by Michael Roemmele – Interserve
(Being a concern that the Christian tentmaker be a fully integrated person in his own view and that of others, and that the tentmaking movement be understood in the context of renewal movements in the church worldwide)
There is a vast lack of understanding in the home churches which have been accustomed to sending out missionaries, regarding tentmaking. Worse, there are those who, given a little understanding and information, are negative and suspicious about tentmaking. It is too readily identified with “covert operations”, and it is difficult to understand why “sending churches” should anyway be involved with someone who is going to be self-supporting, and who indeed may be earning more than the majority of those who stay at home.
Just as there is a great need for clearer understanding at the home end, so amongst those who are practicing as tentmakers there is an urgent need for a clear self-understanding. Many problems arise for the individual tentmaker through the attempt to combine in the one person a “missionary” and a “secular person”. Problems can arise from an inner conflict, in the area of conscience. They can also arise because of tensions between the demands which relate to the job being done and the place in society with which this is associated; and the constraints of being associated with a Christian organization.
Section 1: THE TENTMAKING MOVEMENT
We truly are referring to a movement. All round the world today, men and women are moving cross-culturally to use their professions and trades in the cause of world mission. There are several ways of looking at this movement. Each of these may have some truth in it, but if taken alone can be misleading or even damaging because they are only partial. For example:
· Tentmaking is a substitute for explicit missionary work, necessary because of reduced freedom to enter countries as “missionaries “.
· Tentmakers are just Christians who are simply part of the worldwide movement of people in trade, service industries etc.
· Tentmaking is a cheaper means of world evangelism, because self-supporting.
Each of the above distorts the true picture of what tentmaking is. We go further, to say that it is inadequate to view tentmaking as simply a new response to the Great Commission of Matthew 28. It is something more. Tentmaking is one facet of renewal in the church worldwide, essentially a renewed understanding of the priesthood of all believers. Whereas in the Reformation this doctrine was perhaps emphasized as an antidote to sacerdotalism and the dominance of the clergy, now it is being expressed more as a statement ‘of the responsibility of every believer to be active in bringing God’s grace to men and women everywhere. This ministry is not for “specialists”, but for every Christian. This applies at home and abroad. Enter the tentmaker!
Further, there is no false distinction between the sacred and the secular. Work (“secular” work) is ministry. The “full time Christian worker” is not spiritually superior to the lay Christian. All Christians are called to plan their lives in fulfillment of God’s purposes. That includes decisions about the where and how of work, For some, it means leaving home and going abroad. Some of the latter equip themselves with training (language, theological etc.) for effectiveness in cross-cultural witnessing. Enter the tentmaker!
There is also no false distinction between work and word. Neither is superior as a means of witness: rather, they are different aspects of it. The work expresses and agrees with the word of testimony; the word explains the witness of the work. Work is not just a means to an end, a necessary activity so that one can live ·and witness. Work is part of witness. Tentmaking is a movement of worker-witnesses. As the church awakens to the responsibility that all Christians are to be meaningfully involved in witness through life, work and word, for some this involvement means crossing into other cultural groups to make Christ known among them. They do not leave their church, but go out as an extension of it. This is the tentmaking movement.
Section 2: THE INDIVIDUAL TENTMAKER
A. The Period Of Preparation
Once abroad, the tentmaker will need to have a healthy self understanding: he is not a “missionary in disguise”, not “an agent of a foreign organization,” not “an evangelist using a job as a cover”. The period of preparation should help, rather than hinder, the development of an integrated, consistent view of himself.
He needs to develop an integrated view of work, life and missionary. He should be actively involved in the life of his church as a lay person, not because of having a label like “missionary candidate” or “missions internee”. He should work hard on shaping his home life according to Biblical principles, not just the norms of his own culture. The same applies to his relationships within society, and to recreation.
Biblical and cross-cultural studies will help him develop a truly Biblical understanding of integrity. We easily accept the norms of integrity from our own society, and react against practices which differ from these, in another culture. The tentmaker needs to be able to live with such differences or ambiguities without these disturbing or distorting his own (Biblical) worldview. Examples are how a person responds to personal, investigative questions; how one views “secrecy and openness”. The worst thing the tentmaker can do in his adopted culture is to take his stand on such things on the basis of his own cultural norms.
Relationship with the home church needs to be clearly established and understood. Probably a smaller support group is advisable, one which understands the Kingdom of God in terms of values like faithfulness and obedience. Such are the values the tentmaker needs to center on, rather than “success”. The church and support groups need to understand that communications from their tentmaker will not be in the familiar style of the “missionary” and they should not pressure him by their expectations of explicit success stories.
If a relationship with a mission-type support group is established before leaving home, this needs to be the kind he can comfortably handle as a “secularly employed” person. Probably that rules out being a member of any such group, and some other kind of relationship needs to be formulated.
It will be preferable that the tentmaker himself be responsible for job-seeking and contact-making, even if he uses facilities (like a Christian placement agency) offered by Christian groups. Once there, he will have to demonstrate that he is “autonomous” and not an agent, so this should be the case from the beginning, in the interests of consistency and training.
B. Once On Location
We consider seven factors involving choices to be made in the interests of maintaining integrity before others and within the tentmaker’s own consciousness.
1. The tentmaker’s own conscience
He needs to be able to explain who and what he is, comfortably. He really is a carpet salesman, a doctor, a teacher, a newspaper correspondent; not someone who has adopted a “cover” for other activities. Contrary to some popular beliefs, he also needs to know how to describe himself openly as a Christian (perhaps as “a follower of God”) without feeling awkward about being one in his present position.
Usually a visa has been granted for a stated purpose. That is then his declared, official identity in the country, and the one to which people will expect to respond. He needs to live consistently with this, otherwise he will have struggles with his own conscience, others will start to question, and his testimony will be harmed.
2. The tentmaker and his work
The tentmaker should have a high view of his work, rather than seeing it as a necessary irritant in his pursuit of “real ministry”. A healthy view of work includes
· a valid expression of true stewardship of God’s gifts
· a ministry given and directed by God, which can be a witness to God
· a legitimate means of financial support
· an example to national believers
Therefore, the tentmaker will perform his work willingly, responsibly, creatively and with biblical appropriateness to the culture and his work situation.
3. The tentmaker’s profile
The tentmaker’s lifestyle and the way in which he presents himself to others must be consistent as well as appropriate to the cultural context. Those who have been most successful long-term are characterized by an acceptance of their roles, with the accompanying privileges, responsibilities and limitations. This includes
· his social life
· his “standard of living”
· his management of his own finances
· the kind of people he keeps company with
· time off from work
The opposite to what is intended by this would be a tentmaker who, because related to a mission organization, lived on a fraction of his salary and was unable to mix freely with the people he worked alongside because of lack of finance; and who spent most of his free time with other expatriate Christians, always insisting on holiday dates that were in fact the annual “mission conference”.
4. The tentmaker and the local church (where one exists)
We are not able to generalize in this area, because the church situation in the Middle East varies greatly from country to country, and from place to place within some countries.
One mistake to avoid is making a unilateral decision to ignore or avoid the local church completely. That may be seen as the right thing to do because of “security issues” as they affect the church and/or his ministry to those outside the church. However, we urge the tentmaker to
· seek out information about local churches, ahead of his arrival
· recognize that where there is an option of an international or a local church, there are sometimes good arguments for associating with either
· seek advice from national church leaders about involvement in church life
· make sure the local pastor understands who he (the tentmaker) is and why he is there, in the interests of building mutual confidence, unless no basis for this can be found
· remember his own need for spiritual growth, encouragement etc.
· let his association or non-association with a church be consistent with his “profile” (see no 3 above)
· be sure his decisions reflect the fact that he is part of the church worldwide
· consider the possible stimulus his example may be to national believers, to accept their responsibility for lay witness and lay ministry
· remember that, in all likelihood, when he has left the church will remain.
5. The tentmaker and the host government
Governments are part of God’s plan for the world of men. The tentmaker should understand, respect and honor the government of his host country, and should accept his responsibility to that government. This involves an acceptance of the conditions and expectations attached to any visa grant, as well as the laws of the country in general, unless these clearly contradict the commands of God.
The tentmaker should take active steps to understand the way in which Middle Eastern governments work. For example, it is appropriate in the Middle East always to press for a yes/no answer. It is vital for a tentmaker to fit a category understood and accepted by the host government and to behave in a manner fitting that category. He should always have an identifiable “sponsor” in the country — this may be his employer, a friend, even a church. People with no local sponsor are suspect.
6. The finances of the tentmaker
People become suspicious if the tentmaker’s financial situation is hard to understand or inconsistent with his profile. If he lives above the means his local salary would allow, where does the rest of his money come from? If he lives well below his salary, why? It seems Important that the tentmaker be allowed to control his finances, rather than have others (a mission board?) decide what he can or can’t do with his earnings. Also, If he is “subsidized” from outside, that source of funding should be explainable without embarrassment. See other comments under no 3 above.
It is also important that the sending church and/or any “support group” understand clearly what are the financial arrangements for the tentmaker, lest suspicions arise in these quarters. If appropriate, there should be mutually agreed systems for reporting and accountability re finance. The emphasis and motivation of the tentmaker lie in God’s calling to a particular people group. Therefore the question of financial returns are of lower priority and not a major determining factor. The tentmaker must be flexible as regards salary. However, the salary must be appropriate in context and fit the profile of the job.
WARNING : be alert against becoming possessed by a materialistic lifestyle!
7. Relationship between the tentmaker and his Support Group
Many tentmakers are related to a support group, whether of the “mission” variety or something different. The purpose of the support group is to encourage, support and, facilitate the tentmaker in his ministry, while providing accountability for him. Varying relationships may be established with the support group, but mutual commitment must be a priority in any of them. The relationship is not that of employer/employee, but rather of a shared commitment to a goal and mutual commitment to spiritual responsibility and accountability. Also, perhaps, financial responsibility and accountability. It is not a matter of organizational membership. It is strongly recommended that the tentmaker attend annual conferences and receive pastoral visits by the leadership of the support group. The support group needs to be sensitive as regards mailings, visits and publicity in order to safeguard the tentmaker and his job.
In avoiding the employer/employee relationship, the support group may wish to “put on offer” various support facilities such as a pension plan, education fund for children, etc, rather than having these built into a “contract”.