Not in Word Only

Tentmaking and our Missional Paradigm

I first heard about tentmaking at a missions conference in Chicago. At that time, tentmaking was presented as a strategy for obtaining visas to restricted-access countries. Many countries don’t give out missionary visas, so having some type of business is a necessary precondition for working in that country. Much of the discussion around tentmaking, therefore, was about what type of business one could realistically do — one that would look legitimate while requiring little actual time to run, thus allowing enough time for missionary work. I also remember that missionaries tended to talk about their business ventures with a lot of shudder quotes and knowing winks -- they did "business consulting" and had "consultations" with local "business leaders," etc.  They would laugh about how little they actually did or knew in their field, and that was that.

Tentmaking is an important part of how we do missions, but the idea of a pseudo-business created for the purpose of gaining access to a country isn't the kind of tentmaking we do, though business visas are certainly a consideration in certain locations we work in. First of all, our businesses are real businesses that require actual skill. If you call MCH to get your HVAC unit fixed, they will actually come and fix it, not just pretend to fix it while telling you about Jesus.   

For the Apostle Paul, tentmaking was a choice, not a necessity foisted on him by the requirements of international law. He was fond of letting his followers know that he didn’t have to be a tentmaker. He could have flexed his authority a bit more and made a living by his ministry alone. But he chose not to, specifically in regards to his apostolic mission, because he found that, in establishing relationships in new regions, the approach of tentmaking was necessary for properly communicating the gospel.

There are a couple of reasons that Paul gives for his tentmaking activity, but let me mention two: First, Paul wanted to be free to tell the truth without it being interpreted as a money-making scheme.  As he says in 1 Thessalonians:

So we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts. For we never came with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed--God is witness. (2:4 - 5)

The connection between “flattering speech” and a “pretext for greed” is not hard to make. There is a market for teachers who tell people what they want to hear. You make good money bending the truth. We have found as an organization that working hard to generate our own funds allows us to speak the truth without fear of upsetting profit. The truth is upsetting. Paul had to rebuke and reprimand without fear of slack attendance, and he also had to encourage and project his hope for the great things God could do among them without worrying that it would be interpreted as the blandishments of a sales pitch.

As an organization, we have had to walk away from people and organizations that wanted us to change our values or how we conducted ourselves. We were able to even when threatened with a loss of monetary support.

Second, Paul also became a tentmaker to provide people with an example to follow. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul exhorts them to work diligently to provide for themselves and to provide for others. But he also reminds them of “our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.” (1 Th 2:9). He even is able to tell them, “you also became imitators of us and of the Lord.” Paul understood that his activity would provide a model for them. Paul learned an honest trade so that he could live his life according to God’s way, and he asked his followers to do the same.

We understand that people who are just learning about God need special support. Paul likened his work with the Thessalonians to the kind of care and affection that a father would show his children. The metaphor is apt. A father works hard to provide for his children and he lives to provide an example for them to follow. We have worked hard to develop businesses that provide the revenue and, more importantly, the skills to support the people we work with.