Interview with BAM Author Neal Johnson

Neal — you have done all sorts of things in your life, including banking, business, diplomacy and practicing law internationally and in the US, but now you are an academic — what motivates you?

Clearly the thing that motivates me now and has for the past 20 years is my passion for Christ in the marketplace, especially business as mission.  Looking back on my earlier life, I would have given anything if someone had taken me aside and said ‘Neal, have you heard about business as mission? Do you know you can do both business and mission—you don’t have to choose between them—that God is actually calling you to do both?’  So many people of my generation didn’t find that out until they were already well into their careers or toward the end of them.

I have a passion for working with business students now because of the students who say ‘I love business, I love mission, but can I do both?’  I really want them to be able to understand at the start of their career that they can in fact do both and also to show them how they can do that.

Your book “Business as Mission” is a unique BAM book, what made you feel this particular book was needed?

There are a lot of great books on business as mission and many more on faith at work. They are excellent books, but there are not many that really address ‘how to do it’.  As I have presented the concept of business as mission at conferences, people get excited and ask ‘What do I do now? I love the concept, I want to do it, but how do I do it?’ This book attempts to address that.

I felt like I could write about the how-to’s of BAM out of the work that I have been doing and the experiences I have had. This book is really a culmination of my life experiences: trying to integrate my faith into my working life, being involved with marketplace ministry mentoring CEOs, working overseas in tentmaking missions, economic development programs and business as mission start-ups.

I felt I needed to add my book as another brick in the wall of business as mission, to move us a step forward in our understanding of what BAM is and how to do it. I really want to encourage people to start doing it more, as well as talking about it.

The sub-heading also gives us a big clue to your intentions for the book: a comprehensive guide to both theory and practice. You obviously set out to make this a practical book. How did you approach the how-to section?

Rather than write about best practices or specific methods, I wanted to look more at the stages of developing a BAM Company and how to go about that.

I start with some foundations, some prerequisites if you like, to help potential BAMers assess whether they are ready to venture into BAM. I then talk about the multiple bottom-lines of business as mission and how the Kingdom, financial, social and environmental goals of BAM need to integrate with one another.  From there we explore how to incorporate those goals into a thorough planning process and how to develop a strategic business as mission plan.

I also advocate for a functional analysis approach to the business, that is looking at each of the functions within the company such as HR or Marketing and asking, ‘What could I do in this department and the functions that it’s performing so that it has a greater kingdom impact?’

So this is very practical book, you are actually giving people tools?

Yes, absolutely.

From there I go back and I give people an overview of the step-by-step process to start a new business based on the BAM model. I have described the complete process for a cross-cultural start-up company because that is the most complex case. Of course people might come in at Step 4 if they have already done 1, 2 & 3.

It is really important that people who want to do BAM, whether as a start-up or as a revisioning of an existing company, be able to identify where they are on the journey of integrating their faith and making an impact through business.  To help them, I have developed  a continuum showing the movement toward greater and greater faith-integration and intentionality in the life of the CEO. Then there are parallel stages and steps to developing the BAM Company itself. Hopefully people can see where they are on the continuum and take the next step from there.

That is great, especially for people who are thinking about how to get involved in BAM. It’s a big jump, isn’t it, to go into a cross-cultural business start-up?  

That’s right! Of course, I have tried to challenge business people to step out. However, I want to make it clear that people need to find out where they are and then move ahead incrementally as God leads them, as they are comfortable, rather than trying to suddenly become a BAM Company overnight.

You talk about business as mission being part of a broader movement, why is that?

I call it the ‘Marketplace Mission Movement’ and I wanted to show how BAM is part of the larger picture of Christian missions to, within and through the marketplace. Oftentimes people talk about the faith-at-work movement or the BAM movement, but really they are part of a larger work that God is doing in and through the business community around the world.  Alongside business as mission, I see 3 other main streams or ‘camps’ as I describe them: tentmaking, marketplace ministries and enterprise development.

You set the stage for the rest of your book with a warning about the dangers of a lack of unity among these camps and their isolation from each other and the broader movement… even as you focus on the unique challenges and applications of BAM in practice. Do you see barriers beginning to break down between these different camps?

Yes, I think they are. I see the different camps coordinating and working together more and more.  At the same time, we shouldn’t lose the distinctives of each of these camps. I think that each one fills a unique niche in the broader movement and that different people are called to each one. One is not better than the other. They are all seeking to bring Christ into the marketplace, each in its own unique way.  They can, however, work together and learn from each other to maximize their collective Kingdom impact.  I happen to focus on BAM now, but I have worked in each of the 4 camps.

To illustrate how each camp can learn from other camps, there is an enormous amount of literature and lessons-learned in the marketplace ministries arena that BAM people need to pull on. Once you are established in a place as a BAM Company, you  must work out how to integrate your faith in the marketplace in that culture and context. Quite simply, business as mission is, in many ways, built on the foundation of marketplace ministry.

What is something you think that BAM practitioners can learn from the Marketplace Ministries Movement?  

I have really learned the value of peer groups and I talk about that in the book in terms of their importance for corporate sustainability and replication of the BAM enterprise. Marketplace ministries people work a lot in peer groups, whereas I have seen some BAM people working more as Lone Rangers.  I think that BAMers need to come together and start meeting on a regular basis among their peers to share experiences and best practices, offer encouragement, provide mentoring, talk about real business problems and collectively seek Christ-centered, Bible-based alternatives for dealing with those problems.

You have devoted the third part of the book to what you call ‘counting the cost’. What is that about and why did you feel it was important?

The third part is something that has come out of my own experience, from discovering how important it is to count the cost, as Jesus calls us to do. To me this is a major part of ‘how-to’ to do BAM. I can sit and talk to people all day long about how we might do it, but unless they know the cost involved in missionary service, whether it’s a traditional model or nontraditional, like BAM, there is a major piece missing.  I wanted to prepare people to be realistic.

I have broken this part down into several categories of threats to a BAM enterprise and I talk about the potential cost growing out of each of those threats.  I talk about the economic and political threats, as well as threats to business and family stability. It is tough enough to start any business, but BAMers often find themselves in hard places that are strongholds of the enemy, so I talk about spiritual issues – the importance of prayer, spiritual nourishment and family unity as absolutely essential issues to address.

That’s quite a sobering message at the end of the book, what do you say to encourage someone who feels like God is calling them to do business as mission?

I say don’t do it unless you have a real fire in your belly for it. This is not for the faint-hearted or for the short-termer. However, if you do have that fire and it’s what God is calling you to do and you go for it, then it’ll turn out to be absolutely one of the most incredibly growth-full, wonderful experiences of your life! I wouldn’t exchange anything for the years I’ve spent overseas for the Lord! Business as mission is an incredible thing to pursue. But be prepared! To be forewarned is to be forearmed.

What do you see as the next great need in the business as mission movement?

Apart from the need to move people from just talking about BAM to actually doing BAM… I see the need for a greater access to capital funding for BAM. I think that is one of the major areas that must be addressed next.

Dr. Neal Johnson, thank you for taking the time to talk about your book with us!

Neal Johnson Jo Plummer is Editor of the Business as Mission website, in conversation with Neal Johnson.  Dr. Neal Johnson is a professor of Business and Management at Hope International University in Fullerton, California. Since the mid-1990s he has been a frequent speaker and keynoter on “Business as Mission” (BAM) at professional, educational, church and mission conferences. He is the author of numerous articles and the book Business as Mission: A Comprehensive Guide to Theory and Practice.

Business as Mission: A Comprehensive Guide to Theory and Practice is available from IVP, and major book retailers.