In Jesus’ day, the experts in religious law asked him a trick question: “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25–26). Jesus’ response went deeper than their theological arguments to expose the lens through which they read the Bible: “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?”
Similarly, the question, ‘Can business be mission?’ does not necessarily reflect our knowledge of the Bible, but rather the lens through which we read it. Looking through the lens of God’s mission rather than human action can best help us answer that question.
What is mission?
A useful place to start is the term mission Dei, which proposes that “mission is not primarily the work of the Church, but of God Himself”. David Bosch elaborates on this, stating that God as the initiator and the church is “privileged to participate”. Mission is therefore defined not in terms of the church, but the church is defined in terms of God’s mission.
For the purposes of this article, God’s mission can be defined as “God’s agenda to glorify His name by blessing the nations, advancing His kingdom through the redemption and judgment of all creation, which He orchestrates through both supernatural and natural (human and non-human) means.”
Although missiologists differ on a precise definition of missio Dei (God’s mission), there are some core components that they do agree on. These are:
Most authors also agree that there is a difference between mission (singular) and missions (plural). Mission involves “all that God is doing in his great purpose for the whole of creation and all that he calls us to do in cooperation with that purpose”, while missions is the “multitude of activities that God’s people can engage in, by means of which they participate in God’s mission”.
What is business as mission (BAM)?
Business as mission (BAM) is both missions and mission. It is an expression of God’s activities in the world, and a specific engagement that advances God’s agenda in and through the marketplace.
If we think of mission as “more than [the] saving of souls but rather God’s total involvement with the whole of his creation”, it underscores the realisation of the need for BAM because most Christians spend the majority of their time in the marketplace. BAM provides a fuller understanding of ecclesiology – a recognition that mission relates not only to what happens at church gatherings on Sundays, but also relates to what God is doing during the rest of the week through Christians as they engage with all of God’s creation.
BAM expands the goals of business to seek more than purely financial returns. As stakeholders increasingly understand business in terms of the biblical mandates such as the ‘care of creation’, the ‘great commandment’ to love one’s neighbour, and the ‘great commission’ to make disciples of the nations, the goals of business are expanded to include social, environmental and spiritual returns.
Social returns are realised when social relationships in the community improve. Environmental returns are realised when more environmentally sustainable processes are used in business. Spiritual returns are realised when more and more businesspeople realise that they are part of God’s mission to heal a fallen and broken world.
BAM as a redemptive vehicle (not just an access vehicle) into Africa
BAM can be viewed either as an ‘access vehicle’ for missions by ‘sending’ people to another country, or BAM can be viewed as a ‘redemptive vehicle’ seeking to restore the domain of business to God’s kingdom.
Western authors tend to portray BAM primarily as an access vehicle for doing mission ‘overseas’ – when discussing BAM, they assume a ‘we-to-them’ paradigm. Generally, they fail to recognise that they are part of a global power relationship, or that the models they propose may serve to maintain the status quo where the field is already unjustly tilted to the advantage of Western economies.
No business (or for that matter, scholarly debate) is conducted in a neutral environment. “There is no neutral place of knowledge ethics and action, along the lines of ‘neutral scholarship’.” In every situation we have the choice to either “adopt the stance of the status quo or a critical, constructive position of liberation”. BAM must therefore adopt a position of liberation if it is to be relevant in Africa and not be limited to a view of BAM as a vehicle for ‘going overseas’. There is a need to engage with the dysfunctions of the global economies, and the fact that the current “-isms that shape life today are flawed”.
BAM in Africa needs to lay the foundation for redeeming the business domain to create an environment in which Christians in the global marketplace and those in Africa can together be the salt and light. BAM in Africa first of all needs to be a Kingdom vehicle, advancing Christ’s rule over the nations before we can consider it an ‘access vehicle’ seeking to bless the nations.
“Personal, organisational and wider social relationships are the key to our well-being.” As such, Christians in business need to resist the erosion of social cohesion that accompanies extractive economic targets that often define Western agendas. African cultures place a high value on relationships. Christians in business have the opportunity to build upon the strengths of the African cultures (i.e., where they align with Kingdom culture) and make business more holistic, so that material wealth does not cause social, environmental and spiritual poverty. They also have the opportunity to counter the weaknesses of African cultures (i.e., where they do not align with Kingdom culture) through their business values and practices, for example by emphasising Kingdom values such as good ethics, hard work, thrift and self-discipline.
The example of William Carey
Known as the “father of modern missions”, William Carey (1761–1834) was a lifelong missionary to India. But to him, mission meant so much more than the converting of souls.
He was a crusader for women’s rights against female infanticide, child marriage, widow burning, and female illiteracy. He spoke out against the excesses of indigo farming that threatened the food security of India and campaigned to protect forests. He translated the Indian classics such as Ramaryana into English, set up libraries, and built schools. He brought the modern science of printing and publishing to India, establishing the first newspaper that printed in an oriental language. He brought one of the first steam engines to India. He introduced the idea of saving banks to the country, by telling people that God hated usury (at the time, interest rates were between 36% and 72% per year). He was an astronomer who introduced this science to counter the destructive fatalism of astrology. He helped to make the treatment of leprosy humane. As a public servant, he transformed the British administration from an indifferent imperial administration to ‘civil’ servants.
William Carey’s example shows how powerful adopting a position of liberation (as mentioned earlier) with the view to bless the nations, can be.
Can one be both rich and righteous?
“God’s mission is what fills the gap between spoiled creation and new creation”, and Christians have the opportunity to participate in this ‘good news’. God’s mission (and therefore, our mission) assumes that ‘the good news’ cannot be ‘good’ unless both those who proclaim it and those who receive it experience blessing. Neither is ‘blessed’ at the expense of the other.
Two common arguments against BAM are:
A simple reading, however, will reveal that trade and commerce are weaved into the biblical narrative throughout. It is also important to note that unethical behaviour is not the preserve of businesspeople, or the rich and powerful. Rather, it is a reflection of fallen human nature, which the apostle Paul describes as “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity” (Romans 1:29). This depravity manifests itself in all segments of society, not just the business community.
However, the Bible does contain many rebukes directed at unethical leaders and businesspeople. See for example the prophet Zephania’s warning to Jerusalem: “Her officials within her are roaring lions, her rulers are evening wolves, who leave nothing for the morning. Her prophets are unprincipled, they are treacherous people. Her priests profane the sanctuary and do violence to the law… At that time, I will deal with all who oppressed you” (Zephaniah 3:3–4, 19). In the book of James, we read: “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you… Behold, the wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (James 5:1–4). Proverbs teaches us that: “Unequal weights are an abomination to the Lord” (Proverbs 20:23).
The fact that unethical practices are common in business practice therefore provides a critical opportunity for Christians to be the ‘righteous rich’ – to play their part in God’s mission as a part of the business community.
Examples of the ‘righteous rich’ in the Bible
Can one be both rich and righteous? The belief in most people’s minds (in the light of the foregoing biblical warnings) is that we can only be one or the other, not both! Yet in the Old Testament, we read of Job, who despite the attack on his wealth continued to place his trust in God. He was a very wealthy man, and he was known for these attributes (Job 29):
Abraham was another Old Testament patriarch whose wealth did not disqualify him from playing a part in God’s redemptive agenda. God says that He chose him “…to direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him” (Genesis 18:19).
In the New Testament, Joseph is described as “a rich man from Arimathea” (Matthew 27:57), who was a member of the Jewish Council and played a pivotal role after Jesus was crucified. Owing to his influential position (unlike the poorer disciples), Joseph had access to Pilate. He used his position to ask for Jesus’ body, and then “laid it in his own new tomb” (Matthew 27:60).
Let us return to the original question: “Can business be mission?” Well, if Christian mission is “God’s agenda to glorify His name by blessing the nations, advancing His kingdom through the redemption and judgment of all creation, which He orchestrates through both supernatural and natural (human and non-human) means”, the litmus test then becomes: “Can businesspeople be part of Christian mission?”
In other words, can business as mission (BAM) reflect the five components of Christian mission listed in the definition? Can BAM:
The answer to all five is definitely: “Yes”. Business is part of God’s mission, and those called to business can advance God’s mission.
Dennis Tongoi is the Executive Director of Root-to-Fruit, a leadership development consultancy in Kenya. He holds a DTh. in Missiology from the University of South Africa, is the founding International Director Emeritus of the Church Mission Society (CMS) Africa, and coordinated the Samaritan Strategy in more than 40 African countries from 2001 to 2014. He served as the business leadership manager for the Executive MBA program run by the Copenhagen Business School in collaboration with Mount Kenya University, and was part of the Navigators for almost two decades, serving as their Kenya Country Director from 1995 to 2000
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