Sustainability–More than a Buzz Word

Late 2009 and early 2010 I read several books and many articles on Business as Mission (BAM). I had discovered this field through the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement course. As I worked through these I kept encountering an aversion to missions organizations and missionaries. I actually found it quite puzzling and at times frustrating.

Earlier today I re-read an email I sent to a friend that has given me cause for pause. Maybe this is part of why BAMers are apprehensive of traditional missions practices.

Let me share part of the email I mentioned:


Some good things will come from me being here. They already have some agriculture projects going on that can dovetail nicely into some things I have been thinking about. The brother who oversees those projects, went through David Watson’s level 1 training. He already has some early successes of using drip irrigation and compost training as access ministries into nearby villages.

When I told him about the treadle foot pumps and mentioned that some people use them to water tree seedlings that they sell as a cash crop he got excited. He took me outside and showed me rows of tree seedlings that are growing in small black plastic bags filled with compost. He told me they sprout under the fruit trees during the rainy season, but will die during the dry season. He paid three cents each for the bags, composted the soil and then transplanted the seedlings. These will be watered through the dry season and then can be sold to local people at the start of the next rainy season. If planted at the start, they will develop the root system to survive the next dry season.

He has started these seedlings because he takes a few along to the irrigation/compost trainings he does in rural villages. He shows them the trees so they see the value of the compost in developing a cash crop. He said, “I know they could care for so many more seedlings with one of those pumps.”
My challenge is getting this brother to not just see these projects as great means to gain access to villages, but as ways to help their Access Ministry division to become self-funded. Missions people are so fund-raising focused that they don’t seem to see a business opportunity that bites them in the behind.

They have a well and water towers here so they do not need the foot pumps, but he sees how valuable they could be in the villages. But his first thoughts are on raising U.S. money to give pumps to these groups.

Sustainability seems to be a word everyone knows, but is blinded to seeing the obvious way forward. They have lots of men working here on building projects, carrying supplies, and even sweeping the driveways. But the funding for these jobs is all being paid for by American donors. Right now they have big projects on hold because of the lack of funding due to the American recession.
It is good for me to have to wrestle with this within myself because these are the kinds of issues we will face all over Africa—especially where we have people who are already receiving support. This brother showed me a row of fruit trees loaded with produce and when I asked he said they would bring $1.00 a piece in roadside markets and $2.00-3.00 apiece in the local super markets.

Why aren’t they growing groves of this fruit on their open land and selling them to fund the purchase of drip kits, foot pumps, etc.? I will probably ask these questions before I leave, but want to earn more of their respect/trust and make sure I do not raise them with the edge I feel right now. I know they fear getting absorbed in the business of business, but instead they are absorbed in the business of fund-raising.

I know that such projects will take some money on the front end, time, and lots of hard work. But they have an incredible cash crop and so many unemployed people around. One of these nurseries could support a CPM trainer. A grove of these trees could support a CPM trainer. But you have to train a faith community to see that their work can further the spread of the gospel and improve their lives too.


Business people don’t trust missions because they never get enough donations. Missions people don’t trust business people because all their focus is on business. Does it have to be this way?

Truly sustainable missions practices will have to produce income. They may start more easily with adequate capital on the front end, but they have to reach the point that they pay for their own upkeep and expansions. We can learn more of this from business people. But we must not lose sight of the fact that when our goal for these businesses is to further the spread of the kingdom, then we will probably have a different outlook than many business people.

God has ordained both fields. God calls some to business. God calls some to missions. I truly believe there are people he calls to both–simultaneously (think about Paul’s words to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20). Can we not marry the best of both worlds? Can we not use BAM to further CPM? Can we not begin access ministries that grow into Christian Community Development? These are places to teach for the increase of knowledge, coach to pass on new/improved skills and mentor to increase capacity.


    1. Thanks, Jay. We are hoping to develop some pilot projects that will use appropriate technology and also best practices to enable church planters and trainers to not only gain access, but also to support themselves while in a new region. I want to see if we can combine those two pieces with community development concepts so we can demonstrate kingdom principles that will produce long-term benefits. We are collecting some plans that might be useful in areas of Latin America, too. I will share them with you when we get further in the process.


  1. I think this may be a big part of the future going forward. Churches I talk to about mission support have slashed their mission budgets. The economy may improve here in America for churches to add missions back in, but it may continue to decline.

    I think the future of American church planting is in bivocational teams. It is something we need to continue to think about and develop.


    1. Ryan, there is the pragmatic side of limited resources, but I really believe our work can be stronger when these are coupled even if we have limitless resources. There are some lessons, skills and attitudes that can only be modeled. There are also people of peace that can only be met in a context of business. I find it intriguing that Paul’s most fruitful work (reaches all of Roman Asia) was the one where he appears to spend more time working. Even extraordinary miracles occurred as items he used in his work were taken to remote sick people and they received healing. (Think about that–extraordinary miracles!)

      Thanks for commenting!


  2. John, your post is very encouraging to me. I’m part of a team in southern Mexico simultaneously trying to start and pass off businesses as well as make disciples. It’s challenging, and some people question us. Along the lines of what you mentioned, some think we’re getting too caught up in business and distracted from “real ministry”. To business people it seems like we’re leaving way too much of the success up to God rather than making absolutely sure all the numbers work. I feel caught between these two tensions, but strongly feel economics play an important role in the spread of the kingdom here. Thanks for sounding a call for the two to work hand-in-hand!


    1. Chris, I encourage you to embrace that tension. Beautiful music requires the right amount of tension on the strings being played. I pray the example of you and the others in the team will be imitated by the people of that region and they will experience kingdom benefits. Those in missions and business need to realize that actions speak louder than words. We need to act out our reliance upon God. When there is no business in our actions, we model that being supported by others is where the most holy life is lived. How sad! Thanks for taking the road less traveled.


  3. Wow, this is a great read! I really hope non-Western missionaries will be more holistic and not struggle over the traditional/Western dichotomy between business and missions. The best cross-cultural missionaries are like Paul (the apostle to Gentiles) who do business (tentmaking!), not just as entry platforms, but intentionally to model to local believers the work ethic (2 Thess. 3:7-10) — and thereby also catalyze an “insider/indigenous movement” (empowering the local people to fund their own mission work themselves) without the need to raise funds externally!!


    1. David, you are correct to note that there are additional benefits beyond entry. It is so critical for kingdom people to model a good work ethic. Paul reminds the Ephesian elders, “Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive'” (Acts 20:33-35). Earning enough to have the capacity to help those in need is critical. Note also that Paul earned enough in his trade to support himself and his co-workers! Blessings.


  4. About 1.5 years ago, I went to David Watson’s Level 1 training in Dallas. After a time of learning and transition, I will be piloting support groups to help Iraqi and Sudanese refugees in the States to start micro-businesses. The support group idea came from GrumeenAmerica. Everybody who wants to receive a loan must form a group that meets weekly. Great post.


    1. Steve, thanks. David has impacted me in many ways. It has been an honor to work with him in several of his trainings. I hope these refugees come to know Jesus through your work.


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