These short stories give glimpses into the lives of real tentmakers, past or present, to illustrate various facets of tentmaking, like how Christians became tentmakers, their employment, their spiritual ministry, cultural adjustment, other problems, etc. We do not usually reveal their actual names nor their host country, at least not both together.
Stories on this page
- TESOL Teacher In China
- Engineers in the Middle East
- A Teacher in the Arab World
- The Accidental Tentmakers!
TESOL Teacher in China
Some years ago, Joe L and five other students from his college went to China on an exchange program. Since Joe had a degree in physical science, he was assigned to teach at a college of physical culture on the outskirts of Beijing while he studied Mandarin.
Things began smoothly enough for the six Americans, but before long some of them were returning to the United States. The rigors of living in China were too much to handle. One couldn’t tolerate the restrictions of his personal freedom. Another was expelled for immorality. And a couple of others were dismissed for bad behavior. By the middle of the year, Joe was the only American left.
About this time three Chinese students approached him to find out what made him so different. “You’re not like the others. Why is that?”
What an opening! Joe was tempted to stop what he was doing and answer their question right then. Knowing they would be more relaxed in a home setting, he invited them to come to his dorm room that night. That night, not only did the three show up, but several others came with them to find out what made Joe tick. Joe began to explain how Jesus made all the difference in his life.
Over the course of several weeks, Joe led three of these students to faith in Christ and began discipling them. These young believers exhibited strong evidence of new life in Christ. But at the end of the school year, Joe’s contract was ended and he had to leave China.
He was extremely concerned about what would become of these new disciples. Would the government let him return? He figured there was little hope of that. His extra-curricular activities hadn’t gone completely unnoticed. Hardly had he returned to the U.S. when a letter arrived asking if he would return for the next school year. Clearly, the authorities felt his integrity and his excellence in work made his Christian influence worth the risk. When Joe stepped off the plane that fall, Chao, one of three he had discipled, was waiting for him. With a huge grin he introduced Joe to two new friends. One of them Chao had led to the Lord while Joe was gone.
Later that evening, when they were alone, Chao asked Joe, “Do you have any materials? I want to teach Deng.” And this was only the beginning of Joe’s second year!
During his second year, school administrators asked Joe to teach a course on American holidays. They explained that a group of 60 Chinese exchange students were going to America, and their professors thought they should know something about American culture.
“There’s no way I can talk about American holidays without discussing Christianity,” Joe responded. “I can’t explain Christmas, Easter, or Thanksgiving without mentioning Jesus or God.”
“That’s all right,” they answered. “Whatever it takes.”
When the class began, not only the 60 students who planned to go to America showed up. With them were another 60 interested people, including some of the university staff!
Joe still lives in China, has since married a Chinese Christian, and plans to spend the rest of his life there. Not too much later, he was asked to help set up a program to recruit additional English teachers for China–” people just like you!”
[from Don Hamilton’s “Tentmakers Speak,” (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1987),pp 4-6.]
Engineers in the Middle East
Roy, a mechanical engineer and ex-president of a large IVCF chapter in a southern university, was excited when he landed a job with a world class firm in an Arab city. Although a young graduate, he did his work so well, the firm even sent him to troubleshoot in India, where an off-shore oil well platform was listing.
On his first short paid leave in the U.S., he recruited several graduates from his university, including chemical engineer Carol, whom he married. She was promptly hired by the same firm. The couple, with two generous salaries, quickly saved enough to finance a year of Arabic studies in a second country, and to have the first of their four children. Then they began their long-term ministry in a third Middle East country.
In Roy’s freshman year, God had used Urbana to give him a burden for Muslims. Since most Islamic countries do not allow missionaries, but hire foreign technical experts, Roy majored in engineering. It would prove to be as appropriate for earning a living and witnessing in our 20th century Arab world as the Apostle Paul’s making of tents had been in first century Arabia.
In their host country, Roy worked for a local factory, learning much about how to do business in the Arab world. He tried to make his daily work pleasing to Jesus Christ, and had opportunities to speak about him.
Carol did not seek a position, but cared for her family and befriended her neighbors. At first it was not easy, although Carol is an outgoing person. But then she helped adjust their sewing machines and they taught her how to make their typical long dresses.
The real breakthrough came when her second child was born. The women felt solicitous for this young American mother whose own mother was so far away. After that she could go to the open air market with the women, keeping every hair of her head covered with a big scarf, just like the women.
Carol wrote later that they barely made it to the hospital in time for the slightly premature birth of their fourth child. For days afterward, Muslim women visitors streamed into the house. She had a little gift for each. The birth made it easy for Carol to turn each conversation to Jesus Christ.
But Roy’s Arab employers never seemed happy with him. (It is how they exert control.) The bosses often lied to each other and Roy would be caught in the middle. At one point, when Carol and the children were ill and Roy had been injured in an accident, they were so discouraged that they asked for thirty days vacation leave in the U.S.
They did not tell the bosses that they wanted to reconsider whether God really intended for them to remain in such a difficult situation. But the bosses were alarmed. They said, “If you are away for 30 days, the whole factory will come to a stop! ” This is how Roy discovered how much his work was appreciated after all.
Before the couple left, one Muslim boss came privately to ask Roy for books about Jesus! Tentmakers can bring only a few religious books into this country, and giving them out can result in prison or expulsion. Roy suspected the boss might be trying to entrap him. But he gave him an Arabic New Testament and a children’s Bible story.
It turned out that the man was sincere, having been made hungry for the gospel by short-wave Christian radio and then by the way this couple lived out their faith in spite of illness and problems. (Our testimony is usually strongest in a context of suffering because anyone can do right when all goes well. The question is how do we act when everything goes wrong?)
The boss’s newly expressed interest in the gospel was a factor in the couple’s decision to return – a breakthrough of sorts.
Now several years later, in the same country, Roy has his own small business along with several tentmaker colleagues. It provides for their support and serves as a ministry context for their church planting.
A Teacher in the Arab world
Jeff, an alum from the University of Maryland IVCF, first went to Kuwait as an educator tentmaker. In addition to conversing with local friends about Jesus Christ, he was able to help start a little Christian bookstore, in this country where not many books about the Lord could be carried in by individuals.
When the invasion of Kuwait forced his departure from that country, God provided him a new job in another country–Syria. So he supported himself with his teaching in the way that Paul had supported himself in the same city, by literally making and repairing animal skin tents! How exciting it must have been for Jeff to go into the old section of Damascus and walk on Straight Street, the very place where Paul walked and where he recovered his sight after his conversion.
Jeff wrote: “A Palestinian Muslim came to visit. We studied Luke 15 together and he seemed touched by the story of the Prodigal Son. . . Last week I read Isaiah 53 with a Syrian friend. He was bothered that the Bible had so many writers. He said the Koran ‘came down directly from God through Mohammed.’ I explained the inspiration of Scripture to him. He seemed impressed when I showed him how many Old Testament prophesies were later fulfilled. I am thankful for the precious times of Bible study with my Muslim friends.”
In addition to witnessing to students and neighbors, Jeff helped start a Christian publishing venture.
He now serves Jesus Christ in a third country. Tentmakers can acquire too high a profile through their witness, and a change to another country–usually one with a similar culture and the same language-gives them a new start.
What happens to the seekers and new converts they have been working with? Other team members continue discipling them. This is one of several advantages of team ministry, whether your team is formed before you leave your home country, or whether you join a team already serving in your target country.
The Accidental Tentmakers!
We lost our bikes!
Arriving into the humid heat of Asia after a long 14 hour flight with a 2 & 3 year old, was not a good time to be told by customs that our USA made Cannondale bicycles would need an import duty of US$1000 each! Indeed we had wondered if it was even a good idea to bring them with us in the first place. Perhaps this was God’s way to show us they would not be needed. On the trip from the airport to our new home, it also became evident that the traffic was not for the faint of heart.
Little did we know that God was already setting the stage for tentmaking ministry.
A few days later we received a call from the airport about the bicycles. After explaining yet again that we did not have that kind of money the man on the phone said our bikes would be arriving the next day at the international school where my wife was teaching.
“Now you must do something for me”, said the man on the phone. Surprise, surprise thought I.
Forced into teaching ESL!
Our original plan had been for me to be a Mr. Mom while my wife taught at the international school. Looking for a job was not supposed to be a part of that plan.
“I have done you a great favor, now you must come and teach in my English school for airline staff” “How can I since our home is hours away from the capital city?” said I. “No problem as my school is in your city”, said the man. “But I have to stay home with the children during the day” said I. “No problem, I want you to teach only in the evenings” said the man.
The bikes arrived as promised, and now it was my turn to fulfill my promise. Thus I, a former flight attendant began teaching evening classes for airline staff, most of whom were flight attendants themselves.
I felt right at home and my students were eager to learn English from a Canadian flight attendant. From my experiences back home as trainer, also came the expertise to draft a training manual for the school, much appreciated by the owner.
The church that met in our home
Soon many of my students began visiting us, mostly out of curiosity and for a chance to practice their English. We cautiously asked them if they would like to visit regularly to learn about the Bible as well, and soon a Bible study group was born.
Our home became a hangout for our many new friends. Cooking meals together, going on scooter rides to the nearby mountains, singing praise songs with the Karaoke machine (glorified boombox), studying the Scriptures, answering the myriad of questions by our friends became the modus operandi of our God given tentmaker ministry: “The church that met in our home”
Having been told by senior expat Christians that it would take years for someone to convert, our expectations were low but we were having fun with our new friends.
God was to surprise us once again as within a few months some of our friends were indeed accepting Jesus as Saviour.
Eventually a few of our friends moved to other cities and started Bible studies of their own. One student went on to Bible school in another country and the last we heard was that she was going to Tibet as a missionary.
Update 10 years later…
A few days into the new year, we received an email from the one least likely to make it in her new faith. She excitedly shared her story of having started a number of Bible study groups and just before Christmas having led 30 members of her bible study group to the Lord at one time! Another told us about having attended Bible school in the US and now preparing to go as tentmaker to the Arab world. God is continuing to work through the small group we left behind, and indeed we rejoice in humility over the souls being saved.
What we learned
After our two years came to an end, we could reflect on God’s incredible leading in our lives and identify what worked for us. These are not rules to “tentmake” by, just what worked for us. God is infinitely creative in using our specific personalities, characteristics and talents for His glory.
- Practice hospitality! Do not think your home must be spotless, but do make it available for guests.
- Invite everyone who stops to talk to you in everyday life to your home. All will not come, but pray that the ones who do are real seekers.
- Hand out an outline of the Bible study with room for notes that your friends can take home with them for further study.
- Sing lots of songs, get a Karaoke machine if you have to.
- Share not only your faith but also your life, your family, your persona.
- Be there for your friends, make time for them.
- Ask & pray for real prayer requests making room for God’s miracles in everyday life.
- Have books and tapes available for lending. (Our bookshelf was very intriguing to our friends.)
- When out in the community, make friends with people in the market, the bank, the police station, the post office etc.
- Interruptions to your schedule and busyness could actually be God moments. Learn from them.
- People love to have an opportunity to practice their English skills, let them!
- Spend special holidays with your friends, invite them to spend your holidays with you! Explain why you celebrate these days.
- Your passion, God’s glory! – bring your hobby, sporting activity, handcrafts, musical instruments etc.
What about the bikes?
Well, there was a young man who had pedaled hard to catch up with me one night as I was coming home from teaching a class. When he did it was to comment on my bike and to ask where I was from. He invited me to join him in a Saturday ride to the countryside. During this ride we stopped by a thousand year old tree to study Scripture. He accepted the Lord a few weeks later.
Frequently as we were stopped at traffic lights people beside us on their scooters would start chatting, and many a time this led to our invitation to come to the church that met in our home. Would that have happened if we had been inside the cool comfort of an air-conditioned car with tinted windows? We were also able to use our bikes for frequent outings along the quiet rice paddy field roads.
What is the moral of the story?
God can use your passions, in our case cycling, as a platform for His work. When we are doing what we love, we are also being truest to what God has made us. Nothing is less exciting than a Christian who does not have a passion for anything in life and thus they seldom attract seekers. What is your passion? Have you ever thought that God could use it for his Glory?
May this outline serve as a guide to your tentmaker ministry:
INTENT – “as you go…make disciples”
INTEGRITY – do your work in such a way that it demands an explanation of your faith
INTEGRATE – learn to integrate work and ministry seeing “work as ministry”
“The Accidental Tentmaker”