Tuesday, December 23, 2008

An Interview with Access Partners

God has kindly allowed me to get to know a ton of incredibly committed, intelligent and gifted young men zealous for His kingdom and glory. That's been one of the things I've treasured most about life in Christ, getting to know brothers and sisters from all over the world who share Christ as our Great Treasure. One of those guys heads up Access Partners, a business development firm that works in hard to reach places. FBC has been supporting this group over the last year. And I think you will be encouraged by their work.

Tell us about yourself.

My name is Jonathan, and I live in Washington, DC. Prior to founding Access Partners, I had a background in business development and used to negotiate partnerships for a telecommunications company.

What is the mission of Access Partners?

Access Partners is a business incubator that facilitates church planting among the least reached people groups in the world.

Our passion is to see the gospel proclaimed to the nations through the planting of biblical indigenous churches in the Central Asia. We come alongside church planters to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth through business.

One of the greatest needs in the cause of world missions is access to the gospel. As the apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?”

For centuries people have been traveling as missionaries to share the gospel with those who have never heard it. But in places where worldviews, cultures and governments are hostile to Christianity, access to this message is increasingly limited. In other words, millions of people in the world have little chance to hear the gospel preached. In the past, Christians have been able to enter restricted access countries as students and humanitarian workers. However, as governments continue to crack down on mission work, it has become more difficult to obtain or even retain these visas.

One solution to this obstacle is the creation of viable, for-profit businesses that both contribute to a country’s economy and provide sustainability and credibility for those wishing to advance the gospel in that country. Why? Credible business has proven to be an avenue on which even “closed countries” are willing to let foreigners through.

To those ends, Access Partners (AP) seeks to create businesses that facilitate healthy church planting among the least reached. To be sure, we’re not talking about creating fake businesses or business that only serve the purpose of making money. We’re talking about real businesses that directly allow church planters to form relationships with people who have never heard the gospel. To facilitate this work, AP works together with missions organizations to start up and optimize businesses, enabling church planters to reach otherwise inaccessible locations and communities.

How did Access Partners begin?

In 2002, I explored “business as missions” through a project in Central Asia. I partnered with a team needing a legitimate means of residing in a city with few Christians. They wanted to share the gospel in this highly restricted and it seemed like business might be the avenue for doing so.

Our solution was to try to assist the locals in that community through selling fair trade handicrafts. Artisans in that city have a well-developed history of crafts that readily find local markets, so it was a great opportunity. I found it thrilling to wake up every day being able to use my skills and experience to do something I loved - and also know that I was helping establish a foundation for bringing the gospel to those who had never heard.

To get this business off the ground rightly, I found I needed help from someone with technology experience. So I started working with a technology consultant based in the US named Daniel - who would later become the other founder of Access Partners with me. Together we launched the business and saw encouraging initial sales.

Throughout the development of this fair trade business, one theme resonated continually: the importance of business in church planting strategy. It became evident that business was increasingly an optimal way of bringing the gospel to these locations where obtaining a visa had become more and more difficult.

Confronted with this reality, we decided to think in larger terms than even our initial handicrafts business. We traveled across the 10/40 window and interviewed over 20 church planters in 5 countries to see if they could use business consultation help in order to stay in-country and continue their church planting efforts. Almost unanimously, they responded positively to the notion.

With all of this in mind, Daniel and I returned to the States and decided to start what is now a growing organization: Access Partners.

Access Partners began as a consulting partner for a partnering organization working in the Central Asia region. We were called upon to formally assist several of their church planting teams set up kingdom businesses in the field.

During our first year, Access Partners helped establish two businesses, each supporting 6 church planters. Since then, we have expanded so that the organization is now supporting over 50 church planters on 12 teams.

AP has launched 4 businesses and is working on 12 new business start-ups in 2009-2010, 3 of which are in cities that currently have no gospel witness. These businesses will support an additional 40 church planters.

You are doing what you and others refer to as "business as missions." Can you explain what "BAM" is and how your approach is unique among other BAM models?

Business as missions (BAM) is a strategy that has been implemented in many ways by various proponents of it. For the particular problem we are trying to solve- that is, facilitating church planting among the most unreached people groups in the world- we have fine tuned our approach using five particular values:

1) Prioritize the 10/40 window
Our passion is to support those who are working among people groups who are least reached by the gospel message. They happen to live in places that are quite hostile to Christianity, where believers face persecution from their community and the government. As a result, their locations are where BAM is most relevant.

2) Implement sustainable models
We are not out to reinvent the business wheel. Rather, we aim to use best practices in international business development and apply it towards solving the problem of access in these closed countries. While there are circumstances beyond our control in these areas where war and corruption are daily realities, we seek to find business models that will allow our missionary friends to stay in the country for a long time. Because of this, we need to use business models that are legitimate and at the same time supportive of church planting activities and timeframes. A sustainable model will also take into consideration the community’s benefit - we want these businesses to be a blessing to the cities they serve.

3) Build legitimate businesses
Any BAM business needs to be run with integrity, to properly reflect the Savior whom we serve. We don’t want to risk damaging a church planter’s gospel witness, so we do not encourage fake businesses, or businesses that only exist on paper. This is why we take time to carefully design the business operations, make sure they have the right personnel on the ground leading it, and build a plan to be profitable. The business needs to be legitimate and needs to makes sense to the community it serves.

4) Partner with experts
We are blessed to work within a network of like-minded organizations, and we hope to keep expanding this network to help us solve this problem of access faster. We partner with missions organizations, for instance, who send people into the field who have done church planting for years and have spent much time learning the cultures and the environments of the people they serve. We work with organizations who have also used BAM in other contexts to learn from their projects.

5) Work through the local church
Matthew 28 is not just a command for individuals; it is a charge given by the Lord to His church. We have seen much success following this biblical pattern in the way we operate. Through our partner churches, we have found a treasure trove of skilled business men and women who are passionate about the Great Commission, and desire to use their gifting to get the gospel message out to those who have not heard it. We also find pastors and church staff who are willing to mobilize their congregation, give us their advice, and connect us with the right people.

Finally, the church planters we support work in teams and prioritize local church planting as an important aspect of their ministry: a setup that is invaluable especially when you are in a country where often you are the only Christians there.

Where exactly is your work taking place?

We focus on Central Asia region for our work — the most unreached region in the world (0.016% Christian).

Could you describe some specific projects you're working on?

Our most strategic initiative in 2008 was the Business Directors Program. We want to ensure that the right businesspeople are working on these teams overseas. Church planters who need to focus on leadership development and evangelism are often not equipped to manage a business. Instead of asking them to bear the full weight of entrepreneurship and business management, we recruit people from the US to manage the businesses and provide an umbrella under which the church planters can work part-time.

By God’s grace, we’ve hit our target of 3 business directors for 2008 and are almost halfway through the target of 7 for 2009! An example of the candidates is an owner of a construction company. He and his wife were planning on retiring before but now are joining one of our teams and helping run their operations. They are selling their company and preparing to move overseas in 2009.

Other candidates are former divisional managers of Fortune 100 companies and small business owners of companies with $10M revenue – in other words, there are solid businesspeople. We believe that this new approach establishes a good foundation from where we can then scale in the future.

What church planting impact have you seen as a result of this model?

The church planting impact in the field as a result of this business as missions model has been enormous. We traveled to Central Asia to meet with some of our church planting partners during their annual meeting a few months ago, and were thrilled to hear about the Lord’s work among the nations where they serve.

Take, for example, a young lady who heard the gospel for the first time last year. We helped provide her with a Bible during a trip that we took in 2007 and, over the past year, church planters have continued to share the gospel with her. Earlier this year, she became a Christian and was baptized.

Another team we support praised God for His work among locals. This team has been training local Muslim background believers to bring the gospel to other people groups. This past year, these believers started sharing with those around them and saw over 100 people make professions of faith. One of those people was a lady who met these believers as she waited by her gate outside her home. When she saw these believers, she was overjoyed since she had had a dream the previous night in which she felt led to stand outside gate the next day!

We also praised God when we heard of another team disseminating copies of the Bible to remote villages during a short-term trip, seeing the Word of God spread to new places. We are now helping this team consider ways they can live permanently close to these villages in order to be more involved in bringing the gospel to some very responsive, yet remote people.

As we support these church planting teams, we are continually amazed at what God is doing among the nations. He is accomplishing His purposes and displaying His wisdom. Although fruit may be slow sometimes, we know that God is working all things to bring Himself glory – and thus work with confidence as we support our teams on the field.

How can others get involved in your mission?

Here at the end of the year, the most influential way people can impact our work is by supporting us financially. We would be grateful for the readers of this blog to consider partnering with us by giving a gift to Access Partners online (http://www.access1040.com/).

But additionally, I encourage readers to educate themselves about the gospel needs and solutions to those needs in the 10/40 window by visiting our website and reading our white papers about business as missions, as well as recent updates from the field about church planting efforts. Sign up for our monthly E-newsletter and Quarterly mailings on our website as well, so that we can keep in touch with you about the work.

Finally, and most importantly, please pray for us. Pray for the church planters we support on the ground. And pray for the lost that we seek to reach with the good news of Christ. Let’s labor together is seeking God’s powerful hand among those who do not yet know Him.

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