Is the “Tentmaker model” of missions Biblical?
I would like to study the subject of “tent making” (TM) in light of fulfilling the Great Commission. Let me first be clear that I am talking about tent making as it pertains to living in a foreign country that is unreached with the Gospel. I am NOT talking about those living in their own country of birth who are working a job and also being a witness for Jesus…
If Maria and I learned anything during our short (but life-changing) four years inside the 10/40 Window living in Dushanbe, Tajikistan it was this: If we don’t watch out “tent making” (a.k.a. Creative Access) will become the “tail that wags the dog” of church planting and filling the earth with God’s glory. In the NT we see that the phrase “tentmaker” comes from the Apostle Paul, literally a “tent maker” by trade and upbringing (most NT scholars would say Paul’s father was a tent maker also). It is clear that Paul worked hard with his hands in different cities (Thessalonica, Corinth, and Ephesus) and provided for himself and his team.
What is not so clear is “Why he did it?” This we believe is the important question to ask.
1. Tentmaking was Temporary
To understand the dynamics that will come into play here, we need to grasp the fact that Paul, as far as we can discern from the NT, only served as a tentmaker while “on-the-road” church planting with an apostolic team. That in itself leads us to realize that his tent making was only temporary!
Of course, one could say “What about his Tarsus years?”, those silent years after his conversion but before his apostolic church planting years. Yes, more than likely he worked in Tarsus as a tentmaker, but recognize that this was before Barnabas came down and brought him up to Antioch and activated a career change. For a similar “career change” we could think of Luke the Physician. The NT does not lead us to believe that he kept up his practice during the apostolic church planting years. Most would think Luke was happy as a lark to just “be there”, recording it all down for future generations. So a Doctor becomes a Writer. Such is the kingdom of God!
Perhaps your not convinced of this argument or where I am headed but I offer one more piece of evidence to look at. Let’s say for the sake of argument that Paul was “active” as an apostle from about 45 A.D. – 68 A.D., which includes at least 4 years in prison. The first missionary journey seems to have had outside funding, either from the Antioch believers or, some suggest, from Barnabas himself.
We first find Paul TM in Thessalonica and this lasted about one month! Give or take a week or two.
Next we find him TM a bit later in Corinth. Here again that lasted for a month or two while Paul was waiting for Timothy and Silas to “catch up” to him. Paul had left them both behind in Thessalonica and Berea and had given them orders to “come as soon as possible” (Acts 18). It is unclear if he continued to work daily as a tentmaker or spent his time “teaching the Word of God among them” full-time.
Either way, after the 18 months in Corinth, Paul and team headed on once again. Paul left for Jerusalem and then Antioch. Each time we find Paul back in Antioch – the sending church – we find him teaching the believers, not tent making! This is a fact we need to seriously look at. All in all, what we have seen is that Paul worked as a “tentmaker” for some 3-4 months (it must be less than 19 months given the NT timeline) out of his first 10 YEARS as an “active apostle”.
If tent making was his primary concern, he did a lousy job at it!
Lastly, we find Paul TM in Ephesus where he stayed the longest and worked as tentmaker the longest, some 2-3 years. This is the clearest example of consistent tent making:
Paul alone “worked hard to cover his own needs” and those of his team (8-10 men), whom he personally sent out to the surrounding towns and cities to plant churches: Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea, Colosse, and Hierapolis.
As far as we know, Paul visited none of these cities, but his working hard “day and night with my own hands” allowed these 8-10 apostles-in-training to plant churches throughout modern day Turkey!
Did these apostolic co-workers copy Paul as tentmakers in these cities? I doubt it…
So, in total we find that Paul TM some 3-4 years out of an apostolic career that spanned more than 20 years. Granted, his prison time and voyage to Rome ate up a huge chunk of that time, but I believe we must grasp that TM was only temporary and seems to be done ONLY while he was on the road, planting churches in places where he passing through.
2. Tentmaking was Secondary
I now turn to what is in my mind the crux of the matter, especially as concerns mission activity in the 10/40 Window. Here is the “tail wagging the dog” part and probably the more challenging to hear. But may he who has ears to hear listen.
The simpler we can make church planting and TM (read NGO work), the faster we will fulfill the Great Commission.
Witness, the early Apostles who went out empty handed. Jesus told them: “Take nothing for your journey; neither a staff nor a bag, nor bread nor money…”
Years later, Paul and his team did not waver from that principle!
Tent Making (or think of it as your NGO work) should facilitate church planting work only, not the other way around. Once TM takes on a “life of its own”, we slow down our church planting movement. The apostolic team has limited hours for relationship building, language and culture learning and “making disciples”(which, BTW, is the main action verb of the Great Commission.)
There is no magic wand and “poof” and a church is gathered… so often the new worker in a country puts in more and more time at the office. H/she wants to be productive and active, etc. and the TM/ NGO work fulfills those very real needs! Subtly, the NGO then becomes his/her main focus. I have seen this time and time again.
But you cry, “We need a valid reason to live in that country. They don’t give out ‘Missionary Visas’ in Iran!” Or others cry: “We need to help the poor and needy. Isn’t that what Jesus would do…?”
The answer is, of course, YES!
But the issue is far too multifaceted to just give simple answers. If nothing else I want to leave you with the writing of Roland Allen, a pioneer and prophet of another Century who more than any other person in the last 100 years has given the church answers in theses areas, if we will but stop and listen.
“We must not admit for one moment the truth of a statement often made, that the man who devotes himself to the establishment of the church, declining to be involved in all sorts of activities for the improvement of social conditions, is indifferent to, or heedless of, the sufferings and injustices under which men suffer. He is nothing of the kind: he is simply a man who is sure of his foundation, and is convinced that the only way to any true advancement is spiritual, and is Christ; and therefore he persists, in spite of all appearances, in clinging to Christ as the only foundation, and in building all his hopes for the future on the acceptance of Christ.
He is not content with attacks upon symptoms of evil; they seem to him superficial: he goes to the roots. He cannot be content with teaching men Christian principles of conduct, “Christian ideals of social life” — still less with the establishment of colleges and clubs. Nothing but Christ Himself, faith in Christ, the obedience of Christ, seems to him equal to the need, and nothing else is his work but the establishment of that foundation. In doing this he is not showing indifference to social evils, he is not standing aloof from beneficent movements; he is actively engaged in laying the axe to the roots of the trees which bear the evil. That is not indifference.” (Roland Allen, Mission Activities)
Yours for the Least in the Kingdom,