Book Review: The Missional Entrepreneur

March 01, 2010

Book Review: The Missional Entrepreneur

This is a book about a somewhat lost - but biblical - component of the missionary enterprise (excuse the pun).

The Missional Entrepreneur: Principles and Practices for Business as Mission by Mark L Russell explores the role of business in achieving God’s mission for the world which is what is meant by the term ‘Business as Mission.’ While a scholar himself, Russell is also a practitioner, and is careful with his use of citations and references, in order to provide a very readable entry-level book into a complex and contemporary issue and to stimulate missionary zeal through case studies, actual examples and solutions to very practical problems.

Russell does not only argue his case from a pragmatic standpoint –‘It works, so let’s do it’– but also from a biblical standpoint –‘Paul did it, so let’s do it’. Thus, the core of the book is an investigation into Paul’s context, his trade and his choices, concluding that

Paul clearly had reasons for why he chose to continue his tent-making trade. Those reasons are far more sophisticated than a simple need for money. His approach helped him model a lifestyle to his followers that they could emulate, put him in relationship with a vast web of people, and helped him to show everyone that the Christian faith is a way of life and not simply a set of beliefs. (p129)

Thus, business has an intrinsic role in God’s mission to reach the world. While business is usually recognised as having an extrinsic role, as its profits are used to fund professional ministers in their missionary activities, Russell argues that business in itself is an effective, if not superior, missionary tool, as Paul demonstrated by his choice to continue to work. He cites poor Christian teaching on the topics of work and business as leading to the presumption that Paul’s ‘work as a tentmaker was a distraction to his work as a missionary rather than an enhancement to it’ (p93).

This is the canvas upon which Russell begins to paint his ideas.

The book consists of five parts. Before ‘Learning from the Apostle Paul’, he explores the ‘Fundamentals’. That is, he acknowledges the seven paradigms of business and mission that have surfaced over the last decade or so and lands on the business as mission concept (p23).

He adopts a simple definition of a business as ‘an organization that creates and distributes goods and/or services and relies on financial profit for survival, success, and expansion capability’ (p36). Quoting Peter Drucker – ‘the ultimate resource in economic development is people. It is people, not capital or raw materials, that develop an economy’ – Russell concludes that ‘as businessmen and women work creatively to meet the needs of others, they are living out a fundamental part of our created purpose’ (p43).

While business in itself can glorify God, it is vulnerable to sinfulness which distorts what otherwise would be a source of blessing. Russell acknowledges the elephants in the room: the global financial crisis, exorbitant executive salaries and corporate exploitation. Nevertheless, he understands that ‘business is the engine that financially supports and sustains every sector of society’ (p58) and as such, is a source of great blessing, able to serve a similar role to that which hospitals and schools have, and do, in mission.

The third part of the book, ‘Motivations and Mind-set’, reviews the history of business as mission over the centuries and outlines the results of his own research into the effectiveness of companies established for missionary purposes. ‘The companies that were producing positive ministry and/or business results tended to have four characteristics. Those that were not, tended to have four opposing characteristics’ (p183).

He discovered that the higher performers had a blessing orientation, were open regarding their purpose and identity, partnered with local ministries and were highly adaptive to their new culture. Blessing oriented companies were able ‘to give comprehensive, holistic explanations for why they engaged in business as mission’ (p184) and demonstrated a sincere concern for the people of their adopted culture, encompassing financial, relational and spiritual dimensions.

In contrast, the low performers had a conversion orientation, were secretive regarding their purpose and identity, preferred not to partner with others and were not particularly adaptive to the new culture. Conversion oriented companies had a narrow proclamation focus, believing business only had an instrumental value and they struggled financially.

There was not a significant difference in the actual business activities of the two groups. For instance, one of the ‘blessing oriented’ businesses provided data entry services for offshore businesses, back in the United States. One of the ‘conversion oriented’ businesses was a coffee shop frequented by young local professionals.

Ironically, the blessing oriented companies were forty-eight times as effective as the conversion oriented companies in converting. That is, in his sample of twelve companies[i] in a particular region of Thailand ‘the converting companies counted 1 conversion after the expenditure of 32 missionary years. In the blessing companies there were 36 conversions after the expenditure of 24 missionary years’ (p187). This was achieved in an environment where the average local convert heard a Christian proclamation 250 to 300 times over a five-year period before conversion from a Thai Buddhist background and in a region where traditional missionary strategies appeared to have been quite unsuccessful (p169).

Interestingly, their success in converting was somewhat coordinated with their success as a business. For instance, a missionary company with low cultural adaptivity kept personnel for an average of eight months, while a seven-year old missionary company with high cultural adaptivity had not lost any personnel.

The fourth and fifth parts concern ‘Best Practice’ and a couple of ‘Special Topics’. Russell points out that since business is hard work and mission is hard work, it follows that business as mission will be very hard work indeed. Perhaps this is the reason it has not been more popular. Nevertheless, he provides very helpful frameworks for assessing business as mission opportunities and pre-qualifying them in terms of their potential success. His framework for navigating different cultures assists both businesses and ministries in being more successful. It would appear that the cultural awareness that enables a business to successfully cross cultures is the same that enables a ministry to successfully cross cultures.

As we descend more deeply into a post Christian era, the methods of mission will become more and more important to us and Russell’s work will have obvious application for us within our own cultural context.

 [i] Six had a ‘blessing orientation’ and the other six had a ‘conversion orientation’.

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