The End of Mission as Business (Part II)

Shortly after returning from China in the early 1900s, Anglican missionary Roland Allen decried the dangers of what he perceived to be an excessively business-oriented approach to mission. “We cannot imagine any Christianity worthy of the name existing without the elaborate machinery which we have invented.”[i] He goes on to describe the resource-driven way the Anglican Church was conducting mission at the beginning of the 20th century: Our modern practice in founding a church is to begin by securing land and buildings in the place in which we wish to propagate the Gospel, to provide houses in which the missionary can live, and a church, or at least a room, fitted up with all the ornaments of a Western church, in which the missionary may conduct services, sometimes to open a school to which we supply the teachers. The larger the establishment and the more liberally it is supplied with every possible modern convenience, the better we think it suited to our purpose … since it is obviously impossible that the natives should supply all these things, even if they are anxious to receive our instruction, it naturally follows that we must supply them. Hence the opening of a new mission station has become primarily a financial operation, and we constantly hear our missionaries lament that they cannot open new stations where they are surely needed, because they have not the necessary funds to purchase and equip the barest missionary establishment.”[ii]

To this day, western Protestant missionary organizations are guided, if not directly led, by those who have cut their organizational leadership teeth in the for-profit corporate sector. With these leaders often comes a product-focused orientation which attempts to measure success in strictly material ways which defy a mission where spiritual and societal transformation are not only difficult to measure but more often than not, are outside the control of the missionary. The faithfulness and obedience of the missionary is rarely the measure of success, it is external results and often results as measured by budgets that end in the black, number of converts, or programs successfully executed. The material metrics used in the for-profit world, when applied uncritically to a Christian mission, can misdirect our energies and result in establishing institutions rather than advancing the work of God. “Christianity is not an institution,” Allen asserts, “but a principle of life.”[iii] As such, a mindset adopted from the for-profit business world becomes simplistic or even dangerous when applied to God’s mission.

“What is this for-profit business model to which the nonprofit sector has looked for salvation?” asks Bill Landsberg in an article in The International Journal for Not-For-Profit Law, “Generally, it has been a developing series of management models emphasizing quality (of products or services), efficiency (cost management), flexibility (assuring adaptation to change), innovation (striving for improvements in products and services), and above all a disciplined focus on the financial bottom line, the for-profit’s raison d’etre.”[iv]  This may sound innocent or even desirable for the Christian mission organizations in the ears of those of us steeped in a culture which worships at the altar of commercial success, but Landsberg, who does not approach his thesis from a Christian frame of reference, believes there are inherit liabilities in misapplying for-profit principles to non-profit agencies. Boards and senior staff focused on finances over mission, psychological distancing between upper management and program staff and morale issues on the field as money is emphasized over mission are just a few of the problems in Capitalistic approaches to non-profits; All this from a purely secular point of view.

The Capitalist enterprise, with its propensity to organize resources in such a way as to concentrate profits and power into the hands of a few, to drive wages to their lowest livable levels, and to promote a culture of consumption, presents additional pitfalls when applied to Christian mission including the temptation to value projects over people, to treat similar ministries as competitors, and a decision-making process driven by finances or donor opinion.

In my next entry I'll explore why this imperial missiological paradigm is unsustainable, especially for developing world churches and missions movements and begin to explore some alternatives.

[i] Allen, Roland (American Edition) 1962. Missionary Methods St. Paul’s or Ours? Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans Publishing p. 6

[ii] Allen, ibid p. 52

[iii] Allen, ibid p. 55

[iv] Landsberg, Bill E The Nonprofit Paradox: For-Profit Business Models in the Third Sector, The International Journal for Not-For-Profit Law, Volume 6, Issue 2, January 2004 (accessed April 1, 2011 at http://www.icnl.org/knowledge/ijnl/vol6iss2/special_7.htm)

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