His Business, His Mission
Patrick Lai tells us the story of how he made running businesses his mission
How did you get involved with missions?
I was never “called” into missions. When I was a new Christian, I read Matthew 28:19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” and just assumed that’s what all Christians were supposed to do — GO.
I went to university to study business. While in university, I was planning to work in South America among tribal people. I made many Latino friends, but also some Asian friends. No Latinos came to Christ, but five Chinese did. Those discipling me felt God was showing me that He wanted me to go to Asia.
I was conflicted about whether to work in South America or Asia. When I attended a Missions conference one year, I asked God to settle this inner conflict by giving me a roommate from either South America or Asia. Think about it – maybe two to three percent of those attending the conference would be non-Americans, so what were the odds? Well, one of my two roommates was from Hong Kong. I stopped studying Spanish and started studying Mandarin.
Upon graduation I was told I needed to go to seminary to become a missionary, so I did a Master of Divinity degree and worked at my home church as a Youth Pastor. I also married my wife, May. After finishing my studies, I joined a mission organization to serve in Hong Kong and South China.
When you were in China, how did you evolve from a traditional missions model to a business missions model?
A tipping point came from a lesson God taught me through Zul, my neighbor in China who was a new believer. One day Zul was in our home when he asked me, “Patrick how come you’re always home, why don’t you have an office?” I confided in him, “The truth is I have a legal visa for being here to do business, but the business is just a platform for me to do missionary work.” Zul replied, “So then you have been lying to everyone when you tell them you are here to do business?”
God used his answer to wake me up to my hypocrisy. I knew I had been living a double life. Zul was right, I was living a lie.
“Business contextualizes us.”
As I prayed, God showed me the reason we were seeing so little fruit in our missionary work was that many of our efforts to reach non-believers were not based on love and truth. You cannot build a foundation on sand and expect it to last.
How did you build credibility in the mission field?
When I was a traditional missionary, I was always trying to fit in and be accepted as one of the local people. I struggled with credibility, identity, money and building relationships. All those issues disappeared when I began work in businesses.
Business contextualizes us. When we work in business, our job and salary tell us how to dress, what house to live in and what kind of car to drive. The job provides an acceptable identity and access to people.
It gives us credibility to facilitate evangelism and discipleship that is viable, natural and focused. It creates jobs for the needy and income for the poor, plus products and services that bless everyone in the community.
Business is a holistic way of witnessing. We tangibly meet both physical and spiritual needs.
As a missionary, I struggled to get time with people. But when I work in business alongside others, my co-workers see me at least six hours a day, 30-44 hours a week. They see how I deal with both failures and successes. They see how I react when cheated or lied to.
It is in times like these that non-Christians see the difference in me. And when they ask me why I’m different, I point to Jesus. It often takes them a couple of years of observation, but over time, my co-workers are like Nicodemus in the Gospel of John. They come privately and ask about my faith. Now imagine that!
I don’t have to persuade them; they come and ask!
Can you share a practical example of how this works?
There was a time when we went to the village leaders – there were no churches at the time – and asked “What can we do to help you guys?” They said, “The biggest problem is that our children have a terrible education.”
In Indonesia, they take standardized tests at different ages, and one of them is when children are six years old. If they do poorly on that test, they are at the bottom of their cohorts for the rest of their lives.
So we started a kindergarten and preschool for three to five year olds, teaching them colors, numbers and other basic things. We started with two classrooms, each with 15-20 kids and two teachers.
One of these was always a Christian and a trained evangelist, while the other was a non-believer. Pretty much all of the students were from other faiths. The Christian teachers who we trained would go and visit the families and teach the parents how to read.
In our second year, one of the children, a 3-year-old, became deathly ill. Before he died, he said to his mother, “Mom don’t worry about me, Jesus is with me, I’ll be OK.” The mother replied, “Who’s that?” The day after the funeral, the mother came to his teacher and said, “Can you explain to me about Jesus, my son met Him and seemed to know Him personally. How is that possible?”
So the teacher told her about Jesus. The mother went home and told her husband. Surprisingly, he wasn’t angry. They started to meet and it was only a matter of weeks before the father and mother both professed Christ. When I was leading the school, we had eight families come to Christ.
We would often teach stories. We never had prayer in the school asking the kids to receive Christ. But we taught a lot on Abraham, David, the prophets, Jesus’ parables and His stories. But other than that, there was no direct evangelism.
Can you give us any last tips on how we can integrate faith with work?
When we started back in the 1990s, we received a lot of criticism from church and mission leaders. Few understood the Biblical mandate for integrating our faith and our work. They viewed pastors and missionaries — full-time Christian workers – to be godlier than others. We failed to understand the priesthood of all believers.
“We are not walking in obedience to Scripture whenever we compartmentalize our lives.”
The Bible reminds us that we are all one body. No part is to see itself as more important than another part. We are all to contribute to His Kingdom, wherever and whatever He has assigned us to do.
There are well over 4,000 ethnic groups who still do not have a witness for Jesus. Most of these countries are closed to missionaries, but welcoming of Christians who work in the marketplace. There are opportunities for teachers, engineers, business people — almost any trade or skill can be used to take Jesus’ message to those who are yet to hear.
The Bible tells us, “whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Men have created a false, unbiblical separation of what is sacred and secular, and what is worship and outreach. We are not walking in obedience to Scripture whenever we compartmentalize our lives.
I am a businessman, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a coach, a basketball player, a business owner, a teacher and a slave of Jesus. All of these things are me. I cannot segregate these things and view them as separate from me as they all influence and make up who I am. All of me has to fully surrender to Jesus to be His salt and light, to all people wherever He places me. All of me has to recognize that God teaches that our work and worship is one.
Each of us, myself included, should be fully surrendered to Jesus; no wants, no needs, no desires — nothing. Just a desire to live so as to please the Master.
Patrick Lai is the author of Business for Transformation, a book that challenges our perspective of using business as an entrypoint for missions. Personally, he and his wife spent 4 years as regular missionaries and 19 years as tent-makers, all within the 10/40 window.
This article has been adapted from Champions Vol. III.