– Michael Baer
(This article was previously presented as a paper at Wheaton College, date unknown. Reprinted here by the author’s permission.)
Like many current practitioners, I stumbled on BAM by accident (providence to my more theologically astute brethren). After 15 years of pastoral ministry and church planting in the US, I longed to be more among the lost and to be able to share the gospel in a way that was perceived as coming from the heart rather than coming from my professional standing. Consequently, I left the pastorate and began a management consulting practice that has since taken me all over the world and proven very successful on both a business and spiritual level. For ten years, I enjoyed being a Christian in the market place and building relationships with the lost, sharing the gospel with them, and seeing several come to Christ. I have to admit, I have enjoyed the role of the faithful layman. However, in the early 90’s, I wrestled with how to integrate fifteen years of pastoral experience, six years of theological training, a successful business career, and a passion for what God was doing in the world.
The answer to those prayers began to come with a trip to the newly independent Republic of Kyrgyzstan (formerly USSR) to set up a teaching program at the Kyrgyz State Medical University. While there, God began to open my eyes to the international potential in business and to its place in his plan to reach the world and glorify himself. What emerged was a MED (micro-enterprise development) program now operating among the unreached in 25 locations around the world (IMED: The Jholdas Project). However, the greater discovery was not just a MED process that works in restricted access countries but also a pursuit of thought about the entire Business-as-Mission (BAM) integration concept that applies to all facets and sizes of business and is not limited to MED (which is just one small slice of the BAM pie). It is from this background that I offer my thoughts on the past, current, and future states of BAM.
It is difficult to define BAM or Kingdom Business or Holistic Entrepreneurialism or whatever you want to call it. Every attempt leaves something out or puts something in that shouldn’t be there. Nevertheless, for the sake of discussion, I posit the following working definition of Business as Mission:
Business-as-Mission is the natural extension of the life of a committed believer through the practice of real business enterprise into the work that God is doing in the world.
What I mean by this is that business (being a divine institution like government, family, etc) is a normal means by which disciples of Christ generate wealth for society and interact with people for the sake of the gospel. As such, BAM isn’t really a new idea at all.
My thesis in this short paper is that the current applications of BAM are evolutionary and not static. The concept is lasting but the rediscovery and use of it is new and becoming newer. Specifically, I would describe the last 10-15 years as BAM 1.0 and argue that we are transitioning now into the next phase, BAM 2.0 (or at least I hope we are because BAM 1.0 has proven woefully inadequate to the task).
If you throw out a few historical anomalies (like the Basel International Trading Company), Business-as-Mission has been re-initiated in recent years (circa 1990) primarily as a response to two issues: increasing difficulty in gaining access to closed countries for missions activity and crippling poverty and unemployment among the persecuted converts in these hard to reach places. These factors have impacted the shape of BAM 1.0 tremendously and because it grew out of response to specific problems, BAM has taken a more pragmatic path than a holistic or theological one.
BAM 1.0 has focused on several key areas.
Platform Business. As a visa platform for traditional missionaries, BAM has provided access into restricted areas but in fact has not been a business movement at all; in reality it has served as a kind of “cover story” that has fooled few and compromised many.
Micro Business. There are a few exceptions to this but the vast majority of BAM efforts in the early phase have been “micro” in nature—either micro-finance, micro-credit, or micro-enterprise development. The definition of micro is still being debated but it usually refers to businesses started among target peoples with a capital infusion or loan less than $5000 (US).
Training. Many have traveled abroad to do business seminars in the name of Christ and dubbed this BAM.
Fragmentation: The fourth characteristic of BAM 1.0 is its fragmented structure. While various agencies, consultations, and universities have sought to exercise some kind of control, guidance, or unifying influence, the reality is that BAM is a globally fractured activity. There are no shared definitions, no agreed metrics of success, no governing organizations or associations. It has been and still is very much the “wild west.”
My summary of these efforts, of which I have been a part, is this: they are well-intended efforts to use business in any way possible to further traditional missionary activities. Their success is measured in terms of visas granted, churches planted, people trained, etc. In other words, it is not so much business-as-mission as it is business supporting missions.
The fact that BAM 1.0 has not yet achieved all its potential is not to say that it has not had positive impact for the cause of Christ. Here are a few to consider.
Access. Visas have been granted on the basis of business related activities. The English Training School, the micro-enterprise incubator, the coffee shop, have all served their stated end.
Community Development. Poverty alleviation has also been a major result of BAM in its early stages. Micro-finance, micro-credit, and micro-enterprise development efforts have proliferated in reached, least reached, and unreached areas.
Indigenous Church Planting. A third positive impact of BAM 1.0 has been equipping local believers to financially support their own indigenous churches apart from western paternalism. Primarily through MED, hundreds (perhaps thousands) of cottage businesses have begun with the purpose to enable local giving, local accountability, and local church planting.
Western Church Impact. Additionally, the church in the west has been awakened to entirely new avenues of global service. Thousands of business persons, hitherto relegated to walking checkbooks, have been meaningfully engaged in foreign service and world evangelization. The personal and ecclesiastical impact has been profound and, in fact, may be the overall greatest achievement of early BAM work.
Challenging the Status Quo. Finally, BAM dialogue has begun. Earlier I asserted that BAM 1.0 grew as a pragmatic solution to specific problems rather than a holistic and biblical movement growing out of a renewed understanding of the “integrated life.” I am happy to say that, although embryonic, this dialogue is beginning in earnest and is very much the result of what has gone before.
Struggles and Shortcomings
Like all young movements, BAM 1.0 has struggled with many challenges and has yet to successfully address many of them. Among those challenges are…
Short Term Focus. Most BAM activities to date have involved the use of short-term western teams to teach, coach, finance, or otherwise help with business start-ups under the guidance of long-term missionaries. There are precious few examples of those who have taken the long-term view and established rooted, local business operations that will stand the test of time. One consequence of this is that tracking meaningful fruit is sketchy and anecdotal at best.
Minimal Job Creation. As a practitioner of MED for 16 years it is painful to admit that MED creates relatively few jobs. It does lift people out of poverty and empower local church planting, but in terms of scalable, exponential job creation (the great need), it has not delivered.
Minimal ROI. Actually, it would be more accurate to say negative ROI. A simple analysis would tell us that the time and money spent in BAM 1.0 has not covered that investment, much less yielded profit. That is not to say that there is no value in churches growing and people coming to faith at all; it is to say that if an activity produces negative operating income year after year, whatever it is, it is not business.
Lack of Scalability. As with job creation and ROI, BAM 1.0 has not produced a scalable model. It still requires more money, more people, more trips to produce arithmetic results.
Confusion over Ownership. Who owns BAM? Who leads it? There seems to be a competition among all involved to emerge as the BAM Congress. Churches, individual business people, entrepreneurs, mission agencies all see the value and all seem to feel the need to lead the herd. This contributes largely to the fragmented nature of BAM 1.0.
Semi-Dualism. We talk the language that says business needs no legitimization, that as a calling from God and a divine institution it is already as legitimate as the family, schools, medicine, etc. But the reality is that we are still stuck very much in a sacred-secular dichotomy. Even the term “business-as-mission” (ironically the title of my book) belies a certain attitude that only as business is connected to missions does it gain a healthy spiritual status. I would contend that until we embrace business period we have not yet made it to BAM 2.0.
So there is my survey of BAM 1.0. My contention is that it is alive, it works, and it needs to evolve.
I am no futurist and I am not suggesting that we need a Future Shock: The BAM Version. However, I’m willing to posit a few ideas about what the next phase of BAM will (or should) look like.
Larger, More Scalable Enterprise. If BAM remains primarily a MED activity, then the challenges outlined above will not go away. However, I believe that we are going to see more and larger enterprises enter the game. Whether these are well capitalized startups in target countries or financially backed expansions from existing western companies into target areas, BAM 2.0 must become the movement of businesses that can create sustainable value and scalable employment, interact with senior government officials, bring return to shareholders and stakeholders alike, and still remain true to biblical, kingdom operating principles.
Independent and Invisible. I also believe that BAM 2.0 will be led by kingdom minded entrepreneurs in a much more independent way than we have seen. This is not to say that there will be no fellowship or cooperation between the missionary community, the church, and these businesses; there will and there should be. However, one will not be seen as a subset of the other.
At the same time, while current MED activities are highly visible and promoted (by churches and agencies alike), larger more expansive business operations (like the few that are out there today) will operate invisibly (at least invisible from the “watching Christian world”). They will certainly be visible by their good works and words where they exist but they will see no need to advertise their BAM status to legitimize themselves and therefore, as with all true business, they won’t waste their time or money doing it.
Holistic. BAM 2.0 will become much more holistic—delighting in the operation of a business as an expression of worship in a truly integrated way. As long as we are fallen, we will still struggle with the sacred-secular confusion that has plagued the church since her inception; however, as more and more spiritually mature business leaders engage the world market and the world mission field, the gap in thought will decrease.
More Global; Less Western. So far, most recognized BAM activities have been western in origin. The U.S. and the UK have led the way in launching BAM activities. Certainly there has been a large impact made out of SE Asia as well; Singapore, Korea, and Malaysia have been heavily involved. BAM 2.0 will be thoroughly global and thoroughly international. Commerce is; why should BAM be any different? This, oddly enough, will present a huge challenge to western operators who seem to think they must be at the forefront of every movement.
Long Term Focus. Large business enterprise does not lend itself to short-term operations. While MED will continue and thus its use of the short-term team, large operations by virtue of their size and investment horizon will move BAM into a much more permanent position. This will bring blessing on several fronts—ongoing employment, employee development, community and societal impact, deepened understanding of culture, etc.
As BAM morphs into its next form, I see at least four significant challenges the concept will face that are different from those it has faced thus far.
Recognition as Legitimate. To date, it is the “M” part of BAM that has enabled the Christian community to stretch to recognize its legitimacy. They have not yet truly seen business as legitimate in its own right. Larger, long term kingdom businesses will not look nearly as “Christian” as their MED predecessors. They will have bottom lines to hit, shareholders to reward, customers to satisfy, as well as individuals to impact. This general lack of recognition is uncomfortable but that is not what concerns me. The church in the west is already struggling to find relevance to the post-modern world (and post-modern believers). If she withholds her “blessing” these disciple-entrepreneurs will find their fellowship elsewhere.
Over-Integration. As a proponent of the seamless integration of faith and life, I worry that BAM 2.0, by virtue of its independence and size, will face a strong temptation to contextualize itself so thoroughly that it will cease to be salt and light. There is no clear line where this takes place and most likely it is different for different enterprises. But the danger is real.
Isolation. Similar to over-integration, the size and independence of BAM 2.0 organizations could create a kind of separation or isolation from the rest of the believing (missionary model) communities where they exist. From the missionary side they will mistrust and misunderstand BAM leaders; from the BAM side, they will find very little in common other than their faith (not unlike in the U.S.). BAM leaders will need to make concerted effort to create avenues of fellowship.
Lack of Equipping. For a variety of reasons, the western church is better at using business people than equipping them for active service in the context of their work. Pastors often distrust business and fail to understand it; others feel they have been delivered from it. The church of the 21st century must find ways to feed and develop men and women in business with a global mindset or they will lose these leaders to organizations that will do so.
I have tried to take my nearly 20 year perspective to provide a survey of what BAM has been (BAM 1.0) with its successes and failures and to propose what it may look like as it evolves (BAM 2.0). The accuracy of my observations and predictions is somewhat irrelevant; the need to evolve and mature as a movement is not.
Mike Baer is the founder of the Jholdas Group (1998). For over 30 years, Mike has launched and grown businesses in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Asia. He has served as a pastor, entrepreneur, business executive, and business coach in the US and several other countries. Mike has been a leader in Business as Mission since the early 1990s and is the author of Business as Mission: The Power of Business in the Kingdom of God (YWAM, 2006) and a variety of journal articles. He is currently an active participant in the Lausanne Global Business-as-Mission Think Tank. Mike holds a BA from Flagler College and a ThM from Dallas Seminary.