30 YEARS OF BI-VOCATIONAL MISSIONS: TRENDS & THE WAY FORWARD

As we celebrate 30 years of ministry, it is time to revisit and reaffirm our mission. This is important in order to sharpen our objectives, develop new strategies, align our teams, and mobilize others to join us while staying focused and relevant in this rapidly evolving world scene that is changing the landscape of missions.

What is Happening in the World

A major trend in the world is urbanization. In 2000, 50% of the world became city dwellers. By 2050, a projected 75–80%. In obedience to the Great Commission, we must go and make disciples where people are and where they will be. Urban missions is our calling.

 Globalization in the last 200 years is an economic, technological, political and cultural reality. While the merits of globalization are debatable, we do have unprecedented opportunities today to bring the gospel message into all the world—into cultures and areas of people’s lives that are shaken up by the forces of global economics that often come as mixed blessings.

Our Vision & Mission

In partnership with churches in N. America, we are committed to sending missional professionals to contribute to urban church movements in 10/40 Window countries. We are called to:

  • join local believers to impact the workplace,  especially in the business and education sectors,

  • partner with local academics to promote biblical values and worldviews for the transformation of cultures, and

  • collaborate with local church leaders in their indigenous missions movements.

 Change In Missions Thinking: The Vision For Work As Mission

For a long time, as a result of the flawed theology of a sacred-secular divide that permeates the church’s thinking, secular work is considered a distraction from the sacred call to ministry. Bi- vocational workers are therefore viewed as second-class missionaries, if at all.

Today, bi-vocational missions is becoming better understood and accepted as an essential partner to the work of church-planting, which has been the leading missions focus since the 1970s.

At the 1974 Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, the worldwide evangelical community affirmed the complementary roles of evangelism and social concern in Christian witness. The 2010 Congress in Cape Town, South Africa reaffirmed that personal transformation (individual salvation) and social transformation are respective expressions of the redemption and creation mandates in Scripture.

Next year, 2019, The Lausanne Global Workplace Forum will be mobilizing “the whole church in every corner of the global workplace as bearers of the gospel” because all legitimate work— not just professional ministry—is intrinsically valuable and integral to the missional work of God’s kingdom. Who better to model this vital message on the mission field than bi-vocational workers?

Change In Missions Sending: The World Has Become Flat

Thirty years ago, we told prospective tentmakers that they had better be sure of God’s calling because when they return home after some years on the field, they may not be able to find employment within their professions. Be ready to consider a real estate license or a Panda Express franchise!

 But with the arrival of the internet, the world has become flat. Having sent close to 300 missional professionals overseas, we are witnesses to the encouraging fact that returning tentmakers have been able to continue in their careers. Many have secured even better positions than when they left for the field because international experience is valued in today’s globalized job market.

China: New Challenges In Sending

For bi-vocational tentmakers, China in the 1980s and 1990s mainly offered employment for teachers, English teachers.

After China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, her economy grew rapidly as did career opportunities for expatriates. Many GLS associates are serving in the business sector. They work for multinational corporations, small medium companies, as well as BAM (Business As Mission) and social enterprises. For a few years, even fresh college graduates from the West could find work in China.

But times have changed. As China’s own universities and business schools catch up with the rest of the world, they are producing an increasing supply of local talents. Fluently bilingual, many Chinese, who have studied and worked abroad, are returning for the enticing career opportunities back home. So the job market is more competitive and the bar higher for expatriates.

Today, with China’s rising nationalism, anti-religious policies, deteriorating relations and escalating trade war with the U.S., foreigners are much less welcomed. The pressure is on for bi-vocational workers. Failing to renew their visas, many have had to go home. To date, we are thankful that GLS associates are still able to serve alongside local believers. They continue to witness in the workplace as they teach, counsel, mentor, train, and consult for missions in local faith communities.

China: Impact Culture To Reach Students & Intellectuals

Our work in China began shortly after 1989 when Chinese intellectuals became more open to exploring Christianity than ever before in the nation’s history.

Over 20-30 years, we have been working with believers, closet Christians, sympathizers and open-minded scholars in Chinese academia to facilitate their understanding of how Christianity is relevant for China’s modernization and transition to market economy.

We have sponsored conferences, exchange professorships, translation, research, publication, faculty workshops, etc. These efforts complement the work and witness of missional English teachers on campuses. Together, the gospel is having far-reaching impact among students and intellectuals.

让中国走向世界, 让世界了解中国 

For many years, we also organized cultural exchange and community service projects to connect students from leading Chinese and American universities, thereby contributing to China’s vision that was popularized in the 1990s: “Let China join the world community, and let the world understand China”.

Fast forward to 2018, China has changed yet again. With the rise of East-West tensions and China’s extreme measures against religion, the future of our cultural projects is uncertain. But as the timeless African proverb says, “In times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build walls.” Our work in bridge building must continue.

The Muslim World: BAM

Beginning in 2000, we have been looking beyond China into the Muslim world of the 10/40 Window. Here, we find economic environments similar to China in the 1980s, only slower in development. Jobs in business and education are harder to come by. In the last few years, doors to NGO workers have also been closing.

Business As Missions (BAM)—starting companies to provide visas for bi-vocational teams and create jobs for locals—is a strategic option.

But doing business in emerging economies is challenging due to language and cultural barriers, poor infrastructure, non-business friendly bureaucracy, corruption, political instability, etc. Nonetheless, hundreds of BAM companies have survived around the world.

It is important to know that one does not have to start a company in order to join the BAM movement. Skilled business professionals are needed to join many existing companies to strengthen their operation and witness in the 10/40 Window. But it takes calling and sacrifice. Like English teachers in China, given the economic environment of 10/40 countries, most BAM workers do need to raise support to supplement their business income.

Faith@Work Support For Workers

Be it is tentmaking or BAM, workers on the field must grapple with issues of faith-work integration. In supporting them, so must we.

In the last 20 years, there has been an explosion of literature in this area. We have made some significant contributions in Greater China by facilitating collaboration among executives, theologians, business academics, and pastors for research, publication, translation, curriculum development and peer learning forums on faith- work-business integration. It is work in progress.

The Belt & Road Region: Business Education As Missions

In the last 40 years, China’s Open Door & Reform Policy has changed the lives of 1.4 billion people. While change has come with mixed blessings at the cost of social and environmental displacements, the Chinese Church has grown significantly.

In the coming decades, China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) will change the lives of 4 billion people in scores of countries along the New Silk Road. Given the political and cultural complexities of the region, there will be huge challenges.

In 19th century China, amidst the ravages of the opium trade and western imperialism, missionaries came to build clinics, hospitals, schools, universities, and plant churches. Redemption came in the midst of chaos and tragedies. We trust that God’s sovereign redemptive plan will also play out among the Muslim-majority BRI countries as God’s people respond.

China and many countries planning to invest in the BRI are interested in the natural resources and markets of the region. But bearers of the Good News committed to the Great Commandment of loving our neighbors must consider investing in the people.

Business education is key to giving young people skills for jobs and hope for a future. It raises local talents in emerging economies so they can stand up on their own. Business education will teach not only skills, but responsibility, leadership, ethics and character—core issues pertinent to personal as well as social transformation.

While BAM is challenging, GLS is committed- ted to BEAM (Business Education As Mission) which could be good business. We have seen that in China and other countries.

China & BRI Countries: Indigenous Missions Movements

China and most BRI countries are mission fields still in need of workers and resources from the West. But, from China to Kyrgyzstan to Bulgaria, God has also given many church leaders a vision for missions in response to the Great Commission.

Current research on Unengaged Unreached People Groups (UUPG) shows that they could be most effectively reached by near-culture bi-vocational workers, who are likely to resemble them in appearance and share culturally and socioeconomically similar ways of life.

As workers from Asia head west into the Muslim world to join the Body of Christ in the unfinished task, the Gospel will be represented by faces of many cultures. This is the movement of the Spirit in our time: from all nations to all nations.

A BAM movement has started in China. Visionary leaders are calling fellow business people to repent, build companies to become light and salt domestically, then take the gospel westward, back to Jerusalem. The road will belong. But serious initiatives have been launched and God is at work.

It is our vision to come alongside indigenous Asian missions movements and collaborate with them to bring God’s love to the unreached in  BRI countries. BEAM could be a key strategy.