Tentmaking is not what it’s cracked up to be.

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A concept that comes into vogue on and off in the world of cross-cultural ministry is tentmaking.

Derived from the biblical example of the Apostle Paul who made tents to make ends meet, the concept of tentmaking generates appeal as an alternative and/or complimentary means of funding people in cross-cultural ministry. Unfortunately, it is too often made out to be something it is not.

1. The biblical example is not the ideal. Paul does this because of the immaturity of the Corinthian church. He is clear that he has the right to expect their financial support but forgoes the right in order not to burden them in their embryonic, developmental stage. Tentmaking is the default posture. Not the norm.

2. The limitations on tentmakers are usually substantial and rarely do those attempting it have a realistic understanding of what they are getting into. Imagine what it’s like to carry on a 8-5 vocation or profession, and then add all of the stress and adjustments of cross-cultural living on top of that. What’s really left for any effective ministry? The fact is, the primary and often only ministry context tentmakers can reasonably expect will be their jobs.

Too often the expectation is that they will be free to serve alongside vocational missionaries or expressions of the church in national settings. That is usually a fantasy.

3. Unfortunately, some of those I’ve seen gravitate toward tentmaking are independent individuals who don’t want to be accountable to others and want to go it alone. I’ve also seen people use tentmaking as an excuse to not raise support, want to insure a consistent pay check, and not have to depend directly on God or donors for their livelihood.

4. I’ve repeatedly heard the mantra that tentmaking is the means of placing missionaries in closed or restricted access nations. That’s simply not true. There is no such thing as a closed country on the face of the planet. Only creative access countries. There is a distinct difference in a tentmaker who is committed to a profession and wants to use it for ministry purposes and a person called into vocational ministry using a profession as a creative means of access in difficult contexts.

Does tentmaking have a place in God’s overall missional purposes around the world? Of course. But there needs to be some honesty and realism about what it can accomplish. There are some wonderful people who have made such cross-cultural jumps and who serve, in word and deed, as the presence of Jesus through their jobs in difficult cross-cultural contexts. But tentmaking is not the panacea that some make it out to be.

One Response to “Tentmaking is not what it’s cracked up to be.”

  1. Tim Catchim Says:

    Sam,

    I agree bro. I have been doing tentmaking for about 5 years now. Our church plant, among other reasons has seen growth, but I know it would have been significantly more if I did not have to work on the side. I like your tempered approach to it. It is an option, but not the ideal. Unfortunately, I did not have a choice at the time. It has its blessings and curses, thats for sure. But eventually, you always come back to issues time, energy and focus. Tentmaking poses significant challenges to all three of these.

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