The End of Mission as Business (Part III)

There are ways in which my own mission organization, InterVarsity, utilizes the for-profit business model as our primary paradigm. There has certainly been fruitfulness in areas as a result. But there have also been drawbacks – including the challenge for our ethnic communities to raise substantial levels of support, which we have not altogether overcome. The model has distinct liabilities.

Samuel Escobar is concerned with how Christian mission in the west takes its leadership and growth cues from business. This paradigm, along with its liabilities, is being passed along to the emerging non western missionary organizations and is often untenable in those contexts.

Some schools of church growth, for instance, regarded mission as a manageable task that could be completed by a certain date, using appropriate technology and following business principles of management by objectives … Imperial missiology carried on missionary work from a position of superiority: political, military, financial, technological. While ‘the cross and the sword’ symbolized it at the height of the Iberian mission in the sixteenth century, ‘commerce and Christianity’ symbolized it at the height of Protestant European mission in the nineteenth century. And in our lifetime ‘information technology and gospel’ has come to symbolize it. In the imperial missiology paradigm, Christianity is thus dependent on the prop and tutelage of another powerful partner. The paradigm shift that this understanding requires is still underway, especially among the evangelical missionary establishment.”[i]

This “imperial missiology paradigm” is unsustainable for majority world missions. Oscar Muriu, pastor at Nairobi Chapel, likens developing world mission agencies in Asia, Africa and Latin America adopting this western methodology to David trying on Saul’s armor. “I cannot walk with these,” David said, “for I am not used to them.” Rather, he sees the developing world organizations needing the simplicity of five smooth stones and a sling. He advocates the unencumbered approach of incarnational mission – poor, developing world missionaries moving into unchurched poor communities, working and living alongside them in much the same way that the early church experienced mission as they migrated and worked their way across the Roman Empire without complicated and costly structures.[ii]

Alternative Models

There are a number of alternative models to the “mission as business” approach used throughout Protestant missionary history. While I have been critical of Catholic mission and their alignment with political powers, the mendicant orders employed missionary structures and mindsets which Protestants have by and large missed in an attempt to steer clear of perceived doctrinal errors, they are today being rediscovered. In addition, the majority world missionaries are animating our missional imagination as they undertake mission in alternative forms and structures, partly due to the fact that they simply cannot afford to do mission the way the west has done mission. Finally, there is emerging in the western Evangelical church a younger generation of mission leaders willing to challenge old models and explore fresh expressions of mission. These forces are redefining the nature of Protestant mission, re-constructing the missionary community, and repositioning the missionary, more as fellow sojourner on a road to sanctification than as teacher, pastor or leader.  

Redefining the Nature of Mission: Catholic orders and some young Evangelicals reject the narrow Protestant missionary metric which is centered on church planting, church growth, and conversion. While health care, schools and relief work has been an historic part of Protestant mission work, the metric most often quoted by Evangelical mission agencies normally has something to do with counting the numbers of converts or the number of churches established by the mission. According to Jesus, professions of faith are not produced solely through the agency of human effort (John 3:5-10, 6:63). What’s more, church planting and church growth can easily be achieved through manipulation or control as witnessed in the phenomenon of “rice Christians.” Where proclamation is described, it is placed in terms of a generous, nearly uncritical, wide scattering of seed (parable of the soils) without attempting to control responsiveness. The Biblical commission was neither to make converts nor to establish churches, but rather it was a call to preach the good news of a new coming kingdom and to teach nations to follow the way of Jesus (Matt. 28:19-20). The all-encompassing mission of God is to see all things operating under the supreme benevolent authority of his Son (Col. 1, Eph. 1, Heb. 1) and to “reconcile all things by making peace through the blood of his cross,” (Col 1:20). It is this sweeping mission of personal, structural and environmental reconciliation and flourishing under Christ’s rule which God invites the church to participate.

Catholics have generally been more attuned to “mission as process” and inclusive of systems along with the environment while Protestants have largely embraced “mission as event” and centered their activity on the individual. The emerging generation of Evangelicals tends to possess an innate awareness of the holistic scope of God’s redemptive purposes. They are as hungry to see the reign of Christ operating in the lives of their unbelieving friends as they are to see it operating in the red-light districts of Asia or in the disappearing rain forests of the Amazon, and they do not see the need to choose one over the others.

The growth of business as mission has brought a fresh twist on the strange bedfellows of Church and Corporation. Instead of capitalistic business ventures co-opting the purposes of the church with its agendas and structures, the church co-opts the for-profit business world for her purposes of bringing human flourishing. Former sex workers in Kolkata can now be employed in an environment where health care, child care, savings plans and Bible studies are conducted in strange mix of church, factory, community development organization, andrecovery group.

Finally, the majority world church has brought back into the center of missionary practice the concept of itinerant, non-residential missionaries – wandering preachers just like Jesus, Paul and the early Franciscans. China and India are among the largest missionary sending nations in the world and the itinerant minister is the predominant missionary model for the tens of thousands of new missionaries being sent from Chinese and Indian churches.

“Indians, Brazilians, Koreans or Filipinos engaging in mission today bring a new set of questions about Christian mission, the way it will be supported, the lifestyle of the missionaries, the methods they will use, the mission fields to which they will go,”[iii] says Escobar. As these new missionaries define the central thrust of the Church beyond the traditional western Protestant concept of conversion and church planting, re-examining historic Catholic understandings of mission, they are imagining new ways to organize themselves, fund the mission and measure their progress.

In my next entry I will explore how new expressions of mission are redefining the missionary community and repositioning the missionary in ways that our current for-profit structures have limited.

[i] Escobar, Samuel 2003. The New Global Mission: The Gospel from Everywhere to Everyone. Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity Press p. 25-26

[ii] While Paul, Peter and Barnabas provide evidence that there may have been some kind of organization to itinerant bands of missionaries, they could hardly be said to model the elaborate, multi-layered, expensive mission structures common today in the west.

[iii] Escobar, 2003 p. 20-21


Looks like all the previous comments were lost in the transition to the new website.. my thoughts... You stated that “The all-encompassing mission of God is to see all things operating under the supreme benevolent authority of his Son (Col. 1, Eph. 1, Heb. 1) and to “reconcile all things by making peace through the blood of his cross,” (Col 1:20).” What you did not mention is that Jesus was very clear that the spiritual is more important than the material (Matt 16:26, 10:28). There is a strong Biblical mandate to partner with God in bringing people into fellowship with him through the sacrificial work of Christ on the Cross There seems to be a very discomforting similarity between what you advocate and the modern prosperity Gospel. (i.e., religion is about improving your economic lot in this life)

Hey Greg: You're right. The migration did not include comments, sadly, even though they contributed to the discussion. Thanks for adding your comment here (I am currently not notified when a comment gets posted so thanks for your patience). Certainly I would say there is a primacy to the ministry of calling people into right relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Perhaps in my zeal to suggest we need greater imagination in how we understand and execute our mission I did not treat that critical part of our partnership with the Trinity properly. However, I am not so sure I would quite state this as you did - that the spiritual is more important than the material. Maybe it's semantics and I really hate bickering about semantics, but there may be some difference in substance in how we both understand the call to be in the world but not of it. I'm not so sure our western separation of spiritual and material is biblical. It is probably more a Greek than a Hebrew understanding of reality. The great scene at the end of Revelation (21:24-26) has the kings of the earth bringing the splendor and glory of the nations into the new Jerusalem. And of course in your final statement suggesting I preach something akin to the prosperity gospel "religion is about improving your economic lot in this life" reminded me of the definition James' offers of religion: "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." James 1:27 There may certainly be a primacy to Jesus' work of reconciling humans to God. But primacy does not mean singularity. There is something beautiful and glorious about the cosmos he created which is important to him and to which he called the first humans to have dominion over. There is an undeniable priority in Scripture toward the poor and the oppressed. Jesus says the law and prophets is summed up in loving God and loving neighbor and neighbor is defined in terms of those in trouble or in need. And striving for justice and righteousness "on earth" feels very central to both God's character and to our knowing and partnering with him. Jer 9:24 "but let those who boast boast about this: that they understand and know me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,"

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


These blogs are the words of the writers and do not represent InterVarsity or Urbana. The same is true of any comments which may be posted about any blog entries. Submitted comments may or may not be posted within the blog, at the blogger's discretion.