Even though traditional missionaries cannot go into most of the 10/40 Window countries where the gospel is most needed today, tentmakers can.
But tentmaking missions is not a modern invention. The term comes from the example of Paul who supported himself and his coworkers by practicing his trade of tentmaking while preaching the Gospel in the Roman Empire (1 Cor 9:6, 2 Thess 3:7-10, Acts 18:3-5, 20:33-35). Many Moravian missionaries of the 18th century were traders, artisans, teachers and physicians who served alongside preachers. The Father of Modern Missions William Carey pioneered church planting and Bible translation in India. But throughout his career he supported himself, working initially in business and later as a professor. He also contributed to India’s modernization through education, publishing, social reform, science and technology development, etc. that would be considered the work of tentmakers today.
Some Common Queries
But in the last 200 years, the work of missions has mainly been done by full-time Christian workers, and tentmaking is not well understood in the Christian community today. People ask: Is tentmaking “real” missions? Are tentmakers undercover missionaries, whose jobs are mainly entry tickets to restrictive access countries? If they have real jobs, do they have time to share the Gospel? And if they do not have much time for ministry, does that not make them second-class missionaries? For those who have a business license, but do not make much profit and hardly pay taxes, is there an issue with integrity?
To address these issues, we need to ask some fundamental questions: What is missions all about? How is the Gospel “good news”? What is real ministry? What makes an effective messenger? Can work be mission?
What is Missions All About?
Jesus’ Great Commission says: “Go and make disciples of all nations.” How? By “baptizing them...and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” What Jesus taught is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, summed up in the Great Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matt 22:36-40)
So this is the work of missions: As we live out the Gospel, loving God and our unreached neighbors, we go and disciple them to do the same. Love and faith must be expressed in care and service to others in need (Matt 25: 31-46, Jas 2: 15-16). When people see our love in action, their hearts will open to the message of God’s love. The Great Commission and the Great Commandment must go hand in hand.
The Problem of Shallow Christianity
What is wrong with the world today? Are we addressing the main issues?
Systemic poverty, institutionalized injustice and corruption are root causes of sufferings in many 10/40 nations. Unfortunately, despite remarkable church growth around the world in the 20th century, especially in Africa and S. America, missiologists have observed a very disturbing trend: the well-known phenomenon in Africa that Christianity is like “a river a mile wide and an inch deep”.
Sadly, in many countries where the gospel has been embraced by millions, Christians and non-Christians alike still suffer from rampant corruption, oppression, immorality and disease. Saving souls without changing people and society is not exactly Good News.
The Challenge of the Whole Gospel
In Rick Warren’s PEACE Plan, he calls for Christians around the world to fight the five global evil giants—spiritual emptiness, corrupt leadership, poverty, disease and illiteracy—which ravage the lives of billions and make it impossible for them to know the love and saving grace of God. Christians are called to respond to these challenges with five expressions of God’s love:
P – promote reconciliation
E – equip servant leaders
A – assist the poor
C – care for the sick
E – educate the next generation
The Seven Cultural Mountains approach to missions also reminds us of the various sectors of society that need transformation by the power of the gospel as we seek to make disciples of all nations: business, government, media, arts and entertainment, family, education and religion.
21st century missions must be a thoughtful integration of the Great Commission and the Great Commandment—the whole gospel for the whole person in the whole world. Evangelism and social transformation are essential partners in reaching the unreached. This will take the combined effort of the best tentmakers from all walks of life working alongside church planters.
How Is the Gospel Good News?
The Gospel is Good News when it changes people’s lives, in eternity, beginning here and now.
All over the world, people are hurting from broken marriages and families. Many people are also miserable at work. They feel exploited and oppressed. They are angry, cynical, and in despair. So they suffer 24-7, at work or at home.
Effective messengers of the Good News are those who go, live and serve among the unreached to show them how to do family and work differently. It is Good News when they see that they can live differently, that the Gospel can be relevant to the realities of local society and culture, that there is hope.
"Real" Ministry & Incarnational Missions
Incarnation is not just to live in local neighborhoods, eat local food and dress in local attire. By having a job, the tentmaker has an understandable identity and social role in the host country. Working shoulder to shoulder, with the same hours and living with the same stress, incarnation missions happens when the local and the tentmaker can identify with one another.
Foreigners are always under scrutiny by locals. For the tentmaker, long hours spent at work is not necessarily time “lost” to “real” ministry when his life becomes an open book to his colleagues. Work done in honor of God is living witness that opens minds and hearts to the power of the Gospel. Work can be mission.
Send More Tentmakers!
In China and many 10/40 countries, most believers are first generation Christians who have seen very few examples of Christians living out their faith in the workplace. Chinese pastors are making this appeal: “Send more tentmakers to come and do life with our people!” They need mature believers to be embedded in their small groups as under-shepherds and role models to journey alongside their fast growing flocks.
The Good News needs to be seen, not just heard. Seeing the Good News is important not only for reaching the unreached, but also for the discipleship of Christians. This was Jesus’ approach with His first disciples. He invited them to “come and see” (John 1:39). He lived among them, full of grace and truth, and showed them God’s Kingdom on earth.