The Good and Bad of Tent-Making Missions

People often ask me what I think about tent-making missions. Usually what they have in mind is traveling to another country and obtaining residency through professional employment with the goal of making disciples as they go. They might relocate overseas as an engineer or a teacher or a business person, but typically they do so in order to gain access to certain countries or peoples. In support of this method, they take Paul as their model.

However, on this issue, Paul’s practice can’t be universally emulated precisely because his world was very different than our own. For one, Paul traveled primarily within the singular Roman Empire, evangelizing and ministering in Greek, a language in which he was already fluent.

Whenever Paul entered synagogues he was well-versed in the history, culture, and religion of his hearers. Even in what could be labeled cross-cultural settings, Paul demonstrated deep knowledge of local assumptions and beliefs. His experience, then, is very different than that of typical missionaries today.

So when we come to something as complex as Paul’s approach to vocation during his missionary journeys, we shouldn’t expect a simple, transferrable method. First of all, we have to see Paul’s tent-making as elective and strategic, which means we can’t make our own versions of tent-making, or even business as mission, into the standard for all missionaries in all places. His was a method with a specific goal and a specific benefit, which may or may not translate into our ministry contexts.

Money, Relationships, and Time

Money—or more accurately, the need for money—can easily be the engine that drives vocational choices in mission. However, lack of funding wasn’t the reason behind Paul’s tent-making. Ideally, it won’t be ours either. Instead, missionaries who work to provide some or all of their own needs can see their work as a means to a greater end, that of building relationships and preaching the gospel.

In many cultures, relationships naturally develop through vocation as much as location. Classmates become best friends. Coworkers become companions. Shared experience with shared space results in shared lives—and sometimes shared conversion.

“When we come to something as complex as Paul’s approach to vocation during his missionary journeys, we shouldn’t expect a simple, transferrable method.”

On the other hand, traditional missionaries who don’t have a routine and a workplace can find themselves surrounded only by believers. Their lives become insular and isolated. Developing new relationships and opportunities for the gospel becomes the strangely arduous goal of their efforts rather than the natural byproduct of them.

With that being said, tent-making missionaries experience their own challenges. They may have plenty of relational opportunities yet little time to pursue them. They may have many non-Christian friends but lack the language ability—and the time to study language—necessary for meaningful evangelism. Most frustrating of all, they may meet people with questions about Christ but remain unable to provide sufficient answers due to the language barrier.

Hard Work and Giving

One of the benefits of Paul’s vocational labor was the example it provided to believers. He modeled integrity and a strong work ethic. By working hard with his own hands to provide his own needs and the needs of others, he demonstrated the teaching of Jesus that it’s more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:34–35).

However, if the only example of Christian character and vocation that national believers have is one of a fully-funded American missionary who eats at nice restaurants and has access to private medical care, they can easily be confused. Or, perhaps worse, if they recognize missionaries to be those who operate platforms or shell companies without really doing any meaningful business, they could easily come to wrongheaded conclusions about a Christian theology of work.

“One of the benefits of Paul’s vocational labor was the example it provided to believers.”

But even the best examples of manual labor can be misconstrued. Paul himself was concerned that his model of not receiving support would be misrepresented, which is why he had to clarify any potential confusion about the legitimacy of a minister of the gospel receiving material support (1 Cor. 9:14). So too, bi-vocational or tent-making missionaries, while being a model of hard work, will simultaneously need to teach nationals the call to generous giving and the biblical warrant for supported ministers.

Credibility versus Conflict

Today, some people equate business as mission with tent-making. They utilize business as a means to create access for the gospel in certain countries. Legitimate work provides them a long-term visa in an otherwise closed country. But beyond bureaucratic approval, genuine businesses also provide credibility in the community when foreign Christians are seen bringing a tangible service or social benefit.

As far as we can tell, Paul wasn’t under such governmental compulsion to work as a means of gaining access. However, his labor certainly became an entrance to the gospel in the marketplace of many cities. But we must also recognize that Paul wasn’t a typical employee tied down to a nine-to-five workday. He was more like an independent contractor with workday flexibility to do the necessary labor of preaching the gospel (1 Cor. 9:16). Such flexibility allowed him to preach daily in Ephesus (Acts 19:9–10), or, when needed, to pick up his tent—pun intended—and move on.

The challenge today for Christians seeking to leverage their professional skills overseas is that they could easily find themselves yoked to a secular company with incompatible expectations. If expats aren’t working for themselves or in a like-minded business, they may face irreconcilable conflict with employers about time commitments, ethical practices, evangelism in the workplace, or the responsibility to stay in the government’s good graces.

Freedom, Flexibility, and Mobility

This gets at the larger issue of flexibility and mobility. Paul’s vocational choice—which changed from place to place—didn’t restrict him to a given location or schedule but rather freed him to take the gospel anywhere he went. He could accept support. Or he could elect to work with his own hands so as to present the gospel “free of charge” (1 Cor. 9:12–18 ESV). In other words, Paul made his vocational choices strategically, and his ventures were constantly facilitating the mission rather than limiting it.

One of the most basic questions, then, that must be asked by anyone considering doing business on the mission field is: will my work contribute to the free flow of the gospel, to its clear understanding and acceptance, or will it not?

“Will my work contribute to the free flow of the gospel, to its clear understanding and acceptance, or will it not?”

In the end, this was the determining factor behind Paul’s decision to relinquish his rights (at times) to make a living from his apostolic preaching. He didn’t want a request for funds to confuse his hearers about the nature of free grace. And he would do anything necessary to remove a hindrance to the gospel, even if that meant hours of hard labor.

This must be our perspective as well. When we consider the good and bad of doing business while on mission, we constantly have to keep one eye on the consequences, intended and otherwise, of our occupational practices. There will not always be clear answers. But, after taking these variables into account, we may find that marketplace missions can serve to maximize the spread of a clear gospel message and the establishment of churches, just as it did for Paul.

Elliot Clark (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) lived in Central Asia where he served as a cross-cultural church planter along with his wife and children. He is currently working to train local church leaders overseas with Training Leaders International.