people. As missiologists consider the role of work and business in missions, I suggest three ways work can serve missions.
Work provides a space for missionary activity.
1. Work as a Platform into the Host Culture
First, work provides a space for missionary activity. Many have developed a negative attitude toward the idea of business platforming missionary work. This attitude stems from abuses by missionaries who use work or business identity to gain access but do little if any real work. These so-called “job-fakers” (see Patrick Lai, Tentmakers, IVP, 2005, p. 13) have been rightfully criticized. It is, however, possible to understand the platforming role of work differently.
In his work Business as Mission, C. Neal Johnson observes that business/work enables the missionary to achieve an insider position in culture. Missiologists use the technical terms emic and etic to describe the perspective a missionary has about their host culture. All missionaries approach culture from an etic, or outsider perspective. That is, everything is evaluated and understood in view of the home culture. One of the goals is to grow into a more emic, or insider perspective. By definition, this is impossible; however, the closer we identify with a people the more emic our perspective becomes. Because of the vital role business plays in culture, work can serve as an pathway toward becoming a cultural insider (see C. Neal Johnson, Business as Mission: A Comprehensive Guide to Theory and Practice, IVP; 2009, p. 50-51; 55-56).
As one considers the missionary task, genuine work (as opposed to job-fakers) provides the missionary a space for understanding the culture — the hopes, fears, dreams and concerns of a people. It places him closer to the cultural center and provides a clearer understanding of the work to be done. Rather than being a distraction to the “more spiritual” aspects of missionary practice, work provides a platform into the culture.
2. Work as a Pathway to the People
Second, work provides the environment for establishing a relationship with people. Revisiting Paul Hiebert’s description of Spiritual Transformation, he observes: “Biblical conversion involves real people in their real everyday lives” (Hiebert, 307). One of the most significant challenges of the missionary enterprise involves the difficulty of reaching all segments of a society with the gospel. The Bible teaches that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to all who believe (Romans 1:16). This number includes the educated and uneducated, the wealthy and the poor, the ruler and the citizen. All must hear the gospel before they can be saved.
For the missionary, the complexity of society makes it difficult to minister to the different classes and groups of people. Rundle and Steffen have observed that kingdom businesses provide pathways to these different peoples.
One kingdom professional recently shared his business credentials enable him to build relationships with people he could never reach. . . as a traditional missionary. (Steve Rundle and Tom Steffen, Great Commission Companies: The Emerging Role of Business in Missions, IVP; 2011, p.88)
In a traditional sense, the relational path to many segments of a society is blocked or difficult to navigate. However, work and business opportunities make these pathways more accessible.
The daily grind of work and business give Christians an opportunity to demonstrate genuine Christian character, such as honesty, integrity, respect and generosity.
3. Work as a Picture of Christian Living
Finally, work creates a context for displaying the Christian life. Missionary work is not complete when someone professes Christ as savior. The task presented in the Great Commission includes teaching obedience to Christ’s commands. Conversion involves more than a shifting of religious identity; it includes embracing a new way of living. In other words, the gospel requires a life transformation. To be sure, traditional discipleship tools may be used to teach these life lessons. However, the work environment provides a wealth of opportunity for “real-world” training and modeling.
On the one hand, when a missionary works, he provides a clear example of the biblical expectations for the Christian to earn their own living. Patrick Lai has observed that, in some contexts, when the missionaries do not have jobs the new believers also remain unemployed. Missionaries model a lifestyle that includes being supported by western Churches, and the expectation is transferred to national Christians. “[T]hese believers do not intend to get a job. Their goal is to live like the missionary who is discipling them, including being supported by western churches.” (Lai, 81)
On the other hand, the daily grind of work and business give Christians an opportunity to demonstrate genuine Christian character, such as honesty, integrity, respect and generosity. New believers can see a clear picture of what it means to live the Christian life within the context of business. Business then serves as the soil for Christian living and the stage for showcasing the power of the gospel.
Back to The Go-Giver, missionaries can incorporate sound business opportunities in their work. There will be tension between mission and business if we fall into the first two categories presented — survival and save — because this feels like it distracts from the goal of missions. However, Burg and Mann give us a helpful perspective of work when they remind us that the highest motivation of our employment is service. We serve those God sends us to reach by placing ourselves deep into their culture and lives with the opportunity of demonstrating the transforming power of the Christian message.
Faith, Work and the Missiology Classroom
One of the purposes of this post, and the series of which it is a part, is to investigate how to integrate these topics into seminary education. My specialty is the missiology classroom. How can/do we incorporate this topic into these lessons? The missions classroom is not a business class; the goal of the class is to equip the student to survive and succeed in the mission field.
Discussions about faith, work and economics can play an important part in the development of missionary strategy and practice. Even though a tension exists between the missionary task and task of business, this tension can be managed. As we teach those who are planning to serve in missionary contexts, how should we help them manage these tensions?
- Point out the importance of developing both ministry and business skills as important tools for the task.
- Teach the importance of crafting a robust missionary strategy that includes work and evangelism.
- Refuse to diminish the importance of so-called “non-spiritual” tasks in advancing the mission
Editor’s Note: This article is an installment in the FWE Curriculum Project.