WORK VS. MISSION
Is tentmaking missions just about being a self-supporting missionary like Paul, who financed his pioneering work at Corinth through his trade? Is it just about having a work visa so you can stay and serve in a certain country? What is the place of work in the life of a tentmaker? What is the relationship between work and mission—being light and salt, and bringing Christ to the unreached?
For many Christians, work is just what we have to do for livelihood, but mission or ministry is the higher calling. A college senior has been active at her campus fellowship. Lately, she has picked up a subtle message from her staff worker that if she is really dedicated, then the best thing to do upon graduation is to join the campus ministry full-time. Is she being worldly for wanting to pursue a secular career? She is confused and conflicted.
Another young man has a good job as a software engineer at a Fortune 100 company. But he feels that work is not challenging and he does not connect well with his colleagues. On the other hand, he enjoys leading worship, teaching Sunday school, and chairing the young adult fellowship. So he is wondering if he should quit his job, go to seminary, and become a pastor instead.
Spiritual Hierarchy & Dichotomized Living
Many Christians struggle with the notion of a spiritual hierarchy and a dichotomized approach to life. The spiritual hierarchy has lay people at the bottom, those in full-time ministries high up, with missionaries and martyrs at the top, on a pedestal. The dichotomized approach to life sees work from Monday to Friday as “secular” and therefore less significant, whereas religious activities on weekends and evenings are “spiritual”, things that really matter.
For the lay person, such thinking invalidates a big chunk of one’s active life. Such reasoning also causes some people to question the effectiveness of tentmaking missions since having full-time jobs means less time and energy left for “real” ministry.
Work is therefore seen as a hindrance to ministry, competing for the tentmaker’s limited resources. But in order to gain entry into restricted access countries where the gospel is most needed, Christian workers need to get a job or start a business. This is where some tentmakers are seen as undercover missionaries and struggle with a sense of duplicity.
The Need for Biblical Understanding
Having the right theology or biblical perspective on work is critical whether we are called to serve locally or overseas. Genesis 1:26-28 and 2:15 record the first mandate for man from God: to steward the earth and its resources. This is our “job”, our God-given work. After the fall, work involved toil and sweat. But God never rescinded the mandate. Even our Lord worked as a carpenter until age 30.
We will outline three approaches to work in relation to mission: Work and Mission, Work for Mission, and Work as Mission. Each has its own validity and merits given the particular calling, gifting and circumstances of the individual. “Mission” and “missions” are often used interchangeably. But here we shall define “mission” as a general calling to witness and service, both locally and overseas, and “missions” as overseas ministry in the cross-cultural context.
WORK AND MISSION
For some believers, work and mission are unrelated spheres in their lives. Being good Christians, they do their work responsibly as unto the Lord and as a testimony to others. But mission is where their heart is. So they are less focused on advancing their careers and more devoted to serving in ministry.
Early retirement is welcomed with more time to serve the church, enroll in seminary, volunteer for para-church organizations, and go on short-term missions. Even full-time ministry and long-term overseas service are options.
Frank and Lily retired from business in their early fifties. As a church deacon, Frank heads the tutorial program for new immigrant youths and doubles as their basketball coach. Lily chairs the missions committee, advises the young adult fellowship, and leads short-term missions trips for GLS.
Henry and Priscilla were also in their fifties when they retired from banking and school administration and relocated to China to join an organization that works among factory workers.
It is wonderful to see people make ministry a priority in retirement. They present a wealth of resources to the Christian community that can be mobilized for mission.
WORK FOR MISSION
This approach sees work as a platform for sharing the Gospel with others. Some people choose to go into certain professions or places in order to reach particular populations. Successful careers and high incomes also translate into more influence and finances to support mission.
Last year, a church in California planted a church in Texas. A team of 15 young adults, some married, some single—teachers, engineers and IT professionals—all quit their jobs on the West Coast and found work in Texas. Today, they are a thriving community of about 60 and growing.
A few years ago, Tom felt the call to serve in China. With his experience in finance, finding a job in his field was not a problem. But he chose to become a head-hunter. The job offered less pay, less prestige, but flexible hours and opportunities to reach professionals from all walks of life. For him, work is valued for how it lends itself to the cause of missions.
Work can definitely be strategic for mission.
WORK AS MISSION
Some years ago, God gave Laurie a burden to serve the new immigrant youth in Chinatown. She quit her IT job and became a computer teacher in a high school. She worked hard and won government grants to build a new computer lab for the students.
Since English fluency is not a requirement in IT, the young immigrants did well. They gained a healthy self image, stayed off the streets and away from gang activities. Laurie’s excellent teaching and her love for the youth won her the respect of both students and colleagues. As a result, she has many opportunities to witness to them.
Laurie’s story is an example of Work for Mission in that she made a career change from IT to teaching for the expressed purpose of reaching Chinatown’s young immigrants for Christ.
But her story is also an illustration of Work as Mission. Her IT skills and passion for teaching are necessary and essential for her mission. The love of God was first showcased among the youth through her tireless service and mentoring. Then it was communicated through her personal witness from the Word. Laurie’s work as a computer instructor and her witness as a Christian mentor together express who she is and what matters to her. She enjoys working with the computer and she loves to teach. It matters to her that the kids acquire job skills and develop self-respect. It also matters to her that they discover their worth beyond what they could do, in that God loves them. Her role in the workplace, the school, gives expression to her vocation as a teacher and her calling as an ambassador for Christ. For Laurie, her work is her mission.
Then there’s Meg, a clinical psychologist. Her first job in China was Director of Counseling Services at an international clinic. She got a comfortable expat package with a job that demanded 150% of her time. But she did not go to China just to serve wealthy expat patients. After praying with her husband, she quit the job and became a free-lance teacher and trainer. When the 2008 financial crisis struck, their retirement savings took a hit. But God began to open many doors for ministry. After the Sichuan earthquake, she trained three hundred Christian volunteers to provide crisis counseling for quake victims. Meg has also been teaching counseling at a university and a seminary.
In a country where there is only one counselor for every 2 million people, Meg’s work is missions. She is fully utilizing her professional expertise to do what she is passionate about, integrating faith and counseling to enable hurting people rebuild healthy, productive lives.
But it is not just teachers and counselors who can integrate work and mission. Chris was a project manager in a Fortune 100 company in the U.S. While on a three-month China assignment, he felt called to dedicate a season of his life to missions. So he got a transfer to the Beijing office. Within a few months, he was given the responsibility to train the sales team. Because of his boss’ expectations, there is great pressure to succeed, but Chris is excited about the potential influence he could have among his local colleagues.
Training people in sales is not just about pitching products. He can share personal convictions, ethics and core values, what it means to serve people well. He can model servant-leadership for the team, bond with them, make them successful, and bring about transformation from the inside out. For Christians who see themselves as change agents in society, work is mission. There is intrinsic value in both the work and the witness. The two are one.
All these stories are about serious-minded Christians, who approach their work slightly differently as it relates to mission—the call of Christians to be light and salt in the world, and to reach the lost for Christ. The different approaches influence their career choices, objectives at work, commitment to work-life balance, and, as a result, what fruit is born out of the workplace. There is a place for each approach.
A holistic view of work is not only important for tentmakers, but also for laypeople at home. After all, the majority of our waking hours and productive life is spent at work. We need to see how our faith has relevance in all of life. We all agree that Christ should be the head of our home, and the home an altar unto God. Why not the workplace? Today, when corruption in the world of finance and business is as globalized as our economy, people need to literally see God at work.
WORK AS GLOBALOCAL MISSION
Crossing the ocean does not make a missionary. Nor does it make a tentmaker. If our faith and our God are not real here at home, how can we expect things to be different when we go overseas? Therefore, integrating work and mission is basic preparation for tentmaking missions. Local mission at the workplace is not only training future tentmakers to go overseas. More immediately, it is missional discipleship and outreach for the church at home. Fundamentally, as God’s people, how we do our work here should be no different than how we do our work anywhere else in the world. Work and globalocal mission go hand in hand.
Today, many people go overseas for mere career reasons. So if an international career is not out of the question for you, then tentmaking missions should be an option. But preparation is critical: let work be mission here first, then we can take on Career as Missions.