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Christian car dealer shows way in business as mission

NEWS | Anne Lim
Monday 2 November 2015

Paul Williams

Professor Paul Williams

Texan car dealer Don Flow changed his pricing strategy when he realised it was not in keeping with the gospel. It allowed aggressive white men to negotiate the best deals, leaving poorer, less educated buyers, often single parents, with the worst deals.

“So they changed the way his dealership approaches customers in order to ensure that they could give lower prices to people in need,” says Professor Paul Williams, who begins teaching a course on Christian entrepreneurship in Sydney today.

Mr Flow was a graduate of a social enterprise incubator to help Christian people start businesses, which Professor Williams set up at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he is research professor of marketplace theology.

Another Regent graduate, Doug Makaroff, started Living Forest Communities, a business that came up with a clever way to protect the first-growth forests of Vancouver Island from clear cutting and uncontrolled development.

“Basically, his business buys up large areas of land and puts them into a trust that prevents them from being developed,” Professor Williams explained.

“It finances that by taking a small percentage of the land and developing an eco-village within the area – a custom-designed ecological community with very different urban design to the typical modern American house.”

The intensive course that Professor Williams is teaching at Alphcrucis College this week explores the relationship between entrepreneurship, business and mission and equips students to function missionally in the business environment.

In an interview last week, he told Eternity that the rise of business as mission in Protestant circles was catching up with the longstanding understanding in the Catholic world that “being in ministry relates potentially to whole of life and therefore also to work”.

He said the dualism between sacred and secular was a problem the evangelical movement had been trying to deal with for many decades.

“Since then, there’s been a lot of activity dubbed market-based ministry, supporting Christians in various areas of work,” he said.

One negative outworking of that was the idea that Christians go to work purely to evangelise and convert people.

“I think the message that the reason to go to work is solely for evangelism is an extremely negative message to give people, and biblically false,” he said.

“I think a more positive development has been where people have begun to ask … what does God want me to do at work? That question then leads them to ask what would it look like for me to be authentically Christian, to be a disciple, to follow Jesus in the workplace?”

While various Christian professional groups have sprung up in last 20 years, there’s been a much thinner resource base for business. But that has begun to change recently under the banner of business as mission.

Business as mission was not intended as a cover for being a missionary, but pursuing a viable business that also needed to be missional.

“A Christian business as mission is a viable business in the sense that it does cover all of its costs through the sale of its goods and services … but profit is not its primary objective. Rather its primary objective is connected to the mission of God in the world. It’s connected to seeking the kingdom through the business activities.”

Some people in the business as mission world insist that the goal needs to involve serving the poor.

“Others would say God’s mission is not only about good news for the poor … it’s good news for everyone else as well and, for example, it’s good news for the planet, so it may be that there’s an expression of the kingdom of God as expressed as some kind of conservation objective.

“Or it may be to do with how we understand poverty – do we mean extreme poverty … or do we mean relative poverty, people who are excluded from effective participation in the society in which they live?

“I think the general comment is that business must serve a purpose that is in some way related to the mission of God in the world as understood in the Christian gospel.”

Professor Williams said a missional business contained an implicit critique of the prevailing mainstream business view that people would automatically be made happier if they had more money and more choice.

“The Christian gospel says that’s not necessarily so – in fact, it may be harmful in society.”

Professor Williams gave up a lucrative job as chief economist and head of international research at DTZ plc, a London-based multinational real estate consulting and investment banking group, to move to Canada and take a faculty position at Regent College, where he had studied theology in the 1990s.

He took a threefold pay cut to do so and his wife Sarah, an expert in church history, gave up a faculty position at Oxford to join him.

“I was practising as a consultant and a policy adviser with government and then in due course also in the private sector to businesses and large corporations. And so I then wanted to know … what about the advice I’m giving, what about the work I’m doing, how is that Christian?

“And as I became more senior I was responsible for a large team of people, then I started a firm myself, an independent small consulting firm, and so I began to ask myself what does it mean to be a leader, what does it mean to have employees, how do you raise money as a Christian? Are there Christian ways of thinking about that?

“I kept going because I found there was very little good quality work at the boundaries of theology and economics and theology and business.

“So after a career of working in the financial markets and public policy world, I was offered a faculty position at Regent, and I took it because I felt it would give me the opportunity to really reflect on the practice of trying to work these things out in the real world and reflect more deeply on what I had been doing.”

So for the past ten years, Professor Williams has been running the Marketplace Institute at Regent, to help Christians develop start-up businesses. A year ago, the institution launched Reframe, a resource for whole life discipleship not just for business people. It aims to give people a biblical, theological framework for mission in all of life and be a resource to help churches disciple people and have a vision for while-life mission.

It is a film series of ten episodes, 40 minutes long, which is being used in about 50 countries, including Canada, US, UK, South Africa, Singapore and New Zealand.

“We’re hoping for more use. Our goal is really to have it used and we adopted a pricing model so that price is not a barrier. If people can’t afford it they can get a discount all the way down to zero.”

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