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The Opportunities and Challenges for BAM In and From China

China’s economic growth of eight to ten percent annually for the last twenty years, creates an ideal commercial environment for business as mission within China. There are many opportunities for doing business and large amounts of foreign investment available. At the same time, as one BAM practitioner in China has noted, “China has one of the largest unreached populations in the world, business is a significant channel for Christians to effectively impact countless people and help set them free from sin.”

In the BAM Global Think Tank Report the opportunities and challenges of doing business as mission both in and from China are shared. These observations from surveys, case studies and a SWOT analysis confirm great potential for BAM in and from China. However, the Chinese mission movement is still growing into maturity and experience of business as mission is very new. The Chinese church both inside mainland China and overseas has a long way to go to fully understand and embrace the strategy of business as mission. They must learn from their own difficult experiences and also connect with the wider BAM movement in order to be more effective for the future.

Opportunities and Challenges for BAM in China

Qualitative analysis of the case studies and the SWOT analysis gathered by the BAM Global Think Tank research enabled the identification of some of the main opportunities and challenges to doing BAM in China. The group also looked at what success looks like for BAM in China and some measurement criteria for success.

BAM success criteria

The survey and case study responses indicate that the two top criteria for BAM success expressed by BAM practitioners in China are 1) profit making and sustainability of the business and 2) Kingdom impact. Of the BAM practitioners in China that the group interviewed or surveyed, most had made profit and almost all—including the businesses that have since closed – had spiritual fruit and impact. The businesses also had an influence through job creation, improved working conditions and benefits, improved standards of living, training up the workforce, imparting biblical values for work and family and challenging corruption, among other things. Overall, most of the BAM practitioners in China rated their businesses successful or fairly successful. Although the results are constrained by the limited contact with failed cases, it is fair to conclude that there are sustainable BAM models in China that are bringing spiritual, social and economic transformation.

Spiritual impact and church planting

Business as mission is an effective way to reach people for Christ in China. There is an opportunity to bring greater spiritual fruit through a multiplication of BAM initiatives. Business brings relationships and connections that are a natural context for showing love and sharing the message of the gospel. In one case of an Export Company, in over eight years of operations the business owners have had many chances to share the gospel and establish close relationships and friendships with people from different walks of life including owners of big factories and government officials. These opportunities are only available to them because of their business involvement.

Athough much spiritual impact has been made through BAM enterprises in China, fewer churches have been planted as a result of these efforts. Only four out of the 21 businesses surveyed or interviewed have seen churches planted, all of which are big businesses with 250 or more employees and one of which was closed due to bankruptcy. However, all the businesses surveyed have seen decisions for Christ, discipled believers, formed Bible study groups, trained leaders and/or channeled believers to local churches.

Success factors for spiritual impact

The following lessons were shared by practitioners regarding success factors for spiritual fruitfulness.

  • Keep a close relationship with the Lord by spending time with Him: Several BAM practitioners stressed the importance of prayer and walking in the power of the Holy Spirit. Some seek God together with their team for every step and decision.
  • Set a godly example in running the business: According to one of the practitioners, “This provides opportunities for business people to know God, and to understand that it is possible to have a business that is profitable, honest towards the government, and just towards employees.” 
  • Show genuine love for the employees: “Caring for the whole life of employees, rather than looking for a ‘pair of hands’ just to get the job done,” explained one of the group members.
  • Develop relationships that are natural in the workplace: Allowing the Christian owner, manager or staff to come in to contact with non-believers. As one practitioner responded, “It is important to have believers at every level of our organization. However, we have found that sometimes employees will agree with the boss just to ‘save face’, yet the most influential spiritual employee could be a local Chinese girl who works in the company. She holds the respect of the staff and the staff see her as one of them.”
  • Build on the friendship made with clients, buyers and business contacts: One practitioner was able to provide encouragement and counseling to many of her clients with their family problems. Another practitioner running a small educational business is sought after by the parents of students for advice about their family and parenting issues.
  • Aim to make disciples and not just believers: Many of the BAM businesses interviewed go beyond just sharing the gospel, and focus on discipleship, Bible studies, leadership training or have started house churches among their workers. BAM provides many outreach opportunities but it is important to go beyond just conversions. One practitioner exhorts us to think in terms of the second or third generation, to make disciples who can make disciples.

Competition

One of the key threats to BAM success in the dynamic Chinese economy is very strong competition. To compete with the large foreign and local companies, BAM practitioners should consider different approaches. One of the practitioners whose BAM company has closed, suggested that future BAM start-ups in China should consider joint ownerships with other established companies for capital and technological expertise. Another practitioner, David, whose company has also closed (Appendix F), advised that spending more time in product development and market research is important. The owner of a successful coffee shop highlighted that good quality products and services, and highly qualified staff will give BAM companies a competitive advantage.

Professional requirements

Another threat to BAM practitioners in China is the growing requirement for more sophisticated businesses and professionals. Nordstrom and Muir comment that, “As China becomes increasingly selective in terms of what type of ‘foreign experts’ it wants, qualifications for visas will become more stringent and difficult. There will be continued opportunities for doing business in China, but it will be problematic for ‘fake’ or ‘cover’ businesses” (Nordstrom and Muir, 20101). Additionally many Chinese business graduates are now able to compete with foreigners in managing small businesses. Therefore, China does not need as many foreign experts as it did previously.

Cultural gaps

The cultural gap is another barrier that BAM practitioners must overcome to be successful according to some of the survey responses. There are differences between Westerners and Chinese in business approach, communication, values and ethical systems. Chinese ethnocentrism often makes it difficult to form business partnerships. Even something as basic as eating is important. One practitioner pointed out how a foreigner must understand the differences in Chinese dining culture, “To do business in China, one has to eat and enjoy food like the Chinese.”

Nordstrom and Muir specifically addressed the guanxi issue. They remark, “Relationships still make up seventy percent of the decision-making power in business deals and disputes. This will change as China’s legal system matures. However there will be increased disputes until the rule of law surpasses the rule of relationships. Meanwhile, BAM businesses will need to continue to practice both guanxi and rule of law in order to continue good legal representation and government relations.”

Relationship with government officials

Some practitioners expressed that keeping a good relationship with government officials is an important factor to operate BAM companies in China. With the help of officials, one will know how the government operates and if there are any new or preferential policies.

Opportunities and Challenges for BAM from China

Opportunities and challenges to doing BAM from China are based on observations from Think Tank group members, in addition to the small sample of survey responses or cases in this category.

Potential success factors

As in any ministry, apostolic vision is an important key for success. This God-given drive gets the missionary going and to trust the Almighty for a breakthrough. The Back To Jerusalem vision, with all its imperfections, does put many Christians in China into action. The Chinese generational experience of fight for survival helps the Chinese BAM practitioners to persevere through thick and thin. In addition, the simple faith of dependence on God goes well with the Chinese mentality “to cross a river by feeling the stones.”

Culturally closer to the least reached peoples

Some cultural barriers that apply to non-Chinese BAM practitioners may be less of an issue for Chinese BAM practitioners due to similarity in cultural norms and values. Historically, the Chinese have been under the influence of Buddhism, Daoism and Atheism instead of under Christianity, as their Western counterparts. Thus, they have better understanding of the situations and struggles of the least reached peoples who have very little Christian influence. The high value that Chinese place on family relationship also makes the Chinese more culturally suitable to reach out to these peoples who share similar value.

Easier entry to some least reached areas

Many Chinese BAM practitioners are passionate about bringing the Gospel “Back to Jerusalem” along the Silk Road. The people along the Silk Road are mainly Muslims and the Unreached People Groups (UPGs). Unlike many Western nations, China often has better foreign relations with these countries. Unlike Westerners, the Chinese do not carry a “Christian” image and China’s accomplishments are admired and respected, thus allowing easier entry to these areas. If the Chinese BAM practitioners can improve their BAM skills and overcome some of their cultural weaknesses, their BAM future will be bright.

Opportunities to network for PRC-SAR and overseas Chinese

Chinese Christians and Chinese mission agencies outside of China have many more opportunities to network with experienced international mission agencies and learn from them. They could and should tap into the wealth of knowledge and experience of Christian business people and BAM practitioners, to provide strong foundations for the development of Chinese BAM efforts. These SAR (Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau) and overseas Chinese Christians and agencies will be instrumental in helping the churches and BAM practitioners inside China, especially in helping them to build a bridge with the outside world.

Chinese BAM challenges

Even though there are factors which could lead to success, the survey and the summary case report on BAM from China show examples of BAM from China that failed both financially and spiritually. These particular examples struggled for survival at the beginning stage of their business and closed after a short time, so short that they were not able to make a spiritual impact. Some of the key reasons for this are expressed in the SWOT analysis of BAM from China, they are summarized as follows:

Inadequate Training

Although the simple faith of dependence on God is a strength, the Chinese cultural trait of “learn by doing” was one of the weaknesses of the BAM practitioners. They did not see the importance of formal missions and/or business training and they did not take the time to learn the local language. Therefore unnecessary mistakes, failures, hurts and setbacks were experienced. It is important for the next wave of BAM practitioners from China learn from this, or they risk being branded another “Made in China” product that people avoid, instead of respect.

Fledgling Chinese mission movement

The Chinese churches are inexperienced in mission in general. SAR churches started mission programs only about 50 years ago and the mainland Chinese churches only about 20 years ago. The churches have had no Chinese predecessors to learn how to deal with problems related to missionary care and support. Just like fledging birds learning to fly or toddlers doing their baby walks, the China mission movement is still in the process of learning, and sometimes stumbling, as it develops.

Lack of partnership and external influences

The churches inside China have experienced many years of dangerous situations resulting in a lack of trust of the Government, social networks and even fellow Christians. Hence, Chinese BAM businesses mostly develop through kinship networks and the practitioners are reluctant to form other partnerships. This often results in only small businesses with limited transformational impact. This cultural paradigm may take a long time to shift. However, there is no time to waste, such a shift is vital to the long term health of the Chinese BAM movement.

On the other hand, the Western world is greatly influenced by postmodernism that they hesitate to impose their models of missions on the Chinese churches, but rather let them find and form their own model. This in itself could be a good culturally sensitive approach. However, with the Chinese being reluctant to trust and passive to partner, good Chinese BAM models may take much time to form.

Read full more in the BAM Global Think Tank Report

This post was adapted from original material published in the BAM Global Think Tank Regional Report on BAM In and From China.

1 – Nordstrom D. and Muir R. (2010). The Future of “Business as Mission“ in China. China Source

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BAM is a global phenomenon. God is on the move around the world, calling men and women from all continents to start businesses for His Kingdom purposes. To highlight just some of what He is doing, and emphasise that business as mission is a global movement, we will take a tour around the BAM world for the next six weeks or so. We hope you enjoy the trip!