The Emergence of the BAM Movement

by Steve Rundle

Not long ago the Wall Street Journal noted a significant change in the attitudes of university business students1. Compared to other incoming classes in recent memory, today’s young people are more interested in using their business skills to make a positive difference in society. Undoubtedly, many have been inspired by social enterprises like Tom’s Shoes, Kiva, and Chipotle’s Mexican Grill, as well as turned off by stories of corporate excess on Wall Street.

In Christian circles we are seeing something very similar. “Business as Mission,” as the name suggests, involves businesses that have a missionary impulse.  Neither motivated by money, nor embarrassed about making it, these enterprises and the entrepreneurs who start them defy easy classification. Like Social Enterprises they are hybrids in their purpose, and in many cases, their organizational structures. The main distinctive is that “Business as Mission” extends beyond addressing the physical needs of the poor (or the ethical treatment of pigs and chickens, as in Chipotle’s case), and includes a desire to make Christ known and see people freed from spiritual bondage.  While social entrepreneurs want to do good for their fellow man, so-called “BAMers” in addition, are motivated by a desire to serve God and draw people’s attention to Him. The Christ-centered nature of BAM is a significant difference that gives rise to different questions and requires a more interdisciplinary approach to the subject.

That said,  those who have followed the “Social Entrepreneurship” (SE) literature will notice many similarities. In fact, I often encourage people who are trying to gain a better understanding of the management and legal issues associated with starting a BAM business to consult the SE literature.

Before “BAM”

While the practice of Business as Mission in various forms can be traced throughout the church’s history2, as a field of study,  BAM is new and undeveloped. A church historian  notes that the words “business,” “commerce” or “industry” are rarely mentioned in the standard histories or theologies of Christian mission. One is similarly hard pressed to find any mention of “world mission” or “Great Commission” in the business literature, although discussions about faith in business have a long history.

Tentmaking: The Forerunner to BAM

Interest in the role of business in world mission first began to appear around the middle of the 20th Century under the heading of “Tentmaking.” Based on the missionary model of the Apostle Paul and his friends Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:3, Romans 16:3, 2 Timothy 4:19), mission experts began experimenting with the idea that one’s professional skills can be used as instruments to advance God’s kingdom, particularly in less-Christianized countries.

It is worth pausing here to reflect on Paul’s motivations and strategies, because they reveal some interesting and surprising facts that have important implications for the tentmaking debate. First, a strong case can be made that Paul’s mission work was, with a few exceptions, largely self-supported. However, in 1 Cor. 9 he makes the strongest case in the Bible in favor of donor support for those in spiritual ministry. Why did Paul work when he had every right to live off the financial support of others instead?

A careful study of his letters reveals the answer. For Paul, self-support was an integral part of his missionary strategy. Preaching the gospel for free added credibility to his message (2 Cor. 2:17, Titus 1:10-11) and served as a model for his converts to follow (2 Thess. 3:7-9, 1 Thess. 2:10-11, Eph. 4:28-32, 1 Cor. 4:12, 16, 1 Cor. 9:12-18). Remember that many of his followers were reformed idolaters, adulterers, thieves, drunkards, and extortionists (1 Cor. 6:9-11) who likely had no idea what a Godly lifestyle looked like. By modeling a disciplined and Christ-centered lifestyle, Paul helped transform not only their spiritual worldviews, but their economic and social conditions as well.

Tentmaking Pioneered

Inspired by Paul’s model, modern tentmaking pioneers like Ruth Seimens, J. Christy Wilson and Ken Crowell set out in the mid-20th Century to demonstrate that the model works today; that one’s professional training and experience can in fact be assets for world mission rather than liabilities. (Admittedly all three were reluctant pioneers because their initial plans were to serve as traditional missionaries, but for various reasons they found those avenues to be closed.) However, the “sacred-secular dichotomy” was deeply entrenched in the church, and tentmaking was viewed with great suspicion. The concerns tended to revolve around several key issues:

  1. Time management, and specifically whether tentmakers were disadvantaged because the time they spent at work meant less time for “doing ministry;”
  2. Sources of income, and specifically whether it was better for tentmakers to be self-supported or donor-supported; and
  3. Accountability, that is, whether self-supported tentmakers represented a new breed of “lone wolf missionaries” who did not want to submit to the authority of a sending church or missionary sending agency.

On the issues of time management and income, Siemens, Wilson and Crowell were in basic agreement that tentmaking was by definition a self-supporting missions model, and that there is no necessary tradeoff between work and ministry. It is important to note, however, that unlike the more recent “Faith and Work” literature, the word “ministry” was understood to mean evangelism. In other words, work was consistent with ministry only in the sense that it created opportunities for evangelism. With the exception of Ginter3, there were few tentmaking advocates who were emphasizing the God-pleasing nature of the work itself, or otherwise promoting a broader definition of ministry or mission.

Blurring Distinctions

By the late 1980s, tentmaking was becoming quite trendy in evangelical missions circles, a trend that was endorsed by mission statesman Tetsunao (Ted) Yamamori’s influential book God’s New Envoys in 1987, and the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization’s first-ever statement on tentmaking in 1989.4 The Lausanne statement affirmed the role Christian lay people could play in world missions, and gave local churches the responsibility for recruiting and equipping people to be cross-cultural witnesses among unreached people groups.

It is impossible to pinpoint the exact date or cause, but by this time many missionaries with little or no work experience outside of a church were being encouraged to consider tentmaking as a way to gain entry into countries that were otherwise closed to missionaries. New mission agencies began springing up that were specifically focused on getting missionaries into these “creative access countries.” This new generation of tentmaker was encouraged to raise donor support (to create a system of accountability and prayer support) and find tentmaking “platforms” that would not require too much time and thus distract them from their ministry goals. For the average Christian, there was no longer much of a difference between a tentmaker and a donor-supported missionary, except that missionaries operated openly in their host country, and tentmakers had to be more discreet about their true purpose for being in the country.  Despite some efforts to clarify5, and other attempts to defend a more biblical perspective on tentmaking, confusion over the definition and purpose of tentmaking continued to grow.

The Emergence of BAM

As far as I am aware, the term “Business as Mission” first began to appear in the late 1990s at a pair of conferences focusing on the redemptive potential of Christian-managed businesses in Central Asia. BAM was similar to early definitions of tentmaking in that it was self-supporting and laity-driven, but it was also different because of its exclusive focus on business, and its embrace of a more holistic understanding of mission. Indeed, in a presentation given at those conferences, Mark Markiewicz6 emphasized the role businesses can play in promoting the social and economic transformation of a nation, and affirmed the missional legitimacy of business on those grounds alone.

Several theologians and missiologists provided important refinements of this point. Among missiologists, Myers and Kirk7made strong biblical cases in support of a broader understanding of mission – one that sees the purpose of the church as going beyond mere evangelism, and including all manner of personal and social reconciliation. Among theologians, Sherman and Hendricks, Novak and Stevens8, among others, defended the intrinsic value of work and confronted the so-called “sacred-secular dichotomy” as it pertains to work, ministry and business. According to these theologians, to the extent that our “secular” work and our businesses contribute to the common good, our work is “missional” and “sacred,” and pleasing to God. By encouraging lay people to leave the marketplace to go into a more narrowly defined “ministry,” the church actually undermines its global impact.

A Life of Its Own

Encouraged by the affirmation of this message, the idea of “Business as Mission” struck a chord with Christian business professionals and the term took on a life of its own.  By 2004 the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization identified BAM as an important new development in world mission and invited about 70 people from around the world to discuss this matter at its conference in Pattaya, Thailand. The official document that was subsequently produced, the Lausanne Occasional Paper on Business as Mission states plainly that “Business is a mission, a calling, a ministry in its own right.” It goes on to say that “Ultimately churches, mission agencies and kingdom businesses have the same purpose: to bring glory to God’s name among all nations.”

The Lausanne meeting was made up of a geographically and ethnically diverse group of business and mission scholars, business professionals, missionaries, and pastors. As might be expected for such a diverse group, there were several areas of disagreement, even at the end, which are discussed in more detail elsewhere9. For example, do businesses that are started by (nonprofit) mission agencies and sustained with the help of donor subsidized labor or capital qualify as “real businesses?”10  If there are no concrete evangelism and church planting goals, can it still be considered BAM?  Like their secular counterparts, Christian-led hybrid organizations have much to learn about effectively managing and governing these enterprises.

The final document that was produced was not intended to resolve every question, and is ambiguous enough in these areas as to allow for a variety of interpretations. That said, a survey of other definitions seems to reinforce many key ideas that are found in the Lausanne statement. In fact, emphases on BAM as cross-cultural, intentional, and holistic witness within an authentic, for-profit business context can be found in most definitions of BAM or BAM practitioners. The exceptions, while few in number, come in two extremes. At one end are those who maintain that, to the extent that they are fulfilling their calling, all Christians in business are doing BAM, regardless of their location, intentions or impact.  At the other extreme are those that, like one mission agency’s recent advertisement for a BAM seminar, define BAM as “missions projects with business providing cover for the missionary.”

Emerging Consensus

These exceptions notwithstanding, it appears that a consensus is emerging on the definition of BAM, one that emphasizes several basic points. Specifically, BAM is:

  • Self-funded (hence the need for profitability);
  • Laity-driven (hence the frequent reminders about “calling” and the doctrine of the “Priesthood of all Believers”);
  • Intentional (which excludes those who are not thinking strategically about their missional impact);
  • Holistic (that is, focused on the multiple “bottom lines” of economic, social and spiritual outcomes); and
  • Cross-cultural (and specifically concerned about the world’s poorest and least-Christianized peoples, although depressed urban settings in the developed world may also qualify).

It is important to note, however, that nothing in this list necessarily excludes businesses that are owned by nonprofit organizations. I will confess to being much more of a purist about this issue in the past. I believed then, and still believe now, that the newest and most interesting development in this area is that “regular” Christians in business are being forced to think globally in terms of their production processes, customers and supply chains. It is through these market pressures that God is raising up a new kind of missionary for a new generation. By comparison, nonprofit-funded missionaries are not new at all, and even the operation of business by missionaries is not entirely new.

My views on this matter have been evolving, however, in large part because I do not believe it is a “hill worth dying on.” The social entrepreneurship literature has settled this matter long ago by accepting that different circumstances can call for different organizational structures. Gregory Dees11, who is one of the most influential Social Entrepreneurship scholars, makes this point with the following diagram. It illustrates social entrepreneurship as a continuum between “pure charity” and “pure business.”

Social Entrepreneurship Spectrum
social enterprise specturm
The “Social Enterprise Spectrum”: Gregory Dees

God can work through either a charity or a business, or a hybrid organization that is a combination of both. The task of Christian business scholars is to help identify the strengths and weaknesses of each approach, and to begin equipping the next generation of missionary.

Work still to be done

Thus far most of the scholarly discussion about BAM has focused on theological questions related to the compatibility of business and mission, or the compatibility of work and ministry more generally.12

In my view, those questions have been largely settled, and the value of additional scholarship in that area is probably small. My plea to Christian business scholars is to begin looking at the strategic and operations side of BAM, where there has been much less work done. For example:

Are there predictable advantages or disadvantages to different organizational forms for BAM businesses?

  • What are some of the incentives and constraints that might shape the business strategies or the behavior of a BAM practitioner?
  • Can they be condensed into a list of best practices?
  • Are those best practices a function of one’s cultural or geographical context, and if so, how?
  • Do the best practices vary depending on the organizational form of the enterprise?
  • How can spiritual outcomes be better defined and measured?
  • How can practitioners be better trained and supported?
  • What are the legal and ethical challenges facing Christians who “bring their faith to work”?
  • How can Christian business scholars do a better job of equipping people for marketplace ministry both at home and abroad?

These questions represent only the “tip of the iceberg”. Serious study in this area has been lagging. Business as Mission has the potential of being a major force for good in the neediest parts of the world, but there is much work to be done in helping the next generation understand what practices, attitudes, structures and conditions help make BAM most effective.


Dr. Steve Rundle is Professor of Economics at the Crowell School of Business, and Director of the Center for the Integration of Business and Faith at Biola University. He is also coauthor of Great Commission Companies: The Emerging Role of Business in Missions, and editor of Economic Justice in a Flat World: Christian Perspectives on Globalization. 

Adapted from the paper “Business as Mission” Hybrids: A Review and Research Agenda, first published in Journal of Biblical Integration in Business, Volume 15. Republished in abbreviated form with kind permission.

1 Middleton, D. (2009, October 15). MBAs Seek Social Change. Wall Street Journal, p. B7

2 See, for example, Danker, W. (1971). Profit for the Lord. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co. or Owens, H. (2006). Nestorian Merchant Missionaries and Today’s Unreached People Groups. In T. Steffen & M. Barnett (Eds), Business as Mission: From Impoverished to Empowered (pp.133-146). Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.

3 Ginter, G. (1998). Overcoming Resistance Through Tentmaking. In J. D. Woodberry (Ed.), Reaching the Resistant: Barriers and Bridges for Mission (pp. 209 – 218). EMS Series #6. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.

4 The Lausanne Tentmaking Statement can be found at

5 Lai, P. (2005). Tentmaking: Business as Mission. Colorado Springs, CO: Authentic Media.

6 Markiewicz, M. (1999). Business as Mission: How Two Grocers Changed the Course of a Nation. Paper presented at the Central Asia Business Consultation.

7 Myers, B. (1999). Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books and Kirk, A. (2000). What is Mission? Theological Explorations. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

8 Sherman, D. & Hendricks, W. (1987). Your Work Matters to God. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress; Novak, M. (1996). Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life. New York: The Free Press; Stevens, R. P. (1999). The Other Six Days: Vocation, Work, and Ministry in Biblical Perspective. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co.

9 Johnson, C. N. & Rundle, S. (2006.) The Distinctives and Challenges of Business as Mission. In T. Steffen & M. Barnett (Eds), Business as Mission: From Impoverished to Empowered (pp. 19-36). Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.

10 The alternative being “fake businesses” run by “undercover missionaries.”

11 Dees, J. G. (1998). Enterprising Nonprofits. Harvard Business Review, 76(1), 54-67.

12 See Part 1 of Johnson (2009) for a fairly comprehensive review of this very large field of theological literature. In addition are two excellent, recent contributions by Van Duzer, J. (2010). Why Business Matters to God (And What Still Needs to Be Fixed). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic; and Wong, S. R. (2011). Business for the Common Good: A Christian Vision for the Marketplace. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.