Secular and sacred work

Oct 2014    

My family served as Methodist Missions Society missionaries in South Asia for more than 12 years. By the time of our third year in the field, I was an equal partner in a foreign direct investment, setting up a restaurant together with other missionaries from various denominations.

The company is still in operation and there are currently 25 employees. It is located in a part of the city that was initially underdeveloped, but has benefited from the development of food and beverage businesses, with more than 500 jobs created within the community.

The initial purpose of starting the business was primarily to obtain a visa to remain in-country for ministry purposes. As a result of this strategy, we experienced growth in the ministries initiated together with national pastors. The ‘ministry’ success seemed to justify our investment of time, money, and other resources in pursuing ‘commercial’ success.

However, this view seems to divide matters into ‘sacred’ or ‘secular’ categories, and develops a ‘holy hierarchy’.1 Business owners who are Christian may misinterpret Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13, adding stress compounded with the fear of commercial failure, ethical ambiguity, and even the fear of failing to be good participants of God’s missions strategy. But can our ‘secular’ work be a force for good?

‘Do-Good’ moments in business
I was on duty at the restaurant’s ‘front-of-house’ one day when a group from the nearby United Nations headquarters came for lunch. One of the waiters showed them to a table, took their orders, and served the group according to our stipulated timings and standards.

One member in the group did not begin on her bowl of laksa immediately, as she was sharing about a programme she had crafted that would solve poverty issues in the country.

After her passionate presentation, she began to dig in but discovered a strand of hair (about 30 cm long) staring at her from the top of the noodles. She summoned me with a wave and demanded that I note that strand of hair while she remarked about the poor working attitudes of the entire country which, in unimpressive ghetto style, let mistakes like these slip through the cracks!

There is a ‘mantra’ in the restaurant industry that says: “The customer is always right.” So, dutifully, our team replaced the defective product with service standards that do Singapore proud.

On the other hand, I needed to affirm the cook who prepared the meal that he had performed flawlessly, as I was sure that hair did not come from him.

At that point, the words of James 4:13–17 flashed across my mind: “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them”.

I said to the customer, “Please accept my apologies for the delay in your lunch. I have taken this item off your total bill.” Smiles beamed out. I continued matter-of-factly: “But, I have to say, that hair in the noodle did not come from my staff.

Nevertheless, he has done well to provide you a replacement bowl of laksa.”

From this experience, we could conclude: Never ask a missionary for business advice! Nevertheless, James continues to challenge us to do the good we ought to do (verse 17) in the midst of our everyday business. Ultimately, the Lord’s will be done, where the secular encounters the sacred in the good work that we do.

1 Rundle and Steffen, Great Commission Companies: The Emerging Role of Business in Missions (IVP Books, 2011), page 12.

The Rev Erick Tan is married to Shanti and together with their three children – Spencer, Eleanor and Sean – they returned to Singapore after 12 years of missionary service. Having led inter-cultural ministries in the past, he is looking to motivate missional entrepreneurs to use businesses to meet the challenges of the poor, marginalised, and the disenfranchised.


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