Take Your Job Overseas—Introducing Business for Missions
Have you ever thought about doing business for missions? You should. Let me give you a couple of illustrations of what it looks like.
I was recently sitting in an Asian-fusion restaurant in London, talking with a former member of the church I help pastor in Washington, DC. He and his young family had relocated a year earlier to London, specifically to help with a struggling church nearby. He would do that as a faithful church member with a normal job. Just recently he had become an elder in the congregation, and his pastor (also a friend of mine) confided later that the presence of this faithful family helped to keep him laboring in the rocky soil of post-Christian London.
That’s one illustration. Here is another. Just a month earlier, I sat in a less fashionable Kabob restaurant in a troubled corner of Central Asia. I was visiting another young family from our DC church. They too had recently relocated with their jobs to a city just miles from the front lines of ISIS. They were joining a full-time missionary couple sent out a year earlier. They didn’t see themselves being full-time church planting missionaries. They simply loved running their non-profit doing educational work with refugees. But quickly, they were becoming useful to their small, international church. To be sure, there were spiritual struggles all around them, but this family seemed excited about their future.
It’s been a joy watching these kinds of scenarios play out again and again for two decades. Ordinary folks discover how to use their skills and vocations to support gospel work in difficult places, not as church planters or “missionaries,” but as regular, faithful Christians.
People call this kind of activity by a lot of different names: Business as Missions, Tentmakers, Mobilized Marketplace Professionals (MPPs). Some terms are better than others. Some bear a bit of unhelpful theological baggage. But all of them are variations on the same idea: Christians who enter a culture through the marketplace may enjoy access as well as financial and relational advantages that people in vocational ministry do not. Plus, they will be able to help those in fulltime ministry minister in difficult places.
If you have never thought about taking your marketplace job overseas for the sake of the gospel, you might think about it. Here are a few things I’ve observed over the past 20 years of encouraging this kind of thing.
1. Realize your need for community.
When folks first start to think about moving overseas with their jobs for gospel purposes, some imagine pioneering work in unreached places. Instead, most should think of joining already-established churches overseas, not blazing new trials among the unreached. Everyone needs community, accountability, and help in ministry. Community support structures from 10,000 miles away are not exactly ideal. Instead, you should go to a place where there is a good local church in a language you understand, or at least a very strong local missionary team that can fill in the gap. It is a rare individual who can work a 40+ hour work week, in a new culture, and sustain themselves and their family without a church.
2. Realize a local church is a platform for ministry everywhere.
Not only should you consider relocating to a place with a healthy local church in a language you understand, even better, you should support that church as the main focus of your ministry. The most obviously fruitful marketplace Christians I have observed do just this.
It’s often difficult to see how so much fruitful ministry comes through the fellowship, cooperation, and witness of a local assembly of believers. But such fruit can become obvious in a new culture. The teaching, networks, and collective public witness of a local congregation is an even more powerful gospel picture than our private conduct at work. True, there may be places where there isn’t yet a church with which to link arms, and there may be places where marketplace Christians will need to gather with a few missionary families. But most people flourish spiritually when they have a local church that functions as the center of their lives and ministry. And there are little churches like that all over the world.
3. Have optimistic and realistic expectations.
Most Christians don’t desire or feel equipped to be a full-time staff member for a local church. And most of them are quite happy in the lifestyle and relationships that God has given them. I personally spent almost 20 years of my life as a business owner or an employee and found great joy as a Christian in that season. And yet, such people will generally have a lot less discretionary time to give to ministry than a full-time church staff person.
The same is true for people who move overseas with a job to come alongside gospel work. They will not have the same amount of time to study language or to support many aspects of ministry, like a full-time missionary will. The good news is, what they do may be more strategic if they are in a place where biblical Christians are few and far between.
4. Understand why this is not the same as being sent as a missionary.
In 3 John, the Apostle John describes the kind of person whom Christians have historically referred to as a missionary. It is someone who has been sent out by a church for the sake of making the name of Christ known, and he or she relies on the church (not the pagans) for their support. And John commands Christians (he uses the pushy word “ought”) to support such persons and partner with them in the truth of the gospel.
In other words, moving overseas with one’s job in order to come alongside a church or a missionary team is not the same thing as being a missionary, but it’s absolutely valuable. I realize that some people will be offended by this distinction. But I think most of us understand it. Not all are teachers or elders in the church, but each still has a valuable role to play (1 Cor. 12:12-31). “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.” You need not have a title or a specific office to be a blessing to the work of Christ.
5. Understand why business for missions is such a good thing.
Most of us must support ourselves with a job. Most of us won’t ever enjoy the benefits (and burdens) of laboring full-time in gospel work. Both 1 and 2 Thessalonians paint a pretty clear picture of the normality and the goodness of the ordinary, self-supporting Christian life. But many of us can choose where we live. And here, Christian liberty gives us a wide array of choices. Some may choose to leave a church they love to help with a church plant on the other side of their city. Some will drill down deep and stay in that same church, even at the expense of exciting new jobs or opportunities. And some may choose to uproot their life and move to a different country to encourage gospel work where laborers are few. All are great choices. All are parts of the normal ways God intends his churches to grow in maturity and for his gospel to spread. So think about what might be possible for you, and where your life might be most fruitfully spent.
6. Get help evaluating yourself and investigating options.
Christians should think very carefully before they relocate with a job and move away from a church where they are currently prospering. Spiritual health is not something to be treated so casually. But this is especially true for Christians thinking of moving specifically to join a local witness in another culture. Not everyone should do this. We need to be open to hearing trusted friends tell us to stay put. Good candidates for moving overseas are Christians who will be engines of ministry, not Christians whose needs or challenges require lots of pastoral care. A great deal of humility is needed to hear this kind of feedback. Some of us can be most strategic by staying put and continuing to grow, for now.
For those who do consider gospel-focused relocation, humility may mean getting help thinking through a few places rather than viewing the whole world as your oyster. Start by considering the overseas locations where your church is already invested. Is there an international church or a solid missionary team in a city where you might consider moving? How might you be able to come alongside and encourage the leaders as a member of that congregation? It might not be your first choice, but eventually you’ll realize that working with the right people is almost always more important than finding the perfect place.
Consider also any mission organizations with which your church cooperates and whether they have any resource. My own church works with the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. That mission organization has a Global Cities Initiative intended to help churches consider how to help members to use their jobs to come alongside full-time missionaries in a few selected cities. Your own missionaries or organizations may be able to provide similar support.
7. Business for missions is no “golden key”—but what is?
Many who begin the process of relocating soon discover that finding a job and moving across the globe takes a lot of work! And once there, people are sometimes disappointed to discover how similar their life is to their former life in their home country. You take care of the kids, go to work, get to know neighbors, talk about the gospel when you can, sustain the ministry of a local church, continue to sow seeds, and wait, in hope. But now, the barriers of language and culture may make everything slower than at home.
Business for missions is no “golden key” for missions—as if this strategy will revolutionize missions and make everything easy.
But just because something does not guarantee a route to fast and easy gospel fruit doesn’t make it bad. Rather, it just makes it real and normal and what the Bible tells us to expect.
As we hold out the Word and cherish the gospel, as we live lives of holiness and love, as we proclaim the gospel to the world and disciple those in the church, as we train pastors and send missionaries and plant new churches and encourage faithful lives among all—God promises our ordinary efforts will result in an extraordinary ending. In the hand of God, small and ordinary faithfulness impacts eternity.
So maybe you or someone in your church might be able to live out the ordinary life among fellow believers in a place where faithful Christians are one in a million rather than one in ten. What do you think?
Your ordinary gifts and talents might be a treasure to a congregation in Malaysia or London or Istanbul or Dubai. Yes, there will still be a huge need for full-time, church-sent pioneer missionaries. Yes, this won’t be the one tool to break open the world for Christ. Certainly this isn’t the strategy for totally unreached places or lone rangers. But it might just be a wonderful way for many Christians to leverage their lives as one small, glorious part of Christ’s wise plan to use the simple, ordinary, and even mundane faithfulness of his people to display his glory to the universe (Ephesians 3:10). And that’s not a bad way to do your job and spend your life.