“Should we tithe the money we earn from cheating?” This question was put forward by a young local Christian in a Bible study group where a church leader was teaching on tithing.
“If I became a Christian, I would have to become an honest businesswoman – then where would my business be?” asked a woman in another city, who was discussing the implications of becoming a Christian.
These two people demonstrate something both worrying and exciting. It’s exciting to see a non-Christian understand enough of the lifestyle U-turn the gospel asks for that they pause to count the cost – it’s worrying to think of churches scurrying to teach new Christians about practices like tithing when they obviously haven’t spent enough time on some of the basic values Jesus embodied.
Since 2001, we have been running a small software company in this mountainous country of South Asia – we make software that helps keep track of medicines. We consider it to be both fun and interesting… well, actually, only 25% of our family thinks that – the other three can do the eyes-glazed-over thing with aplomb. They’re busy with school and looking after other people though, so don’t need to gain significance from what the male in the family is up to.
Now at this point we’re starting to sound like the average Kiwi family – and in some ways we are. We try to balance work and church life, friends and visitors, and wonder if the kids should spend less time on the computer and more time doing their homework. You’d think that this would allow your average Bruce and Debbie to relate to us, but often it feels like we’re not measuring up to their expectations of what people like us are supposed to be doing: teaching theology; slicing and dicing the sick; watering the thirsty, and stuff like that. We regularly get a response along the lines of – “That’s great about your business, but what are you actually doing for a ministry?”
We often hear mission being expressed as a numbers game – how many people have come to faith? But if that’s the only question asked, then we’re in trouble. We want to see lives being transformed by encountering Jesus – yes, what we believe, but also how we act, what we buy, what we think, how we relate. We want to see lives that are a bit like distant thunder, and a bit like the first spring petals – lives and communities that clearly demonstrate that “the times they are a-changing”, that the world that’s coming is going to be very different to what we know now. We want that sound, that smell, to permeate every area of society – even the business community.
In so many ways (in spite of their “Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood” protestations), the business world is setting the agenda for how the world works, thinks and lives (sometimes that’s good, sometimes it’s a nightmare). It’s no different where we live. It’s a country that has a rapidly growing Christian population, a culture based on distrust, and a rather sick economy. In the midst of this, we’re just one small company trying to do a bit, talk a bit, be a signpost that there’s a different way. For us, being involved with a business as part of one’s calling isn’t a second-rate option. Business is our ‘mission’ – the task we’ve been given – and we’re quite enthusiastic about it.
One of our aims is to develop our staff in their understanding of what it means to follow Jesus in the workplace. We have a mixture of Hindu and Christian staff. We hope that in working with us they’ll have picked up some of the things we care about, things like: valuing people for who they are as well as for what they produce; honesty; and treating our small clients with the same attention we give the large ones.
Once, one of our Christian staff was recounting his experience of a tax inspection at another office he worked in. The tax inspector had caught them running two sets of books – one with GST and one without. “So, what do you do now?” I’d asked, expecting that they’d felt guilty and mended their ways. “We hide the second set much better now,” he informed me. There’s lots to be done to get Christians, as well as Hindus, to understand what following Jesus involves!
We hope we will also be a positive example in our society of a different kind of business. We know we get watched by all sorts of people – clients, officials, other businesses, neighbours (the only people who don’t watch us are the secret police – they’re too busy taking bribes!). We hope that what they see is at least a pale reflection of the One we follow, and a rather strong contrast with the dominant business culture. In all this we get a steady stream of opportunities to explain why we’re doing what we’re doing. In New Zealand it often seems like sex is the trendy topic, and discussing religion is taboo – in our part of the world it’s the other way around!
As well as making software we also want to actually help our clients run their organisations better. Many of them are Christian organisations that work with the most disadvantaged people. A lot of them are doing great things, and can tell you heart-rending stories of poverty and the difference they’re making. However, when it comes to providing their donors and supporters with a good account of where the money’s going, they sometimes struggle.
We also have this wacky idea that even the software itself makes a difference. The use of our software might result in the right medicines being in stock in some remote location, and someone might get better who otherwise wouldn’t have.
There’s a bit of vulnerability in doing business in a developing country – a couple of accusations and $100 under the table can see a visa rescinded. If you’re an employer and a foreigner, you’ll almost never win a court case. We hope that our trust in God in this sort of environment gives a message that following Jesus is more important than minimising risk.
As for the unanswered questions about what we’re doing, they centre around the stories that businesses and business people tell. It’s the story that’s been adopted by our whole Western world – “Study hard to get a good job. Work hard at your good job to earn lots of money. Spend all the money you earn on products that will define you as a person and make your life effortless, enjoyable, envied and elongated.” Of course we Christians know that’s… aah… err… less than accurate, but it’s quite hard to be in business without participating in that lie in some small way. We hope that we express enough truth and grace in what we do that the other messages get ignored!
We do wish that what we do could have a more direct impact on the poor. As much as we wish it wasn’t so, most of our employees are from well-off families – that’s how they got an education. You’ve got to be a stronger believer in the trickle down effect than we are, to feel that will be sufficient.
We’re trying to compensate a bit by supporting two organisations that give scholarships to needy Christians, in the hope that in the coming years there’ll be a sizable group of Christians who love God and their fellow citizens enough to want to transform this society in every aspect – even its business culture!
The author and his family are living in South Asia, where they started their involvement in medical support roles, and have pioneered a Business as Mission venture for a number of years now.