I recently volunteered in the exhibit hall at a Christian conference. Standing at the booth of a relief and development organization, I frequently engaged in conversation with a woman at the booth next to us. She was a representative of a traditional mission department for an evangelical denomination. Our exchange about innovation was not encouraging.
“I have really become annoyed with the Business As Mission people,” she said. “I talk to prospective missionaries who say they want to go into missions as businesspeople. When I ask them why, they inevitably get around to the idea that it will cover their expenses. I’m sorry, but making money, liking business, or covering expenses is not a good enough reason. If that’s what they’re after, they shouldn’t try to be missionaries.”
I suggested she find out more about Business As Mission, saying that the movement mobilizes a different crowd by allowing for innovation. But her mind was made up. For this mission agency, closed doors would continue to characterize the response to people whose abilities and passions were administrative rather than pastoral.
A Tale of Two Brothers
I should have told her the following mostly-true story about two brothers—one, whose mission dreams were never realized, the other, whose mission effectiveness was never validated.
Ron and Billy grew up on the “right” side of the tracks in the town of Midland, Mississippi (USA). Their home—a broad-porched, Magnolia-shaded thoroughfare for mentors and mentees in ministry—was located on the most visible corner of Bible Boulevard. In addition to teaching philosophy and science and serving as dean of the Christian college just a few blocks away, their father had helped to build many of the campus buildings and cultivated a garden in his yard from which grapes, melons, and vegetables would supply the salaries of faculty and pastors during the waning years of the Great Depression.
Their mother taught music at the college, played the piano for the church and the district, and served as president of the state chapter of the Women’s Missionary Society. On mornings too numerous to count, the two boys awoke in their bedrooms to the scent of breakfast cooked by their father (though he had already begun his brisk walk to campus) and to the sound of piano instruction already in progress in the living room.
As they grew, Ron and Billy had important decisions to make. What would they do with their lives? Would they serve the Lord, as their parents hoped? If so, how? Having answered and avoided altar calls and revival services by the dozen, they knew that a sure way to please God would be to become pastors or missionaries (though the boys felt neither a call nor an interest in those areas). Time marched on, and when at around age twenty they finally had to decide, Ron chose business and Billy chose engineering.
Years later, after they had started families of their own and had become successful in their careers, it was clear to everyone on Bible Boulevard that they had not gone into “the ministry.”
Although more of a reserved thinker than an easy conversationalist, Ron had advanced through the management ranks on the business end of an automobile manufacturer and had consistently (though quietly) made his faith known among his co-workers.
He had served on the administrative boards of his church and of the Christian college where his parents had devoted their lives. Because of his business and management acumen, individuals and organizations frequently sought his advice. But when Ron reached his mid-fifties, he began to wonder whether he had done all he could in witnessing to others and in serving the Lord.
One day, after hearing yet another pulpit proclamation equating devotion and holiness with professional ministry, Ron decided to take a radical step: he quit the highly administrative job for which he had honed his skills for thirty years (and which he enjoyed immensely) and announced he was embarking on the life of a full-time missionary. His destination was Mongolia, and his task (after raising support and attending language classes) was one-on-one evangelism.
His family, including Billy, was surprised at his decision. His wife, although wanting to support her husband, felt bewildered; she had no desire to go to the next county, much less overseas. And she felt that God had gifted Ron in administration, not evangelism. But Ron’s desire to be obedient—to “go all the way for the Lord”—was unwavering.
His first term turned out to be his only term. He completed it faithfully and returned to the U.S. He was a hero on Bible Boulevard. His marriage had survived the experience, and he had generally enjoyed the adventure. But he felt frustrated at his own limitations in sharing his faith freely with the Mongolian people. He wondered whether other missionaries felt such disillusionment.
Despite the awe-struck gratitude he received from the people of Midland, he felt guilty, for he had returned home with scant few salvation stories to report. The depth of his commitment and the enormity of his sacrifice had not made him effective as an evangelist. “It’s hard soil over there,” fellow missionaries would reassure him (and one another). “The Holy Spirit just didn’t seem to be moving,” others said.
Still, he found himself wrestling with the same question that had prompted him to go overseas in the first place: Am I doing all I can for the work of the Lord?
Like Ron, Billy received promotions and accolades for the expertise he developed in his career. Like Ron, he served as a committed and actively contributing member of his local church. But unlike Ron, Billy died suddenly in his mid-fifties. He never became a pastor or an overseas missionary; however, at his funeral the people of Bible Boulevard and the masses from Midland gathered to marvel at a mystery.
In the line that stretched down the halls, through the lobby, and into the parking lot of the funeral home, mourners told one another about how they had been influenced most for Christ not by a professional minister but by an industrial engineer. As second in command, Billy had raised the company to the highest industry standards of quality and integrity, and he had modeled and proclaimed the life-giving message of Christ to co-workers, clients, and neighbors. Billy’s family asked that donations (instead of funeral flowers) be sent to the college, so that a scholarship could fund Christian students wanting to serve and witness through excellence in business.
In an Ideal World…
Ron and Billy would have engaged enthusiastically in the approaches to kingdom work presented in David Garrison’s Church Planting Movements1 and in Steve Rundle and Tom Steffen’s Great Commission Companies2. Both books would have fit paradigms they already knew, and both would have excited them about serving the Lord through abilities and interests they had been perfecting for their entire adult lives.
Ron would have chosen the church-planting approach advocated by Garrison. He would have been energized by the promises of big, quick results. Recalling his sense of frustration as an evangelist in Mongolia, Ron (the introvert) could easily imagine applying his strategic and administrative mind to the role of strategy coordinator—a role in which planning, facilitating, and trouble-shooting were needed more than giftedness in one-on-one evangelism.
In a short span of time and without deep relationships, Ron doubted his success at leading many to Christ. But as strategy coordinator, Ron knew that he could quickly and efficiently pack a powerful punch by steering successful, fruit-bearing, task-oriented, working relationships with a handful of fellow believers. He had known throughout his career no greater thrill than looking at the big picture and then mobilizing staff to accomplish the goals in their own ways.
“If God could use me to do that with the gospel among unreached people,” Ron thought, “I could really make a difference!” And Bible Boulevard would surely approve, since Ron would be doing this work as a bona fide missionary.
Billy, on the other hand, would have chosen the longer-term approach of Rundle and Steffen. He loved engineering and knew the textile and heavy construction industries inside and out. He knew how to run such companies. He did not feel worthy of the lofty title of missionary and would have felt embarrassed by all the attention from Bible Boulevard.
But sharing Christ was his deepest passion—what his work in industry, his role as a father, and his volunteerism at church were all about. To think that he could continue in his profit-seeking, quality-watching, innovating desk job and also join hand-in-hand with evangelistic, church-planting missionaries would have surpassed his wildest dreams of serving the Lord.
In the home in which Ron and Billy grew up, ministry was holistic, and it was a family affair. In an ideal world, Ron and Billy would have cooperated to identify an unreached people group in a place where conditions were favorable for industry and for a church-planting movement. They would have joined forces synergistically to form an economically sound, missionally active Great Commission company to bless the whole community, nation, or region.
Like their parents, they would have cooperated and used their unique abilities and passions to reach and mobilize unique groups of people for God’s ultimate purposes.
Alas, It Is Not an Ideal World…
But, alas, they lived not in an ideal world, but in one small dot on the map of Mississippi. And in that world, as soon as sympathetic supporters in Midland would find out that dear Ron was working with worldly Billy, whose aim was to turn a profit, the whole scheme would sound suspect, and interest and prayer would ebb away.
“We should have known it was too good to be true,” a naysayer would say. “Ron’s low support goal alone should have tipped us off.”
”Yes—plus the fact that he was planning to shift off all responsibility to the nationals instead of doing it himself,” another would grumble indignantly. “That is certainly not the way he was raised.”
“His hard-working parents would not have approved, that’s for sure.”
“And what about Billy, for heaven’s sake? Whoever heard of raising venture capital for ministry?”
For “the ministry,” as defined on Bible Boulevard, neither Ron nor Billy was a good fit. To discover this truth, Ron had to quit his job, travel around the world, jeopardize his marriage, raise thousands of dollars, and face discouragement. And even after all that, he never found his stride. Billy, not despairing over his incompatibility with traditional notions of ministry, thrived as a witnessing Christian in business, but received neither affirmation nor prayer support for his efforts.
The harvest is plentiful. But the workers? They may be sitting in shareholder meetings or inspecting an industrial production line. They will increasingly look a bit different than they did a generation ago. May the mission and church-planting worlds continue to innovate—and to affirm the diversity of abilities that contribute to success.
1. Garrison, David. 2004. Church Planting Movements: How God Is Redeeming a Lost World. Arkadelphia, Ark.: WIGTake Resources.
2. Rundle, Steve and Tom Steffen. 2003. Great Commission Companies: The Emerging Role of Business in Missions. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.