China’s Back To Jerusalem (BTJ) missionaries in the 1940s were tentmakers by necessity, unaware perhaps of the legacy of tentmakers before them.

Tentmaking In The Early Church

The Apostle Paul was a maker of tents before his conversion because all rabbis had a vocational skill. As a missionary, he continued to make tents, not just to support himself and his teams. Rather it was a vital part of his mission to model for his disciples how they should live and work. (Acts 20:33-35; I Thess. 2:9)

Paul’s bi-vocational ministry model was common among apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastors in the Early Church. Tertullian, a renowned 2nd century church father, lauded the practice. It not only provided for God’s servants and for the poor, but relieved the growing church of heavy financial burdens.

From 3rd-5th centuries, prominent bishops in different parts of Christendom were tentmakers. Spyridon of Cyprus was a shepherd. Priests under Basil of Cappadocia worked for their daily bread. Chrysostom of Constantinople spoke of rural pastors who yoked oxen and drove the plough. Zeno of Gaza was a linen weaver. Working a job and doing ministry was normal practice.

Tentmaking Stymied

When Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the state religion in the 4th century, fully funded positions emerged for bishops and presbyters in urban areas. This gave rise to a class of professional clergy.

The divide between clergy and laity grew in the 5th century when Augustine made a distinction between the active and contemplative life. He praised the work of farmers, and merchants, but considered the contemplative life a higher calling. Even so, work along with prayer and study has remained an essential part of contemplative life in monastic orders to this day.

In the 6th century, a bishop and four priests were sent by the Church of the East to reach the Huns in Central Asia. They added to their team two merchants, whose faith and trade were considered necessary to the success of their mission (Networker, Fall 2016). But the bi-vocational ministry model waned during the Dark Ages as the Church of the West grew in wealth and the clergy in power.

Tentmaking Revived Since Reformation

During the Reformation, Martin Luther upheld all of life to be a calling from God, including daily work. In declaring the priesthood of all believers, he challenged the divide between the sacred/spiritual and the secular/temporal. Reformed theology reshaped the view of vocation and work in the church and in missionary outreach.

200 years later, when Count Zinzendorf in Germany sent the Moravian Brethren into all the world, they went as tentmakers. Being artisans, the Moravians took their trades with them wherever they went. The practice and teaching of these trades contributed to the economic development of the people they served, and provided frequent, natural contacts with them for outreach. Tentmaking was holistic and sustainable missions. It allowed the small Moravian community to send hundreds of missionaries who were all self-supporting.

Father Of Modern Missions, A Tentmaker

William Carey, father of modern Protestant missions was a tentmaker. In 1793, upon his arrival in India, he worked as an indigo plantation manager for several years while studying the local language for Bible translation. Then he worked as a professor of Bengali for 30 years at Fort William College, where he trained British officers and influenced them as civil servants. He was able to use his income to support his church planting and Bible translation ministries. Carey built the largest printing press of the time, not only to print Bibles, but also books on science and natural history to counter the influence of superstitions. He built schools for girls and children of all castes. He founded the first college in Asia and the first newspaper in an oriental language. He worked to introduce legislation that ended the practice of burning widows and drowning babies in the Ganges River as sacrifices. The list goes on.

In Carey’s 40 years of service, his work and ministry were one and the same mission, bringing holistic spiritual and societal transformation to the people of India. In 1993, the 200th anniversary of his arrival in India, the secular government of India issued a commemorative stamp in honor of this Englishman, who loved their country and served its people.

Jesuit Tentmakers To China

The Jesuit missionaries who went to China in the 16th and 17th century also had bi-vocational roles. Learned priests like Matteo Ricci, Johann Adam Schall von Bell and Ferdinand Verbiest became court astronomers and tutors of the emperor. They enjoyed freedom to preach wherever they went. These tentmaking Jesuits were the Daniels of Catholic missions. Sadly, the Rites Controversy later led to the expulsion of missionaries in the 18th century.

Protestant Tentmakers To China

In 1807, Robert Morrison was the first Protestant missionary to China when he arrived in Macau. Life was hard in the face of hostility from British opium traders, the Catholic Church, and the local people.  After two years in misery, almost homeless at times, he began working for the East India Company as an interpreter. It was the only way Morrison could legally stay on Chinese soil. 

In the next 150 years, many missionaries who went to China built some of the country’s best schools, universities, hospitals, and clinics. While they might not have been financially self-supporting, they definitely had bi-vocational roles, and contributed to China’s social, economic, and spiritual development.

Decline In Self-Supporting Missions

But over time, the influence of colonialism forged a culture of dependency on foreign resources, expertise and institutions. When banking systems were able to transfer funds efficiently from the home country to the field, missionaries could readily receive support from their sending agencies, thus contributing to the decline of tentmaking.

Marching to a different drumbeat, missionaries in some agencies pledged to trust God through prayer alone for their needs. Still, in the last 200 years, donor supported missions has been the norm. It is also influencing the Chinese Church’s missions movement today.

But in light of the BTJ story and the Belt & Road challenges as well as opportunities today, it is time to reconsider the Pauline model of tentmaking missions.