Tentmakers


“After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth.  And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome.  And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade.  And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.” – Acts 18:1-4 (ESV)

These first four verses of Acts 18 appear in the context of Paul conducting one of his missionary journeys.  He had just left Athens where, in Acts 17, we’re told Paul used what he had seen there as a jumping off point, a frame of reference, whatever you want to call it, to preach the gospel in that city.  We see there how Paul tailored his delivery of the gospel to his Gentile audience while not compromising the gospel or making it into something other than what it was.  This idea of tailoring the delivery of the gospel to one’s audience is an important one, particularly in cross-cultural ministry or ministry in a culture that is not yours.  If Paul had tried to talk to the people of Athens about the Law of Moses or about Abraham or the events of Exodus, things he talked about when he shared the gospel in Jewish synagogues, most of his audience would have had no clue what he was talking about.

So, after there was a core group of believers in Athens, Paul moved on to Corinth, which brings us into Acts 18:1-4.  As soon as Paul arrived in Corinth, he got a job.  He had skills as a tentmaker, so, naturally, he went to a local tent-making shop.  There he met up with a Jewish couple, Aquila and Priscilla, who had moved to Corinth because Claudius Caesar kicked all the Jews out of Rome.  Anyway, Paul is in Corinth and he’s working in a secular job in the local economy.

But notice Acts 18:4, “And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.”  The Greeks, in this context, refer to Greek converts to Judaism.  Paul did what had been his custom when on his missionary journeys: start by preaching to what we would call expatriates or expats, people from your home country (or, in this case, Paul’s former faith) living overseas.  But here at Corinth, God is going to shake things up a bit for Paul.  I suspect Paul had been pretty comfortable preaching among his fellow expats.  Well, now it’s time for Paul to focus on reaching the Gentiles and it wasn’t going to be through the comfort of the Jewish synagogue.  Notice Acts 18:6, “And when they opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads!  I am innocent.  From now on I will go to the Gentiles.’”  That’s the moment the nature of Paul’s ministry changed from primarily reaching Jews and Jewish converts to reaching people who had not even heard of Abraham or Moses or the Mosaic Law.

Acts 18:1-4 is often considered the scriptural basis for what is referred to in missions as tentmaker ministry, and Paul is considered the main New Testament example of someone who was engaged in that form of missions.  My intention here is to explain tentmaker ministry.  It is a form of missions, but also very different from what we commonly understand to be missions and the work of missionaries today.

It’s in Corinth that we see in our text Paul was supporting himself and his team financially by working in a secular job.  It was to these very Corinthians that Paul would later write about the nature of how missionaries were to be supported financially.  Turn to 1 Corinthians 9.  In that chapter, Paul is making what seems to be an argument for being supported by those to whom a missionary ministers.  Notice 1 Corinthians 9:11, “If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?”  He had asked in verses four through six, “Do we not have the right to eat and drink?  Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?  Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living?”

It almost seems like Paul is complaining about being in tentmaker ministry and arguing in favor of what the Corinthians might actually have been accusing him of: spreading the gospel for financial gain from those who respond to his message.  While he was arguing the scriptural basis for those who proclaim the gospel getting their living from the gospel, he made it a point to remind the Corinthians that he never availed himself of that right.  Notice in 1 Corinthians 9:12, “If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more?  Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.”  In Paul’s mind, going overseas and being dependent on those to whom he ministered (or, for that matter, on churches back home) for his material needs puts an obstacle in the way of the gospel.  So, instead of him and his team becoming a burden on those he was reaching with the gospel, he worked in a secular job – the tentmaking from which we get the concept of tentmaker ministry.

Let me share three other what I call “tentmaker passages.”  The first is Acts 20:34 where Paul in Miletus told the elders from Ephesus, “You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me.”  The second is 1 Thessalonians 2:9, “For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.”  The third is 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9, “For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you.  It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate.”

What we see in the passages I’ve read is an aspect of Paul’s missionary model.  The Church eventually abandoned this model.  Why?  A tentmaker ministry organization called Global Opportunities prepared a Frequently Asked Questions sheet that asked the question but didn’t really explain why.  Instead, it suggested that it wasn’t completely abandoned.  I’ll just let the quote from that sheet explain: “Why was Paul’s model abandoned?  It was the main model through most of history, according to Yale historian K. S. Latourette.  The Gospel was spread mainly by merchants, soldiers, captives and refugees.  Even later, when Europe colonized the other continents in the 1700s and 1800s, all the early missionaries were tentmakers, including William Carey, ‘the father of modern missions.’  They opened the way for our church and donor supported agencies, and these last 200 years of amazing expansion of the Church around the world!  But in the post-colonial period many new nations closed doors and in today’s post-post-colonial period, anti-missionary laws already threaten newly opened doors into the ex-Soviet world.  But most countries want development help.  Since the fall of Communism, virtually all are working toward free market economies, creating a global job market unprecedented in history!  (English is its language!)  U.S. export of ‘services’ (especially, technical expertise), is now several times our trade in manufactured goods!”

I would like to suggest that maybe one reason Paul’s tentmaker model for missions was largely abandoned is because of something that is a problem not just in the area of missions, but in the Church as a whole: the rise of parachurch ministries to which the local church has surrendered many of its responsibilities.  If you want to be a pastor today, denominations expect you to go to Bible college and/or cemetery – er um I mean seminary – and receive your training there.  When people in local churches have problems, we’re often quick to send them off to a so-called “Christian counselor” trained in the ungodly philosophies that constitute psychology and psychiatry or, worse, we send them to secular ones.  Are you having financial problems?  We’ll send you off to a Christian financial planning ministry or to a secular credit counselor.  Do you think God is calling you to foreign missions?  Well, you might have to go off to Bible college and cemetery and then get some missions organization to accept you.

So much of what was once the responsibility of the local church has been surrendered to denominations and to parachurch ministries or, worse, we send people into the secular world for help.  Tentmaker ministry has been largely abandoned, I believe, yes, because of the rise of parachurch ministries and denominationalism, but also because at some point in the last few centuries it was determined that missionaries had to be sent by missions organizations and supported by donations from local churches in the missionary’s home country.  While there’s nothing wrong with local churches financially supporting what I call “professional missionaries,” that model has, unfortunately, become the mindset of the Church as a whole here in the Western world.  We don’t want so-called “lay people” presuming to think that they can just go to another country and communicate the gospel with people or teach Bible studies among the locals or – oh what arrogance! – plant churches.  We might let them get a little taste of missions by letting them go on short-term missions trips through a missions organization or parachurch ministry, but how dare they think that they could ever just go do that on their own!  Oh, no, that work is reserved only for the clergy and for people with proper Bible college and cemetery training and, even then, a missions organization must send you and authorize your work.  Oh, and how dare any local church think that it can properly train and send anyone out onto the mission field!  That’s the sad reality in which we find the Church in the 21st century.

So, what is tentmaker ministry?  Is it just some Christian going into a foreign country and working a job?  No.  Is it that same Christian going into a foreign country, working a job and spending all the rest of his time hanging out with other expats and not engaging the local people and culture?  No.  Tentmaker ministry is a Christian going into a foreign country, working a job to support himself financially, but also – and primarily – being a witness in the local culture by his example as well as by availing himself of opportunities God presents to share his faith in addition to other avenues of ministry, such as being involved in the work of a local church.  Doesn’t that sound a lot like what we as Christians are supposed to be doing here at home?  One thing that is key in tentmaker ministry is that the tentmaker is there to reach local people with the gospel or otherwise be involved in the work of a local church that consists mainly of people from that country, that culture, that local community.  Getting involved in a church of predominantly expats is not tentmaker ministry.  I like the way the Philip Dunn’s booklet Working Abroad: Today’s Tentmaking Challenge defines tentmaker ministry.  The booklet was originally written in 1990, but I’m quoting from a 2007 edition:

“The word tentmaker is taken from the Apostle Paul’s secular skill.  From time to time he would make tents to give a good example and ‘in order not to be a burden to anyone’ (1 Thessalonians 2:9). ‘These hands of mine’ he said ‘have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions’ (Acts 20:34).  Work like this was not only a source of economic support for Paul’s team – it was also a means to further their personal contact with individuals (Acts 18:1-4).During the last couple of decades, the term ‘tentmaker’ has been used more specifically to refer to believers who are convicted by the Lord to move abroad with the gospel to those areas of greater spiritual need while still engaging in some form of secular employment. The term includes those individuals or families who are moved abroad by their company or business yet are deeply concerned for the unsaved and the local expressions of Christ’s Body worldwide.  It does not include Christians who simply happen to work abroad!  Tentmakers have a heart for mission.  These Christians view their secular job not only as a source of income but also as a natural arena in which to meet nationals, gain their confidence and share Christ.”

The founder of a tentmaker ministry organization wrote a response to some critics of such ministry, “Tentmaking is the most ‘full-time’ ministry imaginable, because on the job you are under almost uninterrupted scrutiny, so your life is speaking for Jesus Christ even when your mouth is not!  In addition, you have time away from the job for other ministries.  When the work is manual labor, like Paul’s, there can be conversations without detracting from one’s work, and productive meditation and prayer.”  The author of that response provided a definition of the minimum that tentmakers are: “Tentmakers are missions-motivated Christians who support themselves as they do cross-cultural evangelism on the job and in their free time.”

In an article on tentmaker ministry, Ruth Siemens, founder of Global Opportunities, wrote this very sad and unfortunate truth: “Nearly every missions book and nearly every talk assumes that all Christians who take employment abroad are tentmakers.  But this is not the case.  99% are merely Christian expatriates with jobs.  They have no cross-cultural ministry in their new host country, because they had none at home!  Genuine tentmakers are missions-committed, fully qualified professional people, many of whom take great risks in hostile countries.  It is not fair to lump them with mere expats!”  She also wrote: “A major argument repeatedly made against tentmaking is that unless you need financial support from your church you cannot get their prayer support.  That is often true.  But worse, even most people who give do not pray.  Many hope generous gifts gets them off the hook.  In either case, prayer support must be laboriously cultivated.  But it is more difficult for tentmakers because their own churches often do not understand tentmaking or do not take it seriously.”

If you haven’t figured it out by now, tentmaker ministry is a form of missions.  Unlike what I call “professional missionaries,” tentmakers work a job to support themselves in addition to conducting ministry – whether through sharing the gospel with individuals on and off the job or through being involved in the work of a local church or through planting churches.  They work in the economy of the country where God has placed them and are, thereby, able to model Christianity to their co-workers and to others with whom they interact, just as Paul modeled Christianity through the work that he did to support himself and his team.  Very often, people need to see Christianity lived out in a context that they understand.  They need to see Christians living their Christianity in the workplace, in the marketplace, in the local community.  I would go as far as to argue that a Christian is not involved in tentmaker ministry if he is just working a job overseas and spending the rest of his time living among and interacting with fellow expats.  The tentmaker’s work is cross-cultural and this requires the tentmaker to actually interact with the people in the local culture – to work and live within the local culture instead of in the relative safety and comfort of the expat community.

Tentmakers, because they bring with them marketable skills, can work in countries where professional missionaries can’t as more and more countries close their doors to professional missionaries.  With English being the international language of the global economy, people around the world are discovering they need to learn that language to make themselves more marketable.  This creates a need for people who have training in language instruction who can teach the language.  It’s a global economy and the need for Christians to shine the light of Christ in that economy is great – whether as language teachers or computer geeks or business professionals or medical professionals or in other occupations.  Some sources I’ve read have suggested that the days of the professional missionary who can just go into a country while being supported by churches back home are coming to an end and that the opportunities for tentmakers to serve the Lord cross-culturally are increasing.

In a research paper on the subject of tentmaker ministry, Dave English wrote: “Tentmaking is perceived as an access strategy to get missionaries into nations that restrict or deny missionary visas.  Secular work is perceived largely as a necessary evil to be minimized as much as possible in order to maximize ministry time.  Also, tentmaking options seem to be evaluated by how much time they allow for vocational missionary work…Today’s tentmaking paradigm essentially sees tentmakers as missionaries who are constrained to use secular work to gain access to ‘restricted’ countries.  The ‘higher’ one is on the tentmaker scale, the more completely missionary and the more marginally secular one is in vocation.  Because this conception holds such power, we tend to interpret Paul’s tentmaking through our current missions lens.  We read into the Biblical record and miss the core insights of Paul’s strategy.  We miss the power and brilliance of what he was doing.”  The way Dave English explains it suggests that the modern view of tentmaker ministry is that it’s really nothing more than a way of deceiving restricted countries into letting missionaries in – telling the government that you’re there to work in a secular job, such as in a corporation, a university, a hospital, or as an entrepreneur, but really functioning as a professional missionary.  But that clearly wasn’t what Paul had in mind.  Paul worked so that he wouldn’t be a burden on anyone.  He worked to set an example for those he wanted to reach.  He worked to be a credible witness in the context of a local culture.

So, what does any of this have to do with you or me?  Local churches have a role in tentmaker ministry.  Danny Martin, author of The Place of the Local Church in Tentmaking wrote: “When a businessman from the local congregation was transferred overseas, he was viewed as leaving the church.  There may have been a farewell party, but there certainly was no thought that this businessman would in any way be accountable to the Lord or his church for the ministry he might develop overseas.”  Local churches have a role in tentmaker ministry.  The article I just quoted from lists several things local churches should be doing, but I’m just going to give you a few:

  1. Equipping – it is in the local church that those who go out to pursue tentmaker ministry are equipped for the work.  The prospective tentmaker’s spiritual growth and training in the work of ministry is the local church’s responsibility.
  2. Sending – The author of the article I got this list from is referring to a local church engaging in a formal process of sending a tentmaker that it has equipped off to the work to which the tentmaker is called.  In the church at Antioch, the Holy Spirit said to set apart Paul and Barnabas and what did that church do?  Look at Acts 13:3, Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.”  Likewise, local churches should be formally sending their tentmakers to the work God has for them.
  3. Encouraging – Very often, tentmakers go to places where there are very few support systems.  They might not have access to Christian bookstores with their thousands upon thousands of books and other resources.  Mail and e-mail service systems might be unreliable – just ask Noah and Cate Brennan how hard it is for them to have things sent to them in Ecuador.  In some countries, there are security issues where tentmakers can’t openly write in a letter or e-mail about the things of God and where what they receive from back home can put them at risk of arrest, torture, imprisonment, or even death.  Just as professional missionaries have sometimes been discouraged by such things, so also tentmakers can be equally subject to discouragement.  Maintaining regular contact with tentmakers, whether through snail mail, e-mail, Facebook, Skype, or maybe even an occasional visit to the tentmaker in the country where he is serving, is essential.  We must give up this mentality that people who go off to serve the Lord as tentmakers are simply leaving their home churches and are ceasing to be part of those home churches.
  4. Reporting – Just as Paul reported back to the church at Antioch regarding the work to which that church sent him, so also local churches need to be ready to receive reports back from those they send forth and to continue being the tentmaker’s home church and the place where he is accountable.  And I don’t mean that local churches should just wait to hear from the tentmaker and maybe mention it in a Sunday morning service.  I mean that the tentmaker’s work is an extension of that local church’s work and that the tentmaker has a measure of accountability to his home church.  Danny Martin, the author of the article I got this list from, explained: “There is a direct line of accountability from the tentmaker to the sending church, even when they work with and through a mission agency.  The leaders of the church retain spiritual authority over those they have commissioned and sent.”
  5. Praying – This one wasn’t on Danny Martin’s list, but this is perhaps the most important.  I realize that some of you might be thinking this one should be obvious, but, sadly, it isn’t.  I quoted Ruth Siemens, founder of Global Opportunities, earlier and I’ll repeat her statement as it applies to praying: “A major argument repeatedly made against tentmaking is that unless you need financial support from your church you cannot get their prayer support.  That is often true.  But worse, even most people who give do not pray.  Many hope generous gifts gets them off the hook.  In either case, prayer support must be laboriously cultivated.  But it is more difficult for tentmakers because their own churches often do not understand tentmaking or do not take it seriously.”

Local churches need to think and pray about their role in missions.  Is their role to merely give monetary and prayer support to “professional missionaries” sent and supervised by parachurch missions agencies that are not accountable to the local church?  Are they to train, send and support missionaries and tentmakers themselves like the first century Antioch church did?  The first century model is local churches doing the work of missions and of training and sending what we today call “missionaries.”

Again, tentmaker ministry is a Christian going into a foreign country, working a job to support himself financially, but also – and primarily – being a witness in the local culture by his example as well as by availing himself of opportunities God presents to share his faith in addition to other avenues of ministry, such as being involved in the work of a local church.  It is a form of missions and the model the Apostle Paul used.  It’s the work for which I spent several years preparing.  It may very well be the future of missions.

 

Worth reading: http://tentmakingideas.com/what-is-tentmaking