Tentmakers are missions-motivated Christians who use their professions to earn a living abroad with the purpose of cross-cultural evangelism, on the job and elsewhere. They follow Paul’s model of self-support. By contrast, regular missionaries are religious workers who follow Peter’s model of donor support. Most Christians who work overseas are neither since they have no missions goal. See GO’s “Why Did Paul Make Tents?”
Careful study shows that Paul made tents to fund his ministry in every strategic city. By his model of self-supported evangelism he turned his converts into unpaid lay witnesses and reproduced himself many times over. As a result they quickly evangelized their regions! Tentmaking is a missiological term for Paul’s whole strategy of missions pioneering.
This question assumes Christians serve God only in free time. But tentmakers integrate work and witness! They do full-time ministry within their regular job! All day, every day, they live out the gospel and find opportunities to talk sensitively about Jesus. They also evangelize neighbors and other social contacts, and serve fellow believers and the local church.
To talk about God all day on the employer’s time is dishonest and turns off associates. But all jobs allow appropriate levels of conversation, which makes witness possible. However, God tells Christians to serve their employer as wholeheartedly as if he were Jesus Christ. So employers benefit in every way by hiring them. (Eph. 6:5-8, Col. 3:22-24, Tit. 2:9-10, 1 Pet. 2:18-21) Tentmakers are committed to genuine service, personal integrity, quality work, and caring relationships, and make brief, sensitive comments about God. Their attractive, godly, non-judgmental lifestyle raises questions, which they answer briefly, and then explain further in free time. Committed Christians fit into Muslim and other cultures better than many expatriates who pursue sex, alcohol, and drugs.
In a sensitive country, indiscriminate evangelism can get the tentmaker arrested and the employer penalized. But Paul’s non-intrusive, non-confrontational, fishing evangelism greatly reduces the risk. Instead of imposing a religious conversation, tentmakers fish out seekers, answer their questions privately so as not to arouse hostility in others, and develop friendships with them. Ultimately, tentmakers must trust Jesus Christ, who can protect them, their families, teammates, seekers, and employers! No one can touch them without God’s permission!
Avoiding evangelism on the job out of fear backfires, and dishonors Christ. Because of their natural affinity and ongoing contact together, tentmakers are spiritually responsible for work associates–co-workers, bosses, clients, customers, and vendors. Christians are Christ’s representatives. They either represent Christ truthfully or shamefully. Silence betrays Christ and people (Mt 10:33, 12:30). We cannot love Christ who is Lord of everyone we meet and be silent. Nor can we love people whose greatest need is Christ and be silent. Quality work glorifies God, but cannot substitute for sharing the good news. On the other hand, using a job only as a cover or front for regular missionary work destroys integrity, creates tensions, and dishonors Christ. See Workplace Evangelism: How To Fish Out Seekers
It is selective and non-intrusive. You don’t invade the privacy of someone who might prove hostile. You fish out seekers by your character, conduct, and thought-provoking comments. You fill “opportunities” with surprises (Col 4:5,6)–patience when tempted to show anger, truthfulness when tempted to lie, caring when others show disdain. Admit you are still growing. Freely admit failures. Always answer questions as a learner–it’s non-threatening and takes the pressure off of you. Let seekers pace early conversations, as they are ready. Their questions reveal their spiritual history, their level of understanding, their felt needs, hurts and fears. They show you what to say and what to pray! Cooperate with what God’s Spirit is already doing in them! Liu asked, “Is there a book about God?” Lujia asked, “Who was Jesus?” Omar asked, “What does Jesus’ death have to do with me?” Hard questions provide a great opening to say, “May I have until tomorrow to organize my thoughts?” or, “Would you like to see what Jesus said?” Then you can lead a mini-study of a few verses. The job is essential. It is the God-given context for the evangelism! (See also Peter and Jesus in 1 Pet 3:14-17, Mk 4:10-12 [/toggle] [toggle title=”Can tentmakers plant churches?”] Their constant, natural association with non-believers makes them ideal church planters. In fact, only tentmaker teams can start churches where missionaries can’t go. Their evangelistic Bible studies turn into discipling fellowships, and then into house churches, as their local converts grow in godliness, gifts and leadership ability. But where appropriate churches already exist, take converts there rather than start yet another new ‘brand.’ But see “Church Planting: The Goal of Tentmaking
As many as their gifts, experience, training, and circumstances permit! God even gives new gifts to meet needs! Dan taught in an Arab university and translated the New Testament for seven million Muslims! Ruth taught school and started IVCF/IFES campus fellowships in Peruvian and Brazilian cities. Doug taught theology in an Indian seminary while doing grad studies in Hinduism. Nelly taught high school lit in Liberia and produced Christian radio programs. TESOL teacher Greg started a Christian bookshop and a publishing venture in the Middle East. Nan played violin in Portugal’s national symphony orchestra and trained church musicians. Tentmakers have helped start schools, orphanages, literacy programs, and small businesses—even hospitals.
Practical reasons: 1. Personnel: We will never have enough donor-supported workers to finish world evangelization—even with many new missionaries from the Two-thirds world. 2. Cost: Church budgets and donor giving have not kept up with rising costs. Most couples need 2½ years to raise support, but tentmakers can do full-time ministry at little or no expense to the church! 3. Access to restricted nations: Christians with vocational expertise can reach the 80% of the world’s 7 billion people who live under governments that restrict missionary visas. 4. Access to affinity groups in open countries. People often respond more readily to Christian co-workers who intersect their lives and understand their milieu. This is crucial in Japan which is open, but less than 1% evangelical! Much of Europe is less evangelized than much of Asia! 5. The global job market: This phenomenon of our day is no accident, but is God’s provision to help us fulfill our missions mandate in the 21st century! Labor is an invisible export and main source of income for many governments, even unskilled labor. Pakistani street sweepers witness faithfully to Christ in Saudi Arabia! But most important are Paul’s biblical reasons.
Near the end of his third journey, Paul is forced to answer Jewish detractors in Corinth who alleged that he was not a real apostle because he could not get support from the churches. Paul argues conclusively that donor support is valid, and that he as a genuine apostle had as much right to it as Peter! (Cor. 9). But he then says three times (for emphasis) that he had never made any use of this right! His team always supported itself, and not mere token employment—they often worked both shifts (2 Th. 3:6-13). They did not even seek financial help when they lacked adequate food and clothing. But didn’t Paul say he had robbed Macedonian churches to serve in Corinth? Robbed is hyperbole—exaggeration to shame his readers. (2 Cor 11:8-10). A decade later the Macedonians sent a gift to Paul in Nero’s palace prison in Rome where he could not work. In his thank you letter, he reminds them they were the only church that had ever given to him! And they gave only a few times (Phil 4). When his detractors accused him of receiving support secretly, he denied it. He even paid for hospitality! He owed no favors, and joined no factions that could compromise his message. Self-support was his normal policy.
He knew his long hours on the job would actually speed up his mission. Paul gives three main biblical reasons in 1 Cor. 9 and 2 Th. 3.6ff. 1. Credibility. Preaching tirelessly, under persecution, and for no financial gain convinced even enemies that he is sincere and his message is true. 2. Identification This upper class intellectual became an artisan, joining the working classes who made up the bulk of the Roman Empire. (More than 70% were slaves!) 3. Modeling. No one had ever seen a Christian! Paul modeled discipleship—godly living in an immoral, idolatrous society. He modeled a biblical work ethic. And he modeled unpaid lay evangelism—for immediate, exponential church growth! The many whose first language was not Greek, the “barbarians,” took the gospel to their tribes and villages in the hinterlands. This contextualized evangelism quickly won whole regions! So Paul reproduced himself many times over, as new believers spread the good news in their social circles without pay! This is the quickest way to saturate a whole culture! Paul was a “master builder” of the Church (1 Cor 3), and self-support was a non-negotiable foundation of his pioneering strategy. House church leaders earned their living until unpaid lay ministry was established as the norm. Then proven regional elders were chosen and paid, but only with local funds. Paul’s churches supported, led, and reproduced themselves. His policy was strict indigenization. In just 20 years Paul had fully evangelized the eastern, Greek-speaking half of the Mediterranean! (Rom 15). He then continued the same strategy in the western Latin half—Italy and Spain—while under house arrest in Rome. He still did manual labor. Paul worked for a living to accelerate the spread of the gospel by setting a pattern of lay ministry.
It continued as the main model for centuries because Paul had intentionally designed missions as a self-perpetuating lay movement! Yale historian, Latourette says mainly merchants, soldiers, captives and refugees spread the gospel. God used migrations and dispersions to scatter his people who “went everywhere preaching the word!” (Acts 8:4) Later, when Europe colonized other continents, all the early missionaries of the 1700s and early 1800s were tentmakers, including William Carey, “the father of modern missions.” But by mid-1800, industrialization so increased income that churches could field a large donor-supported missionary force for the first time in history! God had used tentmakers to open the way for the last 200 years of amazing global expansion of the Church! But during these years, Paul’s tentmaker concept ebbed before the flood of missions recruits that came out of several revivals, and the vocational, donor-support model prevailed. But the collapse of colonialism after World War II produced over 100 new countries with strong nationalism and resurgent religions. These forces restricted missionary entry, but opened the door for foreigners with needed skills. Then, in 1989, the last European power, the Soviet Union, collapsed, spawning more new countries! Most were open briefly. But leaders of long-suppressed national religions became alarmed at the rapid, overwhelming invasion by Western churches (and cults), and began passing anti-missionary laws. Yet these nations desperately need foreign expertise. So an enormous global job market has mushroomed! Now the Internet revolution has secured English as the world’s trade language! Surely, God is leading us to send Paul-style tentmakers!
No country is off-limits. Many jobs are in the least evangelized1O-4O window–northern Africa, southern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Many jobs are elsewhere. Some jobs are rural, but most are urban. [/toggle] [toggle title=”What skills and qualifications are required?”] Every country protects jobs for its own people but imports foreigners with needed expertise. Degrees and/or experience are essential. About forty kinds of employers hire–U.N., governments, firms, voluntary agencies, hospitals, schools and other institutions. The most-needed vocations are education (all levels), business and finance, science and technology, industry, health care, agriculture, and travel/tourism. Openings exist in the social sciences, fine arts, athletics, and even scuba diving! In addition to salaried positions, other options include study abroad (under-grad to post-doc), modestly paid internships, fellowships, exchanges, part-time jobs for retirees and vacation service. See “Tentmaking and the Global Job Market”.
Tentmakers can often do their jobs in English, although sometimes fluency in the national language is required. But tentmakers should work on the local language to win the respect of local people, to aid their own cultural adjustment, and to share the gospel sensitively. Employers often pay for lessons. But why not start now on a major world language? [/toggle] [toggle title=”What about remuneration and benefits?”] Salaries range from modest to high. Most jobs pay round trip travel for the family, paid vacations, health insurance, and sometimes schooling and housing—providing you acquire the position before leaving the U.S. If you job-hunt abroad, you will often be treated as a local hire resulting in low pay and few benefits. You often hear salaries are too low to live on. But that is partly because religion majors usually do not qualify for better jobs. Also, many want only the most minimal, part-time jobs, because they do not understand workplace evangelism and integration. However, some professionals wisely accept lower-paying work when it is advantageous for the ministry they envision with their people group. They then raise partial support. See Tentmaking and the Global Job Market”.
Initial two-year contracts are often renewed-multiple times. Tentmakers who do Paul’s workplace evangelism can accomplish much in a first term—even while learning culture and language. If they cannot renew their contract or acquire another, they search for a job in a nearby city or country and entrust their local friends into the care of their teammates. Many make lifetime commitments to one cultural region, as long as God keeps providing jobs
This is an excellent option if you have enough capital, patience and experience! In the Middle East, Jim built an electronics firm and started a church, which now has several hundred members! Authorities allow him freedom because he employs many local people and brings income to the country by his exports. In the Gulf, Bob started a café, an employment service and miniature golf. But these two engineers, wisely worked first for other employers, while learning the language, culture, and business culture of their host country. Running a business is harder than working for one because of struggle with laws, taxes, bureaucracy and ethics. But it can help you to evangelize a larger circle, model business ethics, improve the quality of life for local people, and provide jobs. And you can bring in more tentmakers when you have convincing reasons. A related option is business development. Without it no other development can be sustained! Tentmakers are running business development centers to provide training, coaching, and funding help for local people, especially for Christians in struggling economies.
1. Vocational: Prospective tentmakers must give higher priority to acquiring marketable skills, degrees and work experience to serve people better. Secular work and study become worship when done for Jesus Christ! 2. Spiritual: Missions is a history-long, cosmic conflict for control of God’s world, not every soldier needs officer training. But all soldiers must be growing in personal discipleship. A pastor from Ghana recently said, “If you can‘t shine for Jesus where you are, don’t come to Africa!” Tentmakers need proven evangelism skills, good Bible knowledge, inductive Bible study and group discussion skills, a basic grasp of church planting, and cross-cultural preparation. An ideal training ground for both kinds of training is a campus fellowship on a secular university, because it is a microcosm of our multicultural, spiritually hostile world. It provides on-the-job training on a mission field. As you earn your degrees, develop ministry skills. Work with internationals. Do vacation service or study abroad. Most people need some formal Bible training whether on a Christian campus or on the Internet. All should take a short missions course, like Perspectives. Global Opportunities offers training materials, mentoring, a 4-day training program called “GO Equipped!,” and seminars.
All Christians need fellowship and accountability, at home and abroad. Families, friends and home churches can help through regular contact (e-mail) and prayer. Some tentmakers join the tentmaking arm of a mission agency. This is good, if it embraces Paul’s lay ministry strategy. Some connect with a national church. International churches can be good only if they are committed to cross-cultural evangelism. Most tentmakers form or join a team of field colleagues either before they leave home or after they arrive
Both the Paul and Peter models done biblically are valid and good depending on the situation and how God leads! But God’s foundational plan is for all Christians to be gospel carriers who integrate work and witness and make disciples of all peoples. He calls each of us to this. So let us first make a lifelong commitment to this plan. God leads largely through information beginning with Scripture. So thoroughly study and incorporate Biblical tentmaking first, God’s core pattern for the church. Then be prayerfully open to supported full-time service also—and to combinations of donor support and tentmaking. As you know God’s mind, he will clearly lead you!
Global Opportunities can help through the whole process of preparing and going as a tentmaker. GO offers tentmaking resources, job and missions counseling, training programs, mentoring, and connections with overseas co-workers. Go to www.globalopps.org for more information or to request help, if you think God may want you in tentmaking.