“We believe in tent-making, why can’t missionaries just make money doing a normal business job and then serve overseas?”
2nd Corinthians 4:4 says that the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they are unable to the glorious light of the gospel. The blind leading the blind is a proverbial statement to show just how lost a blind leader will make us. If the majority of science, history, math, art, cinema, philosophy, and every field in between are primarily run by the blind, we should expect to be lead in the wrong direction. This series is based on correcting mistruths and opening up a dialogue about some of our most basic accepted beliefs.
My friends, you have been sold snake oil.
We are in a great gladiatorial ring fighting for our passion. We are no longer predisposed to success but rather people are trying to disqualify us so as to free themselves from responsibility. It’s oddly like a video game sometimes. And it’s understandable. Missionary work can be vague, have low accountability, and is often funded by people sincerely giving with an expectation that the money will be used for good. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
We strive not to make our mission vague, our communication light, and our gifts squandered. Many churches are jaded because of bad experiences in the past. This has lead to an almost spiritual sounding “Anti-Mission” movement.
So in order to combat some theological mistruths, speak on the subject of missions, and further our support team we are writing about some common misconceptions about missions.
So many voices are ones of critique, and every church and mission board is run differently. Some great, some not so positive adjective. After 12,000 Miles of traveling, 140 presentations, and a lot of sweat and tears (No blood though, thank God) I keep hearing the same comforting hyphenated guilt-reducing word.
Is it really a feasible way to do missions? I personally believe in many places it is an incredible valid way to serve the Lord. I also believe though that this generation is using the term as a scapegoat answer to feel guiltless about our responsibility in being a missional generation. This has created the tent maker mythos where we see tent making not as a possible way to do ministry but THE WAY. We see it as superior to choosing missions as a vocation. (See our earlier Fear, Guilt, and Shame to see how guilt is the primary drive of most western thinking.) At some point we will touch upon church history and the biblical model of support raising but for now, we turn our attention toward the scapegoat of the western capitalist.
So what does that word mean? The ol’ Wiki says,
Tentmaking, in general, refers to the activities of any Christian who, while dedicating him or herself to the ministry of the Gospel, receives little or no pay for Church work, but performs other (“tentmaking”) jobs to provide support. Specifically, tent-making can also refer to a method of international Christian Evangelism in which Missionaries support themselves by working full-time in the marketplace with their skills and education, instead of receiving financial support from a Church. The term comes from the fact that the Apostle Paul supported himself by making tents while living and preaching in Corinth (Acts 18:3).
Firstly we must ask, where does that fancy idea come from?
Paul of course. Several passages allude to Paul taking time and dedicating himself to tent-making, for instance Acts 18 states,
“…Paul went to see them, 3 and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them. 4 Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks. 5 When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah.”
Notice anything peculiar? Besides the fact that we don’t live in a barter economy using goat hair as the currency today, Paul actually seems to abandon tent making REALLY quick. A brief handful of verses in the bible allude to Paul working hard and not asking for money.
Some of the same passages argue that he should be like the apostles who don’t have to work in blue-collar occupations to foot the bills. In fact the entire concept of Deacons was created because tent-making was not a feasible way to do Ministry for the original 12 Apostles. Some may refer to this as pastoral but we know this is not true, most of the Apostles moved away and served as missionaries. The first interactions of Jesus to the Apostles were not, “Take up thy nets and support thyself, for I shalt honor your work by allowing good conversions after the hours of the first and second watch.”
At one point Scripture alludes to Paul being supported by the Church of Philippi and him being exceedingly grateful. It’s very possible Paul worked a day job making tents. There is another argument though and I didn’t hear it until recently.
The argument is that Paul often didn’t use tent-making as his primary sense of living.
I want to challenge a belief that has literally been around for centuries. Full-disclosure, there is much room for debate here and I challenge everyone to research it themselves and make an educated decision. Personally after much study, this is what I am arriving at. It may be wrong, it may be right, but it is definitely thought provoking.
Paul in all likelihood did not make those big goat skin Bedouin tents. In fact Paul may have not made traditional tents at all. Before the word blasphemy gets thrown up like an interdenominational gang sign, a simple lesson in Hebrew. I will admit I am not the most fluent but many sources will attest to this little fact, and several sources will also debate it, thus the argument needs a stronger foundation then just etymology and I will attempt to build one.
The Hebrew word Tallit, has been said to stand for Little Tent, for those in the know about Judaism, the Tallit is actually the Hebrew prayer shawl. Even if the etymology doesn’t follow perfectly, the idea of a Tallit is a little tent of meeting framed by the tzitzit, or the Jewish tassels. The concept reputedly comes from the idea that the Israelites numbering six million could not fit into the Tent of Meeting. Thus everyone was given a personal tent to be worn at all times. The Tallit is commonly seen today, worn by Jewish men. The concept of wearing a Tallit began to actually take formation around the 1st Century and would’ve lined up very well with Paul the Apostle. While much can be said about the prayer shawl, there is a great argument for why Paul never once made a traditional tent.
Paul was a very educated Jew or Rabbi. He was not known particularly as a farmer, a tanner, or a Shepard. In fact Paul was so well-trained Acts 22 states, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors.”
A quick study through history shows Gamaliel isn’t recorded as having taught publicly, with one reference pointing toward him having personal students. This is important because it lends credit toward the possibility that Paul took a more Rabbinical route in his personal education. Contrary to popular belief most Pharisees had day jobs and practiced a trade, one might argue that this would lend credence to the tent-making theory but there is a peculiar possibility that Paul made Prayer Shawls. Firstly Paul says he is a Pharisee of Pharisees, descended from very devout and religious people, he also states that he exceeded his peers in Judaism. In traditional Jewish life in the first century, the student would memorize the Torah at a very young age. As this process went on, Rabbi would pick disciples and disqualify the various students. They wanted to pick the best and the brightest. The Mishnah actually says,
Let thy house be a meeting-house for the wise;
and powder thyself in the dust of their feet;
and drink their words with thirstiness.
This is a traditional Jewish idea that the home should be a place where the wise walk and you literally are covered in the dust of the wise entering your home. This became an idiom, and thus when Paul says he studied at the feet of Gamaliel, it is alluding to a very personal and discipleship oriented relationship.
While much more can be said on the subject (Such as the theory that a mistranslation in Acts may have covered up the possibility that Paul was in the Sanhedrin), one thing is becoming clear, Paul was extremely educated. He rolled with the Neil Degrasse and the Stephen Hawkins of his day. His contemporaries were brilliant writers of the law. In fact Tarsus was known as a university city, meaning that Paul probably knew of stoicism from his time there. Yet something interesting happens in Hebrew culture. At age 13 they are ready to go to Rabbinical school, which means Paul when caught in Jerusalem states, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city…” this means that Paul probably left when a young boy to study in Jerusalem. Apprenticeship started often at a young age and would require the apprentice to train for half the day after half a day of schooling. If Paul left to Jerusalem at age thirteen to study in a rabbinical school, he very well would have spent the better part of a decade studying Judaism full-time. Are we to believe that the lessons on tent-building from age 5-10 would have taught him so well that a decade later, he would be able to compete in a market flooded with superior craftsmen who have been consistently making tents since age five?
Thus I’d argue, it would be impractical for Paul to be as well-learned as he is without being a full-time student during his educational period. This is important because during youth most people were taught a trade. So why would Paul be a Bedouin tent maker? Tarsus was actually known for Tent-Making but several things point toward this still not being a good fit. One is the portability of bedouin tent making supplies. They are huge and require quite a bit of goat fur. This means Paul would have had to continue his tent-making in a foreign city, owning land and goats, buying up fur, and making tents while also trying to memorize large Jewish texts. On top of this, the users of Bedouin style tents tended to live 800 or more Kilometers away from Paul’s normal missionary haunts. He lived in the city. Huge cities such as Ephesus and Corinth. Cities that had complex dwellings everywhere and don’t seem to be in need of tents.
Why is this important? A very simple explanation.
You see the Tallit was a religious item, a prayer shawl, that would have been in high demand in Jewish circles. It is incredibly reasonable for Paul to have learned this trade considering he appears to be acting as a clergyman most of his life. The Rabbi was often responsible for making the tassels used on Judaic clothing. The book of numbers even commands a colored stripe, often considered purple-blue, to go through these clothing articles. Paul traveling and staying with Lydia, a seller of colored dyes, makes a lot of sense if Paul was selling religious articles of clothing that needed to be colored.
This is important because tentmaking is a completely different idea if one is selling religious items then if one is merely working a trade by day and preaching by night or on the Sabbath. It’s possible that Paul was not in Blue-Collar work but instead in a religious field working with his hands.
It’s an interesting perspective, and there is strong evidence that Paul didn’t make tents just as there is strong evidence he did. I just never recall ever being informed that this matter isn’t a cut and dry settled issue. Reading up on tentmaking has challenged me.
I am not completely convinced that tent making is the best biblical model for missions. If anything is seems less a rule of normality and more the oddity of one or two individuals throughout church history. On top of the possibility of Paul making literal tents it is very possible he never took a secular job so much as worked in a religious field with his hands. I am a missionary. I am not a blue-collar worker living in Asia preaching on the streets on Sunday. Those are two very different life-styles. There is a huge difference between a bible-salesman and a factory worker. It’s possible Paul was more of a religious worker then a maker of fancy dwellings.
Why is this important?
The church is jaded. We have felt pressured and guilted into giving for so long that the tent-making mythos, whether true or false, is very comforting.
“What! You mean I don’t have to give to missionaries and they instead should work normal jobs and provide for themselves??? AWESOME!!!! WOOT! I ALWAYS KNEW THEY WERE LAZY!!!”
While we will touch upon the ethos of giving later, I would argue that one should be very careful not to wash ones hands clean of missionaries. If tent making is real, we can just turn away anybody at the door. If tent making is not real though, then it does call into question, am I being spiritually minded?
Am I sincerely praying and seeking the Lord with missionaries? Or am I searching for a simple answer in my heart as to why I shouldn’t give to missions?
I love the idea of tent-making. It appeals to me so much to be able to make an income and not have to be constantly held under scrutiny by those who deem missions an archaic venture of white privilege. Ultimately, if I wanted to make tents, I would live in America, get a nice degree, and bank mad fat stacks of dosh in a comfortable house. I love America. I have no practical reason to go to another place, become a child intellectually as I learn another language, toil away from my good friends and family, and suffer for the gospel. It’s not practical. Not at all. Tent-making is awesome. But I’d make tents in America if I made tents at all. Many people have fantastic ministries and spend a good part of the day doing work other then full-time ministry. That’s beautiful, it really is, but I know that isn’t the heart Emily and I have. Why would I move my family and life all the way to Asia to work a job, like I could in America, just to reach the people?
Missions is not, contrary to popular belief, a Julia Roberts movie about finding ourselves. It’s hard work. And it costs us everything. I have several reasons for why I am not a tent maker.
The first and most spiritual reason, is that after much prayer, seeking the Lord, and pursuing the wisdom in the Bible, Emily and I don’t believe we are called to be tent-makers. This argument is pretty much, the argument. A pastor, is called to be a pastor. Nobody bats an eye. A missionary is called to be a missionary, and the whole world loses its mind. Well, maybe not the whole world, but there is a lot of opposition!
Whatever happened to the feet of those who bring the gospel being beautiful?
Whatever happened to praying and asking the Lord about the missionary?
At one point in human history, giving up everything to follow Christ and serve, changing culture, and working night and day was admirable. To be honest today it feels as if we get shamed for it. Churches are burnt out. You have to climb ladders, jump through hoops, and dance-monkey-dance before you can get into missional ministry. Is this the church culture we want to leave our kids? Where the 9-5 that pays 100,000$ is glorified and the pastoral jobs are something that only a select few should ever run towards? I know it’s not the culture we want or maybe even we believe we live in but the writing is on the wall. We need a shift in our missional thinking. If it is incredible hard and discouraging for a missionary to get to the field without fighting thousands of counter arguments, we might be looking at a future generation that does not have a missional mind.
Secondly, I am about results. That’s why I don’t make tents.
Shallow I know. In all honesty though, I want to be effective in my ministry.
Just because I am a white male, does not mean I am this ineffective christian worker reporting one salvation per decade and living on the dime of other people. Fear not, I am not an imperialist living on a compound. We live like the people. We don’t believe our American culture is superior and our Chinese preaching sounds better. Em and I keep encountering the lazy missionary stereotype or the horror stories of churches. That saddens us. I’ve even seen it with my own eyes. Those who would probably do better to make license plates then be in ministry. It’s easy to see why the tentmaker mythos just sounds nice.
Yet it’s not practical to expect the results of a full-time minister from someone who works forty hours a week supporting themselves. The truth is that ministers have a higher accountability, we should be producing results. Em and I see incredible fruit from our work. Ask us sometime and we’ll tell you stories of people rescued from human trafficking, high school drop-outs who now serve God, drug addicts who are now sober and filled with the light of the gospel. But if we didn’t produce fruit, we need to evaluate our lives and see if ministry is a good fit for us. The horror stories come from people who see missionary work as so spiritual the physical results are not an indicator of success. Sometimes though they are. A good farmer bears good crops at least sometimes. A bad farmer bears bad crops ALWAYS.
I want to be all in. It would be strange to believe that preaching the gospel in a country such as Taiwan is more effective during smoke breaks, after work, and through friendship evangelism then full-time missionary work. Does anyone really believe a pastor spending forty hours a week at Wal-Mart and in his downtime doing pastoral work is superior to a pastor that can serve full-time? Tent-making and religious work, IT’S EXHAUSTING! Spend the majority of your time and energy working with your hands and then if you have enough energy, ministry. I’m not saying it can’t work, but I know that for Em and I, that is not a practical reality. Working full-time to produce ministry results on the side is just frankly not superior to doing ministry full-time. I know this because I have tried the other route of ministering during the peaceful times of the day, praying with co-workers, and inviting strangers to church. And the results frankly are very small compared to the times I am intentionally able to do ministry vocationally.
Some people, super godly, wonderful people, are tent-makers and I love that. They are specially equipped and called by God. But I am not one. Should the only missionaries be professional businessmen and doctors? Perhaps some people in other countries don’t have churches. They don’t have pastors. And they need someone to actually go to them. To spend night and day raising them up in Christ. Taiwan is not a Muslim country. I don’t have to hide my religious beliefs. I’m not going to North Korea. I’m going to a democratic country with religious freedom. I don’t have to work a non-religious job in Taiwan. I can in-fact get a missionary visa and do missionary work.
I will go. And I’m ok with that calling.
I think being able to spend hour upon hour serving God is awesome. I will not allow the glory to be robbed from those who are tent makers. Not at all! They are serving God in incredible ways, yet I don’t see that as the standard biblical model for missions. I’ve trained for years to be effective at missions.
I was even told to spend time and learn a trade such as medicine, work in the states, and then go overseas. I can’t help but feel eight years of med-school, years of working in the states, and eventually getting to Taiwan would derail the plan that God has for us.
In practicality I just personally can’t compete as a tent-maker with the 40, 50, 60-hour work week that a full-time missionary gets to invest in the kingdom of God. I don’t have the skill set for that, I’m not a doctor or a store owner. And I wouldn’t want to be. I can minister full-time in a foreign country and to me that is such an amazing blessing! I even have wonderful friends in Taiwan who are tent makers. They have fantastic ministries. At the end of the day though, Em and I are entering into a full-time career where it takes much to succeed. We are working with a school full-time and it would be impossible to work part-time at a local Starbucks and impractical to charge our students more for what we do. Our ministry costs us a lot. And we are ok with that. Because it produces a lot of amazing fruit.
I suspect most missionaries who chose religious education in lieu of business and medical occupations are the same way. They entered ministry much like a Pastor and want the same opportunity without requiring a medical degree or selling things to serve other Christians.
I just think we as a church in America have to slow down and ask ourselves, “Are we trying to just not feel guilty?”
Paul himself, was very likely not a full-time tent maker. He was a religious professional and probably somehow supplementing his income through work that may have been religious as well.
We don’t want guilt to drive missional thinking. We want sincere desire to see good done in the world drive missions! Perhaps, our bigger issue is that of just being spiritually minded. Did you pray for that missionary before you asked why he didn’t get a real job? Or did you try to justify why you shouldn’t feel guilty by making his occupation ridiculous?
We need to stop being cynical. We need to stop being burnt out. We need to let God lead us in these matters and open our minds to the possibility that Missionary work is a legitimate career.