What is tentmaking? That is the thought going through my mind when my engineer friend (now my husband) said, “I want to be a tentmaker”. I believe my response went something like this: blink, blink, blink. Tentmaking? Tentmaker? My imagination wandered to working for companies like REI, engineering tents for extreme weather or something. Or maybe it was the male codeword for “homemaker”. Without trying to sound stupid, I timidly asked what all was entailed in being a tentmaker. I found out I was quite off the mark.
Way off actually.
What is tentmaking?
Well, in reality, the profession comes from doing just that: making tents. However, the modern use of the word, especially in the missions world, tentmaking points back to a concept we first see in the New Testament. In Acts 18 we see Paul arriving in Corinth where he worked as a tentmaker, preaching the word to Jews and Greeks on the Sabbath each week, telling them about Jesus the Messiah. Paul had a job (tentmaking) by which he made a living and built connections in the community, while also preaching the gospel as he had been called to do by Jesus. Hence today, tentmaking means to have a job or business while also doing very intentional gospel sowing in the surrounding community.
Traditionally, missionary work is a full-time ministry. Telling people about Jesus is your sole job. However today, with the increasing difficulty to get into predominantly non-Christian countries, people need to have some sort of legitimate job or business to even enter the country. Workers in the field who have both a full-time job and intentional outreach as a missionary are called tentmakers or bi-vocational missionaries.
Is tentmaking effective?
Do tentmakers really have enough time to effectively plant churches? It seems as though the time for ministry is much more limited with another job. At times this is true, but there are also many advantages.
Firstly, tentmakers have a legitimate reason to be in the country – work. More often than not, foreigners coming into closed countries around the world are seen as very suspicious. Locals can think you’re someone to be wary of. Are you CIA or a missionary? Either way, you are suspect. Having a job in the community gives you some foundation on which to build relationships.
Secondly, jobs and businesses are natural inroads to the people. You may have employers or employees who now know you, with whom you can build trust and who can see the way the Bible shapes the way you live and work. In fact, tentmaking has many advantages for quickly entering the community and connecting with the local people compared with traditional missionaries who must work at it, sometimes for several years.
Finally, having a job/business can potentially be a way to support you and your family on the field and not needing as much (or any) home supporters. This can enable you to remain on the field without the worry of raising enough support for your work. It can even get you to the mission field quicker. Now, I know what you are thinking… “I do not have to raise support! This is fantastic!” But a word of caution for this: God often leads us to be dependent on others and therefore dependent on him. If your sole motivation for tentmaking is to not have to do fundraising, it probably is not for you as it can be a fear-based motivation rather than a faith-based motivation.
Is Tentmaking For You?
Are you passionate about telling people about Jesus? Do you want to see churches planted among the unreached people groups both here in the US and around the world? Do you currently work as a skilled tradesman, professional or perhaps as an entrepreneur? If you answered yes to any of the above, perhaps tentmaking or bi-vocational missions is for you.
It often amazes me how God can use all the skills he gives us for use in his Kingdom building. Do not think for a second that God is not asking you to be a missionary because you are a chemist, an engineer or a business owner. He uses people from all walks of life to reach the unreached. Tentmaking is becoming more and more the only way to reach the people in countries where the gospel is not known.
*For more information on Tentmaking, I recommend the book Tentmaking by Patrick Lai.