This paper steps back a couple of decades to recount OMF’s start in missional business that began with reading about the possibilities, experimenting with various approaches, reflecting on things learned through experience and as local laws changed, and designing policies to facilitate future ministry.
Ian C. H. Prescott
Dr. Ian Prescott has served in Asia for more than thirty years. He was OMF’s International Director for Evangelization from 1996 to 2010, in which role he was responsible for overseeing OMF’s field ministries across East Asia. He was particularly focused on the development of work in creative access contexts and was directly responsible as Field Director for work in a number of creative access nations. He is now based in the UK and focused on what God is doing through the international movement of East Asia’s peoples.
Experiment—Learn—Reflect—Make Policy: Reflections on the Early Days of Missional Business in OMF
Mission Round Table Vol. 16 No. 1 (Jan-Apr 2021): 34-35
Missional business is now as firmly established in OMF as it is in the wider missions world, and is one of the ways in which OMF engages in mission in East Asia. But it wasn’t always like that. How did we get started on the journey?
The idea was introduced to OMF in many ways.
Entering the discussion
In the mid-1990s, while the “tent-making” movement had been around for a while, the emphasis was largely on engaging in mission from a self-supporting professional role. At that time, OMF had been emphasizing the missionary track for Open Access Nations and was promoting the development of a professional track for Creative Access Nations. However, the idea of starting new businesses as a means to engage in mission was still a relatively early idea that was being discussed in mission circles and was beginning to be featured in magazine articles. As a result, some of our leaders and members were entering into the wider mission discussion. However, the first significant book on the topic was Suter and Gmür’s slim volume Business Power for God’s Purposes, which came out in 1997. Though more books would follow, it would be a while before we had encyclopedic tomes like Johnson’s 528-page Business as Mission that was published in 2009.
As our focus on Creative Access Nations increased, our search for new ways for people to enter and stay in these countries intensified. Organizationally, teaching and NGO platforms were the ways that we were most naturally comfortable with. They also fitted with the openness of countries like China for “Foreign Experts” to support the “Four Modernizations.” However, not everyone is cut out to be an English teacher or a development worker. Different platforms may provide opportunities to serve that fit a wider variety of people with more diverse experience and abilities. Different platforms also provide more diverse opportunities to engage and serve the people that we seek to reach.
What countries are open to what kind of foreign workers also changes. For example, for a period, China was quite open to foreign assistance through NGOs. However, NGOs always have an agenda, and as China grew increasingly suspicious of them, the freedom for them to operate was steadily reduced. At the same time, encouraging new businesses fitted the national agenda. The motive for a business—making money—was well understood. As a result, businesses were often welcome and often given more freedom.
We began discussing the possibilities for businesses with our leaders. When OMF’s field leaders came together for their annual East Asia Field Directors Consultation in 1998, one of the things they considered was “OMF and Business Entry Platforms.” This was still a very new idea for many of them. Several years afterwards, someone who was there said, “I think most of us wondered what on earth you were talking about.” However, these discussions helped open the door to allowing those in Creative Access situations to consider starting businesses.
Beginning to experiment
The next stage was to let people experiment. Workers were released to try this rather than directed as to how to do this. The result was much trial and innovation, so that, by 2007, our members were involved in at least twenty businesses in several countries across East Asia. Through the experimentation, we began to learn more about the demands and issues involved in starting and running businesses, and the things that we needed to address.
These are just a few:
- Missionaries often made naïve business people. For them to do it well, they needed a lot more help. And some were so ill-prepared that they should not have been allowed to do it all. However, few, if any, of our field leaders had experience that equipped them to adequately supervise this new direction.
- There were legal issues about using money donated to a charity or non-profit to start a business that we needed to understand better. Were activities in Asia putting those in the sending centres in legal jeopardy?
- There were questions about ownership and profit. If a business made a profit, whose was it? If it made a loss, whose problem was it? Who could or should be the legal owner and potentially sell a successful business?
- What was the missional contribution of a business? Was it just the provision of a visa or could it be much more?
One field—which probably more than any other prided themselves on being innovators and rule breakers—was one of the first to get involved in starting businesses. They were also the first to create a “Compliance Board” to exercise more oversight and control over those businesses.
Drying coffee beans
Increasingly, it became clear that there were significant missional opportunities that could be best realized through running businesses. However, if we were called to do this, we needed to address the issues that were arising so that we did it well—in a way that honored God.
Setting support structures in place
In September 2007, both the Evangelization Council and the International Executive Council affirmed the need for a task force to look at how OMF should be involved in “Business and Mission.” The brief covered “Theological/missiological/philosophical issues,” “Strategic issues,” “Regulatory issues,” and “Practical issues.” Someone who had a passion for mission but whose life had been spent in the international business world was invited to lead it.
The result was a proposal “that OMF positively embrace business as a significant missional strategy that can contribute to OMF’s mission and vision.” Along with that were proposals for operating principles and structures for support. This met with the warm approval of the International Executive Council and resulted in the creation of the Missional Business Support Unit, which could support people through the whole process of designing, starting, and running a business. It was also tasked with making sure that legal and financial issues were understood and addressed throughout.
We haven’t finished. The structures that were proposed have continued to be changed and adjusted. Some of the businesses that have been started have prospered and others have failed. We are still encouraging innovation, still learning from the experience, still adjusting, and still trying to understand what God wants us to do and to do it in a God-honoring way.
 So, for example, J. Christy Wilson Jr’s book Today’s Tentmakers devotes a chapter to giving fourteen diverse examples of “Tentmakers Today,” but the entrepreneurial business starter is entirely missing. The examples given are: An Army Doctor, A Christian Engineer, An Embassy Secretary, A Medical Couple, A Teacher of the Blind, The Prince of Peace Corps, An Air Force Colonel, A Nurse, A Christian Lawyer, An Oil Engineer, A Cattle Raiser, A Government Teacher, An Educator, A Mining Engineer. J. Christy Wilson Jr., Today’s Tentmakers: Self-Support: An Alternative Model for Worldwide Witness (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1979), 58–64.
 Heinz Suter and Marco Gmür, Business Power for God’s Purposes: Partnership with the Unreached (Greng, Switzerland: VKG, 1997).
 C. Neal Johnson, Business as Mission: A Comprehensive Guide to Theory and Practice (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009). See also “Business as Mission: A Survey of Recent Publications,” Mission Round Table 3, no. 1 (April 2007): 26–27, https://omf.org/business-as-mission-a-survey-of-recent-publications (accessed 21 June 2021).
 For further discussion of other aspect of identity and platform, see the author’s “The Gospel and the Cross-cultural Gospel Messengers: Issues of Identity and Platform in Bringing the Good News,” Mission Round Table 14, no. 3 (September 2019): 26–33, https://omf.org/the-gospel-and-the-cross-cultural-gospel-messengers/ (accessed 20 May 2021).
 OMF’s Evangelization Council and OMF’s International Executive Council, “Business and Mission Task Force Brief (January 2008),” unpublished paper.