The Challenge of Going the Distance  

The current global economic malaise has made it more challenging for donor-dependent missionaries and job-dependent tentmakers to stay on the field.  While there is a place for short-termers, the work of missions to impact lives and transform culture requires long-term investment.  There is no short cut to building relationships and gaining influence.  So it is important to consider what it would take for workers to serve on the field beyond a few short years. 

What keeps tentmakers viable, vibrant, and able to go the distance?  Calling from God and commitment to love the people one serves are fundamental.  But there are other factors.   Compared to BEEs (boomers, empty nesters and early retirees), early and mid-career tentmakers have many more family and financial considerations:

  • Career – Beyond a legitimate visa to stay in the host country, career opportunities and financial viability are crucial for the self-supporting tentmaker.
  • Marriage & Family – Contentment or marriage prospects for singles, healthy relationships for couples, work-life balance and children’s education are all important.
  • Ministry – Language proficiency, cultural sensitivity, ministry skills, a Spirit-filled life and prayer support are essential ingredients for fruitful ministry.

Sustainable Career    

Integrity is vital to the tentmakers’ work and witness.  They should be who they say they are, doing work or business that their visas are issued for.  Having marketable skills is therefore basic to long-term career viability. 

Tentmakers are both real missionaries and real professionals.  Work is not just a ticket to go overseas, but the context for disciple-making and blessing the nations.  Therefore, one’s career advancement can translate into greater influence and witness for the Kingdom. Business owners can also create employment opportunities for other tentmakers.

Those who wish to devote more time and energy to ministry may choose to forego advancement opportunities as long as their financial needs can be met.  But young tentmakers should not neglect professional growth, or they would lose their competitiveness in the overseas job market, which is constantly changing.  The long view is necessary for singles looking forward to marriage and supporting a family.  For those who accept a modest income in order to serve overseas, it is never too early to plan for retirement.  Those who have a workable plan are in a better position to choose to stay long-term. 

Healthy Singlehood  

When asked about their greatest fears in considering the mission field, many singles, male or female, will say, “Loneliness! And not ever being able to get married.”  Missions requires faith: a commitment to obey the call, whatever it takes.  But singleness is an issue even at home.   It may be argued that the probability of finding someone who shares the same calling could actually be better on the mission field than back home. 

Singles on the field with meaningful friendships, work and ministry, are much more content, and they will thrive.  In today’s big cities, where colleagues, flat mates and friends come and leave all the time, joining a good sending organization will provide singles with caring, like-minded community, the sense of family and rootedness in an otherwise transient environment.

Strong Marriage and Family  

Studies show that for couples, marital contentment or the lack of is the most important factor which affects the workers’ length of service.  Not having a strong marriage before setting out means that problems that were minor back home could become magnified once overseas. 

From the start, both husband and wife need to be firmly committed to the calling.  Success and longevity on the field requires that they agree to the mission and their respective roles, can function as a team, and derive a shared sense of purpose and satisfaction.  Sending agencies must provide resources to grow their members’ marriages, particularly those entering into parenthood or raising young children.

Work-life Balance  

One of the hardest challenges in tentmaking is managing the many pulls on one’s life from the job, the family, and the ministry.  This is a continuous battle for working people whether at home or abroad.  But the difficulties are compounded in a foreign culture.  Tentmakers who lose focus or lose balance will either rust out or burn out.

Work-life balance is more than time management.  It is learning to live life from the center, where the order of the day is not dictated by deadlines and to-do lists, but a daily following after the One who calls us by name.  Tentmakers who take seriously the discipline of listening receive direction, rest and refreshment amidst their toil, and stay the course.

Children’s Education  

This is another major challenge of living overseas.  When the local education system is undesirable, international schools are too expensive, and home schooling is not an option, families could be faced with the reality of having to leave the mission field.  Thankfully, there is an increasing range of schooling options in China’s big cities where GLS tentmakers are concentrated, and children in different modes of education are all doing well.

Some parents feel they need to return home to provide the children a transition back to the western education system before college.  This is not always necessary.  If families are reasonably satisfied with the children’s education on the field, college applicants from overseas actually have a competitive edge because American universities value diversity and put a premium on a student’s international experience.  Children’s education, like everything else, is a challenge to faith, but GLS can testify to how God has always proven Himself faithful among our families. 

Ministry Fruitfulness  

In the final analysis, the rewards of ministry will encourage tentmakers to go the distance, despite all hardships. To be fruitful, tentmakers need language proficiency, cultural sensitivity, ministry skills and prayer support.

Tentmakers who fail to invest in language learning will not go far.  This is a pitfall especially for those who have enough language to function but stop there.  They often end up reaching locals who are eager to practice English.  But without connecting in their heart language, these relationships usually do not go deep.  Tentmakers confined to the expatriate bubble for lack of language eventually fail to see the reason to stay even if career and family do well.  Conversely, tentmakers who serve with their roots in the local culture and community will go the distance.

Language aside, ministry skills and a Spirit-filled life are critical for fruitfulness.  Crossing an ocean does not make a missionary.  Effective tentmakers were active in evangelism and discipleship before they went overseas.  Nor do they go it alone.  They take prayer seriously and maintain an active and informed prayer team for spiritual coverage.  Bearing fruit is spiritual work, which can only be accomplished through spiritual means.  There is no other way.