Tentmaking, in general, refers to the activities of any Christian who, while dedicating him or herself to the ministry of the Gospel, receives little or no pay for Church work, but performs other (“tentmaking”) jobs to provide support. Specifically, tentmaking can also refer to a method of international Christian evangelism in which missionaries support themselves by working full-time in the marketplace with their skills and education, instead of receiving financial support from a Church. The term comes from the fact that the apostle Paul supported himself by making tents while living and preaching in Corinth (Acts 18:3).
Unlike Peter and other apostles in the early Christian Church, who devoted themselves entirely to their religious ministry and lived off the money donated by Church members.(see Acts 4:34-37) Paul frequently performed outside work, not desiring to be a financial burden to the young Churches he founded. In Thessaloniki, Paul states that he and his companions “worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you” (2 Thessalonians 3:8). Paul’s purpose in working was to set an example for the Christians, desiring that they not become idle in their expectation of the return of Christ, but that they would work to support themselves. He also hoped that his refusal to accept financial support would build his credibility among non-Christians, thus giving him the chance to win over more of them (See 1 Corinthians 9, particularly verse 12). For additional glimpses into the Apostle Paul’s tentmaking ministry see Acts 18:1-3; 20:33-35; Philippians 4:14-16.
Financial support is not the only essence of tentmaking. Instead the vocational identity coupled with excellence of work and lifestyle influences colleagues to follow Jesus Christ.
More recently, William Carey (1761-1831), considered to be the father of modern evangelical Christian missions, was a tentmaker in India, working as a factory owner and university professor while fulfilling his mission duties. At the time, international mission work was a new and controversial idea in the Church, and tentmaking was the only way for Carey to support his ministry. His example has led thousands of Christian missionaries to support themselves while ministering overseas.
Furthermore, tentmaking sometimes provides Christians the chance to serve in countries normally closed to mission work. Governments hostile to Christianity often accept well-qualified teachers, doctors, computer technicians and engineers into their countries to work, even if these men and women are Christians. These professionals are thus able to serve the country and support themselves while performing missions work.
In the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, the term “working clergy” is used to denote men who, although assigned or not to a parish, must provide for themselves. More often than not, these are married priests who take positions in hospitals or other charitable institutions, although some can be solicitors or school teachers as well. A famous example of a working clergyman was the Orthodox Saint Luke (Voino-Yasenetsky), Bishop of Simferopol and Crimea, who continued to work as a surgeon and medical doctor even after his ordination.
Digital Times, Blogging
Currently more and more laypersons and ministry professionals are spending time online via their blogs and using them to earn an income, both passive and active, through direct advertising sales, affiliate marketing, or promoting other products and services related to their work outside of ministry proper.
They have been referred as “Digital Tentmakers” or “TentBloggers” (tentblogging), those that make money through their blogs
1. It gives us a tested and proven strategy to adapt and implement
Paul gives us our only N.T. strategy for pioneer missionary work, and the Holy Spirit has preserved it for us in great detail, because he intends us to use it. It is designed to produce missionary lay movements, and has done so repeatedly when implemented through history! (John Nevius taught this strategy to the early missionaries to Korea, and it has never recovered! There are reasons why it is “the bright light of Asia.”)
Remember that his strategy includes not only his self-support and workplace evangelism, but his holy life, deep Bible teaching, his spiritual power and his willingness to suffer.
Paul’s strategy mobilizes lay people as lay people—and doesn’t turn them into religious professionals, as our mission agencies often do today. By teaching lay people to do workplace evangelism, we can guarantees the infiltration of every structure of society by Christians!
We win too many individuals from the fringes of society, or we remove converts from their social circles, so they have little evangelistic influence. We must aim at the heads of extended families and at employers—people who can bring many converts with them. Paul did this by requiring former lazy, thieving, lying slaves to do quality work, with great personal integrity. So the householders and employers would ask about the transformation, and be led to Paul and to Jesus Christ. (This can work as effectively today!)
Donald McGavran said that church growth requires a large force of unpaid evangelists. But how are they to be produced if the only models we provide are donor-supported? Missionaries from western countries are considered wealthy, even when they live modestly.
Paul’s strategy almost totally frees missions from the bottleneck of money, and all its related problems.
I think it is significant that our need for Paul’s lay missionary strategy should come just at a time when there is an exploding international job market! It is not there by accident, but by God’s design! He intends it for one purpose—to help us finish world evangelization. But we are making extremely poor use of it while cults and non-Christian religions use it well.
2. It provides a biblical basis for tentmaking
We need it to motivate and guide us and to reduce our high attrition rate. It makes a difference when discouragement comes, to be able to look at Scripture, and say “Here is the biblical reason we are here and serving in this particular way.” About 30% of missionaries do not finish their first term or return for a second one. In the case of tentmakers, they just don’t renew their one to three year contracts. We are pleased at how many of our applicants have made long term commitments. But would not many tentmakers do so, if they had a strong biblical basis from Scripture? This is especially true because many get little encouragement from their home churches, or the mission community, or from creative access people on the field. Paul-style tentmaking is neither appreciated nor well understood. If they don’t need financial support from their home churches it is difficult for them to get any prayer support at all!
The only missionary couple in an African town, refused the help and fellowship of a theologically trained tentmaker, because he did not belong to their mission, even though they were from the same evangelical tradition.
3. It gives us a basic definition for the term “tentmaker”
Our definition has to be what Paul did, for the reasons that he did it: Tentmakers are missions-motivated Christians who support themselves as they do cross-cultural evangelism on the job and in their free time. (It may be more than this, but not be less.)
Our biggest immediate problem is the lack of a common definition. A word with 13 to 20 definitions is as devalued as currency in triple digit inflation. The attempts that have been made to derive a definition from the diverse practices called tentmaking, can only give us a lowest common denominator—not a useful definition. We must never begin with experience (what cults do), but with Scripture, and then bring our practice in line with it.
All combinations of self-support and donor support are legitimate, whether or not they are Paul-style tentmaking. But if we appropriate the term from Paul, we should take our primary definition from what he did and taught, and for his reasons. We may then design our variations around him.
A. Why is a common definition needed?
a) For clear communication. At present, anything one person says on the subject can be contradicted by others who use a different definition. People are finding it inexcusably confusing!
b) For recruiting. A great many lay people are excited about using their professions abroad in tentmaking. But when they contact mission agencies, they are told to raise support, and to minimize their jobs, and they realize this is not what they believed God wanted them to do.
Someone recently wrote an excellent description of the whole confusing tentmaker scene—all the options called tentmaking, and then said graciously that we probably just have to rejoice in our diversity. But I thought we should sit down and weep! This is no way to win a war! Paul says that if the bugle sound is not clear no one will go to battle. Our confusion is keeping professional people at home in droves!
c) For mutual respect, fellowship and cooperation. Missionaries who use jobs mainly for entry visas often express disdain for those who feel God wants them to do workplace evangelism. (One book that considers these latter as second class calls them “Priscilla” types!) On the other hand, Christians with substantial jobs often feel some creative access people are deceitful, getting visas under false pretenses, and doing clandestine missionary work behind the front or cover of minimal jobs and phantom businesses. When we have so few troops in hostile countries, we cannot afford to have them suspicious of each other! It is urgent to have clear terms and definitions, and all should understand what Paul taught and did.
d) For implementation of Paul’s lay movement strategy. Our problem is not in what we are already doing—God is blessing. It is what we are failing to do because of the confusion. Because so many things are called tentmaking which have little or no resemblance to Paul’s strategy, the Paul-style tentmaking which we so urgently need, is largely ignored, along with our God-given global job market. And we need both to finish world evangelization!
B. Suggested terms: If we use “tentmaker” only for Paul’s model of self–support and cross-cultural workplace evangelism, then we can employ terms already in use for models which do not coincide with Paul’s, or do so only minimally. I suggest the following:
a) Christian expatriates. Several hundred thousand American Christians have jobs in other countries, but probably not one percent do any cross-cultural evangelism, because they had little or no ministry at home, and crossing an ocean did not change that. It is not fair to lump them with genuine tentmakers, and attribute their deficiencies to faithful workers who take risks for the gospel in hostile countries. It is this confusion which has damaged tentmaking more than any other. Almost every article on tentmaking ends up with a long list of “disadvantages,” most of which apply to expats, but not to genuine tentmakers. Mere “Christian expats” are not missionaries of any kind! (But many have potential. God helped me mobilize a number of them with on-the-field training.)
b) Lay witnesses. Paul’s ministry principles are as effective at home as they are abroad. But the term “tentmaker” is like the word “missionary.” We use “evangelism” as a general term, and “missionary” when it is cross-cultural. So we say “lay ministry” but should save the term “tentmaker” for cross-cultural lay ministry. That is important also because the word designates not just an activity, but a unique approach to missions strategy and finance. If Paul had never left Jerusalem, it would not matter much to us if he had been a potter, a spice vendor or a toga tailor.
But lay witnesses at home are important, and those who do cross-cultural evangelism in the workplace, are tentmakers like those who go abroad.
c) Regular missionaries. We need many more of them! But even those who do educational, agricultural, or health care work, etc., are viewed by local people as missionaries because of their support and organizational ties. They have a wonderful model in Jesus, and in Peter, who left his fishing business forever at Jesus’ request (Lk. 5:1-11, John 21). They also have Paul’s approval. But those who work some hours in secular institutions, (to satisfy government requirements) also gain some benefits of Paul’s approach.
d) Christian social service workers
We need more of them, too! How God must be pleased with our relief and development work around the planet, because “the world” that he loves is not just the Christians! (Jn. 3:16, Rom. 5:8) But the workers are usually church or donor-supported. Exceptional cases might fit Paul’s model.
e) “Creative access” missionaries
They are often called tentmakers, but differ from Paul because most are on donor support, and usually give little importance to workplace evangelism. Minimal jobs are sought for entry visas. In some ways the approach is the opposite of Paul’s. But God is blessing in many locations!
Consider some hybrid options. I suggest that people on salary, who receive a small supplement in gifts, are still tentmakers, while those on donor support, with minimal earnings, are still “creative access missionaries.” In summary, all the combinations are good as long as they are honest, and we must all serve as God leads us.
But we must have clear terms. Unless we have a clear definition and a commonly accepted term for what Paul did, his strategy will not be implemented because it will continue to be lost in the present confusion.
4. It helps solve our problems of personnel and finance
Paul’s strategy can allay our alarm at the fact that many missionaries are at retirement age, and fewer young ones are applying. At present, we are in a demographic trough in the U.S. and the ratio of young people to retirees is low. But we have an enormous number of lay people who love the Lord, and Paul’s strategy urges us to mobilize them for overseas service. Many overseas positions have no upper age limit and there is part-time work. Older people are respected abroad. (See our GO Paper for Retirees.) But let’s help them to serve as lay people, and not turn them into religious professionals.
5. It suggests needed training
A. Academic training and work experience. Christians must see that excellent academic preparation is essential to their ministry. Governments only allow the hiring of foreigners with expertise their country needs. Because of today’s trend to globalization, many college majors require language and culture study abroad.
B. Spiritual preparation. This should resemble that of most regular missionaries. In a war, not all soldiers need officer training, like doctorates in missiology or theology. (Some tentmakers have them.) But all must know how to do spiritual warfare, and must have good inductive Bible study and evangelism skills. They need at least the equivalent of one year of Bible school, but may acquire it in various ways. Some of the finest missionary training is given by campus fellowships in secular universities—because it is in-service training. Universities are microcosms of a multicultural, spiritually hostile world. All aspiring tentmakers should gain experience on a secular campus or in a secular job. But all should also take a missions course.
6. It brings balance into our missionary work
We need to provide both kinds of models for new converts—ideally, together. Otherwise we export abroad the same distortions our churches suffer at home. We usually give our converts no models for how to live and serve God in the working world. We teach, by default, that all Christians are second rate, except for “full-time” religious workers.
A. Lay people can give converts models for life and witness in the working world. Dr. Pius Wakatama from Zimbabwe says missionaries never helped their converts to get into the economic mainstream of their countries. I think it wasn’t their job—they needed tentmakers to do it! (But they did provide education!)
B. Lay people can infiltrate every structure of society, in a way that religious workers cannot. Paul had Erastus, the city treasurer of Corinth, well-to-do householders, artisans, slaves and rehabilitated bums from off the street! He probably had people in every vocation, some from every trade guild, and every ethnic group. Too often after decades, we have only reached people from fringe groups.
C. Lay people can effectively engage culture at home and abroad in a way religious workers cannot. Dr.Newbigin says we are wrong to focus only on individual conversions and church planting, but must also challenge the worldviews and the falsehoods that dominate the cultures in which we serve. (2 Cor. 10:3-5).
Jacques Elull says we have little right to criticize the sad state of our society, because the church has all the answers, but remains silent. It can speak to society only through its lay people, and they are ineffective because they have been neglected. Only they are distributed throughout the structures of society.
We could not accomplish much without our religious workers—and we count ourselves among them. Pastors, teachers and missionaries are God’s gifts to the church, with important roles to fill. But as religious workers, let us mobilize the lay people in our churches for their important roles in our own country, and as tentmakers abroad.
In conclusion, I urge that we seriously consider Paul’s strategy, and adapt it for our day, because I believe its main components are essential if we hope to fulfill our missionary mandate to finish world evangelization!