Life Encounters Life: The Integration of Business and Mission

We interviewed a ‘practitioner of integration’ who over the last 16 years has tightly integrated business and mission together among an unreached people group in Asia.

Can you tell us a bit about how and why you got started with business as mission?

We were trained and sent out into the mission field with the vision of bringing the gospel for the first time to a Muslim people group. The idea of doing business was really birthed out of our experiences during a research trip into the area. The people we are working amongst are relatively poor, uneducated and in a remote area. Few venture down the maze of narrow streets which make up their communities. Those who do, either belong from birth, have family, or have come to do business. Although the initial response of the community towards visitors is always hospitality, underneath the question is brewing, “Who are the newcomers and why have they come?” This was really brought home to us after we spent 7 days in a Police jail on our research trip being questioned about why we were there! Although we started with a more traditional missions and church planting model in mind, we soon realised that there was only one option for a genuine, respectable role in the community and that was to do business.

That was 16 years ago and we have been running a manufacturing and export business in that first city since then, with four other small businesses having been multiplied into other neighbouring towns and cities. We chose manufacturing because the people were traditionally skilled in craft-making and thus production was a business that made sense to them and fit into the local context well.

What ways have you seen business and mission being integrated in your business experience?

It’s all about relationship. If mission means getting unbelievers together with believers so that the Gospel can be shared and experienced, then relationship is a prerequisite of mission. I can have a suitcase full of ‘how to reach a Muslim’ resources, but unless I have the opportunity to sit across the table and develop a meaningful relationship, they will be irrelevant. As we work together every day, life encounters life. In my job, at my business, that is where my real relationships are. We are working alongside each other, encountering problems, getting things done – it’s real life together.

The motto on our production floor is, ‘First we show them around the Kingdom, then we introduce them to the King’. In absolutely everything we do, we want to show what the Kingdom of God is like. That is expressed as we create good, secure jobs, the way we treat our employees, the way we deal with setbacks, how we deal with suppliers, how we act every day. We try to show the people around us what grace looks like, what forgiveness looks like, and how we love them. Light starts to spill out as we work alongside each other. The Kingdom is transcendent and irresistible when people are given the opportunity to experience it in a way they understand.

We have found that we must push those circles of mission and business closer and closer together because then the ‘mission’ is happening within and from the everyday life of the business. Transformation is happening – in the spiritual, but also in the social and economic life of the community. Integration means that when I go to work everyday, I go to my mission field. This does not happen by accident but is the result of a great deal of intentionality.

How does the goal of business and mission integration play out in your business team?

We have a core group of people with a common missional purpose, and they are all involved in the business. Our ministry plan and our business plan are laid on top of one another to create the greatest amount of synergy and minimize areas which the business does not serve the mission and the mission does not serve the business. Simple things such as where you put your office may impact your ability to keep in touch with your people. Every decision is evaluated by how it serves both bottom lines.

Our perspective on how the team functions is also affected by this level of integration. It’s the leader’s job to create the opportunities where people can serve in the business and fulfill their call under God. Integration is not just for the receivers of the gospel, it is also a strategy for those who are sharing it. Each team member must feel that their job and mission are integrated. Fulfillment of calling and business success is a powerful combination that creates strong, long-standing teams. Without tight integration this is almost impossible to achieve. Again we push those circles together, there aren’t enough hours in the day for someone to merely do their job in the business and then try to fulfill their call or ministry goals outside the business context.

What are some of the principles or keys you have learned along the way that have helped you be more integrated?

Well we have to set goals in all areas – for commercial and spiritual and social impact and whatever other goals we might have. Business is a massive discipline, so is mission. We are trying to do great business practice and great mission practice and then push them together. It has been a steep learning curve for us, we didn’t have a clue when we started!

For our company, our objectives at the very broadest level are that we have to make money and that we have to reach the lost. We measure our success by the ability to hit those metrics. Those objectives lead us to set particular goals around different areas we want to see impact or transformation and then to evaluate them using various measures.

You have to know what your real goals are in order to understand what to focus on and measure. For instance, for us, we make things, but making things is not our business. We do make products to a high quality, for real customers, but our business is ultimately creating an environment where people can experience the Kingdom of God. This is hugely important because many people plan their business from a product or service-centric approach. Our companies create arenas where God can be experienced. We can get passionate about any business when this is the perspective.

Alongside these, three principles stand out:

Meet your people every day
It has to be a business that brings you into contact with people. I think this really is the most important thing. If we view the challenge of missions as “how to get a believer together with an unbeliever” then this has to be absolutely central to any BAM model. Access to people is not the end goal, but it means we are able to show the Kingdom and share the King with people. If a business opportunity or role comes up that doesn’t help us be with our people, then we don’t pursue it. It’s surprising how simple, yet easy to miss this can be.

Be respected
That sounds simple, but it’s not so easy in practice! Our lives must be credible to people. Our business must be respectable. Think about what you can do that will make sense to people, what roles or actions will bring understanding and respect.

Express the Kingdom
We are showing people around the Kingdom, but we also need a safe place where a verbal expression of the gospel can happen. It’s got to be part of what you do. Providing a way for that may change your business model. We’ve changed the way we do production so that clusters of women can do certain jobs in groups in their homes. This is good for productivity, but also for opportunities to share biblical ideas, our stories, and Jesus in countless moments where our Christian staff are sitting with the women and children. This happens in other contexts with the men as well.

Can you share some of the impact or fruit you have been seeing from your life in business over the years?

Opportunities to show, speak, pray and dispense gospel truth happen to varying degrees everyday. The goal is to take every natural life event and turn it to the supernatural. One employee was no longer coming to work due to kidney stones, a common problem where we are. We asked if we could come to his house to pray. He agreed and two of us went. The family of ten, though somewhat uncertain, gathered around eager to see what would happen. We explained how we were nothing but that Jesus heals. We all prayed together and watched as the pain disappeared and he returned to work the next day. From that day on the mother of the house told everyone around that “those people pray, if you want to be healed go to them”.

Another instance was a family who had sent their son away to religious school. If he could memorize their holy book, he and his entire family would earn an eternity of peace. After months of talking and sharing with them, we told them, “You gave your son for your salvation, but there has already been a son who came for you. The sacrifice is done.” This family received the message, brought their son home and have been followers of Christ ever since.

What kind of challenges have you encountered as you have pushed mission and business together, and how have you overcome them?

Well business can be messy. People sometimes say, “Don’t do business because it will produce tensions and don’t get involved with money because it will be difficult.” But we have found these are the scenarios in which the gospel can shine through the brightest. I had a supplier who was supposed to deliver goods, but was late. I had to cut the payment because he was late, and after a long conversation about it, he told me he was going to take me to court. After two weeks he comes back and says, “What are we going to do?” I said, “I thought you were taking me to court, where’s the lawyer?” He said, “Well I went to the court and they all told me that you wouldn’t cheat me, so they sent me away.” That place of respectability that we can have in business can be a powerful place to convey the message of the gospel! Tensions and problems that arise in the normal course of doing business are not to be avoided, but embraced because that is where we show what the Kingdom of God is like.

Sometimes we have tough business decisions to make or difficult situations – and that is where having clear purpose and values, along with specific goals is helpful. Plus it’s good to have things like operational policies and contracts and so on. All of these things are good and essential practice, sort of ‘Business 101’. However, lives being transformed is what we want people to see. This is ‘Fruits of the Spirit 101’, without which the Kingdom culture will never shine through. It is one thing to go out for coffee with someone and be a nice Christian. But can we show the Kingdom in the tough times every day in business? That is truly when the message goes out. Jesus told us it is easy to love our friends, but can we also love our enemies? It’s the same concept. What shows up when the heat is on? I do want to be known as a good business man, however I want to be known more as a businessman who has been transformed by God from the inside.

Have you encountered any tensions in your team as you have tried to integrate mission and business together?

There are sometimes internal tensions that arise and we have also been learning to deal with those. There can be tensions when ‘mission organisation culture’ meets a ‘business culture’. That has happened in our situation with our team. In the business we have to have operational norms, work hours, job descriptions, and so on. In the end someone needs to say, “This is what your day is going to look like.” That can be alien to some people from a traditional missionary background.

We have dealt with with this by really trying to make sure that the call that a person has on their life from God is synergistic with our business activities. Ideally a person’s daily routine will be determined at the intersection of business, mission and team: what does the business operation need, how is mission integrated into the business day, and how does that person’s role fit into whole team? If it’s not integrated in that way that person will start feeling some serious tensions around time management.

Some of the criticisms of BAM models that get so deeply integrated is that it puts a lot of power in the hands of the team leader. To help manage that problem we have set up accountability structures, especially for me as the boss and leader. We have people that are able to come in and look into our books, talk to our team, make sure I am not abusing my position. The team know that they can go to a particular person if they have concerns and I am accountable to my team and to that person for how I lead.

 Jo Plummer in conversation with a BAM practitioner in Asia.

 Jo Plummer is the Co-Chair of the BAM Global Think Tank and co-editor the Lausanne Occasional Paper on Business as Mission. She has been developing resources for BAM since 2001 and currently serves as Editor of the Business as Mission website.