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Defining Key Terms: Marketplace Ministry

The Enduring Marketplace

Author Neil Johnson defines the marketplace as "the forum through which human economic commerce is conducted." He describes the marketplace as "perhaps the only institution that touches, directly or indirectly, virtually every person on planet Earth. In one way or another, it is a pervasive part of every society, culture and people group. It is found in the midst of every religion and every political system in every historic era."[1]

Johnson makes an excellent point: the world runs on economics. The marketplace plays an essential role in those economics, as it always has.

When researching how to properly define marketplace ministry, I looked into how people of the Bible sustained themselves—with jobs, of course. Everyone had a way to provide for themselves and their families, which meant, in one way or another, they applied their occupation or skill in the marketplace.

In New Testament times, Roman rule and Roman roads allowed unprecedented access and freedom of movement between towns and their respective economies. This freedom allowed the Apostles to travel about teaching and preaching, moving further and further away from Jerusalem, starting churches, and interacting with other cultures. Much of this activity occurred in the cities, which were centers of the economic life of the empire.

We live in a time of unprecedented freedom of movement and access to other cultures and their economies.

In these centers that became the Christian church's origins, they could apply their own marketplace skills and receive support from the new believers who were engaged in many different types of work. They were merchants, physicians, stonemasons, soldiers, innkeepers, teachers, soldiers, carpenters, among many other professions.

Almost every New Testament profession has a modern-day equivalent—business owner, medical professional, engineer, military, hospitality, construction, etc. We also live in a time of unprecedented freedom of movement and access to other cultures and their economies. In fact, there is so much global economic activity it's almost impossible to define it all. The same is true about defining marketplace ministry.

Defining Today’s Marketplace Ministry

Perfect descriptions for marketplace work are elusive. Support, purpose, and reach objectives often overlap. Still, putting a few boundaries around the characteristics of each type is helpful as the local church and mission organizations seek to make marketplace ministry a more intentional part of Great Commission work.

As returned marketplace workers, my husband and I were recently asked to speak to a group of seminary students about our experience. We developed this general definition for a marketplace worker:

A follower of Jesus whose profession/skills provide an opportunity to interface with another culture in their context and who intentionally seeks to take advantage of the cross-cultural opportunities in obedience to the Great Commission.

It’s not perfect, but perhaps it’s a good starting place. From there, depending on whom you ask (or read), prevailing wisdom categorizes marketplace work into the following four broadly defined types.

Business as Missions - BAM

According to Mats Tunehag, Chairman of BAM Global, “Business as Mission is about real, viable, sustainable and profitable businesses; with a Kingdom of God purpose, perspective and impact; leading to a transformation of people and societies spiritually, economically and socially – to the greater glory of God.”

Open USA describes Business as Mission as the integration of ministry goals and business goals to make an impact for God’s Kingdom. As a strategy, BAM generally describes any for-profit business endeavor that seeks to reach people and communities for the glory of God and is not artificially supported by donor funds.[2]

Present-day examples include self-supporting businesses with a kingdom-minded focus. According to author Patrick Lai, BAM can include entities like schools, travel agencies, clinics, stores, restaurants, consulting firms, import-export, computer businesses, etc. [3]

Biblical examples include Priscilla and Aquila, who, from what we know of them from Scripture, were tentmakers who did not appear to have received financial support from outside sources. Their close association with and support of Paul and their help establishing two house churches in Ephesus and Rome make them good models of New Testament BAM.

Interestingly, in Paul Bunyan's classic The Pilgrim's Progress, the innkeeper is named Gaius. Could he be named after the Gaius of 3 John, known for his hospitality and support for the traveling messengers of God's Word? There is no way to tell if Gaius was an innkeeper or hosted travelers in his home, but it appears his hospitality was focused on providing a service for the kingdom.

Business for Transformation - B4T

B4T organizations typically are at least partially supported by individuals, mission organizations, and/or churches. Open USA describes them as “businesses striving for profitability and sustainability, which are strategically placed in unreached areas. B4T businesses create jobs and bless the local community in Jesus’ name, generally through transformation, and specifically through evangelism, discipleship, and church planting. B4T Businesses are held accountable to two bottom lines: spiritual and economic impact in the local community.”

Present-day examples can include coffee shops, businesses for local artisans, youth sports organizations, and faith-based microfinance entities that employ baristas, craftspeople, athletes, and finance professionals, respectively.

Biblical examples include Paul as he relied on the support of the fledgling community of believers and his business as a proper tentmaker wherever he traveled. His primary purpose aligned with the ultimate goals of B4T.

What about Lydia’s story in Acts 16? Her relocation from Thyatira to Philippi, her conversion through the discipleship of Paul and Silas, her artisan skill in producing and selling expensive purple cloth, and her role in establishing the church in Greece placed her firmly in a place of influence for spiritual and economic impact.

Non-Governmental Organizations - NGOs

NGOs are non-profit charitable organizations. There are many Christian NGOs that engage in a wide range of services that include medical care, famine relief, orphan care, education, natural disaster relief, and other need-based assistance. They employ physicians, aid workers, trained child care workers, teachers, firefighters or EMTs, and legal professionals.

By meeting physical needs, the individuals helped along with their community often become open to hearing our suggestions concerning their spiritual needs as well.

The concept of meeting needs weaves throughout Scripture in such a way that it is impossible not to see where NGOs get their marching orders. Jesus is the ultimate example of feeding the hungry, healing the sick, caring for widows and orphans, providing aid for the downtrodden and, most of all, meeting the spiritual needs of all humanity. That is why Patrick Lai writes, “workers who serve in relief and development ministries are helping to meet the physical, educational, and material needs of people. Meeting the needs of people is an obligation of all Christians. By meeting physical needs, the individuals helped along with their community often become open to hearing our suggestions concerning their spiritual needs as well.”[4]

Tentmakers – Professionals

The term "tentmaker" is used to describe all types of marketplace workers, and it isn't easy to pin down a definition. It is helpful to think of this worker as a member of the body of Christ who is a professional that lives and works overseas in another culture, fully supported by the company that employs them. Wherever the job may take them, they strive to live out their faith in their cross-cultural environment.

Present-day examples include employees on foreign assignments with multi-national organizations like those in the energy sector, aviation, construction, and finance. The definition could be much broader, especially if you include the thousands of military, state department, and government contract personnel working around the world.

Cornelius’s story in Acts 10–11 is an excellent example of a New Testament professional’s impact on another culture. He was an uncircumcised Gentile, a Roman centurion based in Caesarea, primarily a Gentile region. His conversion and interaction with Peter deeply affected two cultures: Jewish and Gentile. It was a radical and surprising development that contributed to the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles in the region and beyond.

Accept the Imprecise

Indeed, many named and unnamed people in the early church (e.g., Romans 16) would fit easily into one or more of the marketplace categories described above, if only we knew more about them!

ALL marketplace workers and their families need support from their local church.

Defining marketplace work requires flexibility. The lines are fine, and they often overlap. There are many variables present in every circumstance. But even an imperfect categorization is helpful. Why? Because there are essential differences in the preparation and training required for each area. For example, BAM operators need investors. B4T entrepreneurs need a solid financial support structure, business savvy, and ministry training. NGO workers need specific skills, and professionals need cultural adaptation and awareness education (that their employers often don't provide) to navigate their international assignments. Let’s not forget that defining is immensely helpful for called ones attempting to determine which area they are most suited to.

Finally, ALL marketplace workers and their families need support from their local church. They need education, awareness, and training in ministry skills, self-care, cultural adaptation, family issues, and community. All of these areas contribute to their health and well-being as they live cross-culturally.

Do you have marketplace workers in your midst? Are you a marketplace worker called to live cross-culturally? Please check out our training designed to prepare international marketplace workers, no matter what area of marketplace work you may engage in. Global Marketplace Missions Training: Equipping International Marketplace Workers

Other Resources


[1] C. Neil Johnson, "Tranformation to, within, and through the Marketplace," in A Unifying Vision of the Church's Mission (Thailand: Forum for World Evangelization, 2004), 63–64.

[3] Patrick Lai, Tentmaking: The Life and Work of Business as Missions, Kindle edition (InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition), 13.

[4] Ibid., 48.


Shirley Ralston (MA in Christian Education, Dallas Theological Seminary) is a founding member of the Missionary Care Team at Houston’s First Baptist Church. She also serves on the pastor’s research team and teaches Life Bible Study to single young adults. Shirley and her husband, Jeff, now reside in Houston after living overseas for several years. You can find her on Twitter and


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