June 21, 2024

A review of “Missions Disrupted” – Part 2

missional professionals

In my previous blog post, I began a review of Larry Sharp’s new book, Missions Disrupted: From Professional Missionaries to Missional Professionals. I noted that while I agree with much of what the book is saying about missions, I do have a few questions and cautions. In this post, I will continue to explain my concerns.

Negative view of church planting

I am mystified by Sharp’s apparent dislike of church planting.

However, if one looks at mission as being God’s endeavor, we will see ourselves as going with him into the world. It is first and foremost his work to make disciples, rather than the ecclesiastical framework of today’s missionary efforts, which focus on getting people into the church and on church planting, the mantra of nearly every missionary agency today. From the viewpoint of the rest of the world, this is proselytism and conversion and hardly what the term missio Dei has in mind.

Missions Disrupted, pp. 27-28.

As in the case of the “missionary” terminology, maybe Sharp is more concerned with the words we use than with the work of starting new churches.

Long-time mission agency leader and president of Peace Catalyst International, Rick Love, prefers to use the term “gospel planting” as more biblically accurate. He asserts that nowhere does the New Testament imply that we are to plant a church. He suggests that the term “church planting” implies that we bring the church from the outside.

Missions Disrupted, p. 34.

Nevertheless, in one of many examples of BAM in the center of the book, he notes that church planting occurred as a result of the business enterprise. But he is quick to clarify that this did not happen because the practitioners had a “church planting strategy”.1 (p. 106).

What is wrong with having a strategy for church planting?

But some of the BAM stories clearly evidence a church planting strategy. Here is one example.

Fast-forward nearly five decades and imagine one of the most respected and unique BAM companies in the world: Asia Engineering and Manufacturing (AEM). AEM fits all the necessary characteristics of a BAM company: they strive to operate a profitable business, while intentionally operating in way that seeks to support and participate in creating disciples and planting churches. Randy boils this down succinctly to two components: profitability and making followers of Jesus with a focus on starting Bible studies and churches.

Sharp, Larry W.. Missions Disrupted: From Professional Missionaries to Missional Professionals (p. 156). Hendrickson Publishers. Kindle Edition.

I admit that I do not understand Sharp’s objection to having a church planting strategy. Sharp has not explained why he believes we should proclaim the Gospel without any emphasis or plan to establish communities of faith for the new disciples of Christ. Yes, it is difficult for missional professionals to start and nurture new churches on their own. They don’t have the time to do so because most of their time is given to launching and growing their businesses. But that does mean that intentional church planting is wrong-headed. It just means that missional professionals need to work collaboratively with professional missionaries.

The importance of creating jobs

Sharp puts a very high value on job creation. This is one of the criteria for successful BAM enterprises. Creating jobs meets a real need of people and therefore is an expression of our love for them. Note the following statements.

Today, loving our neighbors may mean creating jobs for them, which can be seen as the modern equivalent of feeding the five thousand or healing lepers.

Missions Disrupted, p. 57.

Matthew suggests that the kingdom of God is “not yet” (heaven) but also “here and now.” As we create jobs and wealth, we are advancing the kingdom of God, which essentially is obedience to the Second Commandment (i.e., to love our neighbors).

Missions Disrupted, p. 86.

I have no argument with the importance of finding a good job. I applaud the work of those BAM endeavors that are able to do so. But at times, Sharp seems to overstate his case. Creating jobs almost seems to become the ultimate good news. Here is one example of an overstatement.

Business is the only human institution that actually creates wealth. Education, the church, and government all consume wealth. Business creates it!

Missions Disrupted, p. 88.

Do only businesses create wealth?

Jesus followers should be quick to note that this is true only if we limit wealth to treasure on earth. But Jesus made it clear that true wealth is not counted in dollars (Matt. 19:21, Rev. 3:17-18).

The book makes frequent references (at least 5) to Deuteronomy 8:18:

But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.

Deuteronomy 8:18

I would agree that making a profit is not in itself wrong or evil. However, this particular verse is a promise to the nation of Israel under the Mosaic Covenant. If this verse is the primary biblical rationale for profit within BAM enterprises, then the rationale is not particularly strong.

Sharp mentions the possibility of BAM practitioners who are partially donor-supported.2 Page 156-158. But he quickly dismisses that as a viable option, and argues that only profitable, self-sustaining businesses are true Business as Mission ventures. But what about those who choose to work among the most unreached and/or the poorest segments of society? In order to meet the criteria of profitability, will these cross-cultural workers need to relocate to places where the consumer base is more economically viable? If we measure profitability by whether the business can pay for the living costs of Westerners who want to return occasionally to their home countries and retire there, then ministry to many of the unreached peoples of this world will not be accessible to BAM practitioners. That is, not unless part of their financial support comes from donors. I wish Sharp had spent more time talking about the option of donor-supported BAM.

Discipling employees

A further question I have for Sharp is how the employer-employee relationship impacts the legitimacy of the disciple-making process. Most of the illustrations of disciple-making in BAM contexts involve Western business owners or managers. These owners and managers share their faith with their employees and see them become followers of Jesus. Few of the stories talk about outreach to those who are not employees in the company.

How does the power distance between the employer and the employee impact the credibility of these decisions to become Christians? Could not this be labeled as just another form of colonialism? Could BAM practitioners not be open to the criticism that these employees are changing their religion for the wrong reasons? Are they becoming Christians solely for the purpose of retaining their jobs or seeking a promotion within the company?

To be clear, I do not doubt that many, if not most, of these decisions for Christ are sincere. But what does the host culture see? One of the reasons why Sharp believes that professional missionaries are no longer effective is because their host culture view them as proselytizers. Would not missional business owners be open to the very same criticism? Couldn’t they be accused of offering financial incentives and job retention as motivating factors? In fact, in one of the BAM stories, the local community does accuse the business professionals of proselytism (p. 190). I wish Sharp had addressed this concern to a greater extent in his book.

The roles of missionaries and missional professionals

While I have a number of questions and concerns about Missions Disrupted, I again want to applaud the work Sharp has done in highlighting the importance and effectiveness of Business as Mission in engaging the unreached of our world. Truly this new pathway to missions needs far greater attention in our churches and in the world of missions.

The book has also challenged me to rethink why I believe that full-time cross-cultural missionaries still have a valuable role to play in accomplishing the Great Commission. To no one’s surprise, the book did not convince me to jettison missionary work and decide to start a business in another country. But as a result of reading this book, I now understand more clearly the relative strengths of both missionaries and missional professionals.

I believe that missional professionals have a distinct advantage in engaging the unreached where they live and work in the marketplace. This would be true of both those who start businesses and those who work as tentmakers.

Missionaries, on the other hand, are more suited to the work of establishing churches. They are better at nurturing and training church leaders and providing spiritual guidance and care for new believers.

One of the BAM case studies even highlights this particular strength of professional ministers.

Nguvu Dairy cares just as much about making disciples as they care about making profit. They hire trained pastors to work at each distribution center. These pastors then lead Bible studies, provide counseling to the employees, pray with them, and encourage them. Each pastor also starts a church near the distribution center. To this date, nine churches have been started.

Missions Disrupted, p. 281-282.

As I said in my previous blog post, we need a more robust partnership between professional missionaries and missional professionals. I would argue that this needs to be a long-term partnership. Whereas we need many more missional professionals, they will not and cannot replace those sent out as missionaries.

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