Thursday, January 20, 2011

tentmaking today

“Tent-making” is the missionary concept that comes from the apostle Paul’s practice of supporting himself by working with his own hands. He was probably a leather worker (what tents were usually made from), whose biggest customer was the Roman military (the greatest user of tents throughout the Empire), that meant he could get work anywhere. He undoubtedly learned this skill as a Pharisee, since it was the common practice for Pharisees to learn a trade and the law at the same time. They were “lay lawyers” of biblical law. But, Paul made this his practice and example for CHRISTIAN reasons all the way through to the very end of his third and final missionary journey:

“You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:34-35)

Paul, in this final meeting with the Ephesian elders, connected self-support to the highest Christian calling of loving care for the weak, and the blessing of giving (which, in this citation, is linked to self-support, not giving financial offerings!). In this basic practice, Paul identifies with most Christians everywhere who have to work to feed themselves and fund their witness to their friends, neighbors and co-workers.

The question for this post is this: According to Paul’s teaching and example, what is the place of the practice of self-support for CHRISTIAN ministries today? Tent-making is a strategy that has no good press in the church-as-we-know-it. Tent-making is what second-rate ministers do so they can do their “real” ministry on Sunday, or what the missionaries do until they get enough support to be a “full time missionary.” On the one hand, a lot of the feeling we have about tent-making comes from the current model of leader as CEO (and therefore powerful, in control and well-financed). Tent-makers are powerless, without control and poorly financed and so—we somehow feel—they must be on Plan B for those not quite good enough to be a “real” leader. On the other hand, ask any tent-maker. It can really suck. We struggle with feelings of shame (“How come more people don’t support me?”). We struggle with feelings of self-pity (“I’m so tired. If only I had financial support, I could devote my full time to ministry!”). We struggle with feelings of inadequacy, since we are not fully-funded like “real” ministers and “valuable” ministries.

For the remainder of this post I will assume that just because we are used to things being done a certain way does not make that way the best way to do them. I will assume that shame may be well part of God’s plan for authentic ministry, as God puts His son’s shame on the cross at the center of that plan, and Paul affirms again and again the necessity for apostolic leaders to experience shame and humiliation (“working with hands” would be considered shameful for the high society in his day; 1 Corinthians 4; 2 Corinthians 4). I will assume that the Scriptural pattern is more important that our contemporary patterns or long-term traditions or “common sense.”

In 1 Thessalonians 1:9, Paul said he sweat and bled “not to be a burden.” This was not only HIS missionary strategy, he makes it theirs: “Work with your hands so that you win the respect of outsiders!” (1 Thess 4:11). By the time of his second letter to them, some of them had come up with “spiritual” reasons why they shouldn’t have to work, and he makes his own practice of self-support the ethical foundation of his charge to them: if THEY won’t work (like Paul), don’t give them food (2 Thess 3:6-10).

In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul argues from his practice of self-support as an example of why the Corinthians should not use their right/freedom to eat idol meat (see 1 Corinthians 8—10). He bends over backwards to demonstrate why he should be financially supported, but only to make it clear: “I have not made use of that right, and neither should you make use of your ‘right’ to eat idol meat.” It is very poignant that Paul calls self-support his right/freedom/authority (he uses the word exousia which can be translated as either right, freedom or authority). He says this after presenting many reasons why Christian workers and their spouses should be supported in their missionary journeys (I may be wrong, but I think 9:5 specifically makes this passage not about stationed or stationary “professional” ministry). He says he would rather die than have anyone deprive him of this “boast” by financially supporting him (1 Cor 9:15—in typical Pauline irony, he calls a practice that would bring him shame in Corinth something to boast about). Paul calls it a “reward” to support himself (again, rich in irony for those who might think “paid ministry” is “real” ministry). His self-support is an exousia, a source of freedom and authority to live, decide, move and speak as God leads and provides, and not to wait for the approval of others. For those of us who have followed his pattern, we learn there is great freedom and authority to speak when we are not financially beholden to someone else, worrying about what will happen to our livelihood if we address needed issues. Paul, I think, envisioned that this was how we would keep a prophetic-apostolic edge on the church’s proclamation.

Paul’s practice of self-support was essential to blessed mission work he lived. His tent-making took him to the center of the market place where women, slaves, Cynic philosophers, and all sorts of “normal” people spent their time. He had a natural hearing because he was incarnational like Jesus, walking among those he was sent to speak to. Paul didn’t work in the market place so he could merely speak in the synagogue on the weekend. Paul’s tent-making took him to the center of the mission target God gave him that day (just like getting thrown in jail took him to the Philippian jailer). His pattern was apostolic, mobile and multipliable. He could focus on discipling those who were faithful and not worry about what was “fundable.” Geography is mission, is it not? Where does God have me? THIS is where God wants me to be in mission, whether in jail or in the center of the market place.

Some of you reading this may have significant “noise” that may drown out what I am saying here. Many people will say that “church ministry” needs to be paid so the CEO can speak in the worship event on Sunday and run the organization throughout the week. Of course, this reflects our tragically consistent misconception of what “church,” “ministry” and “worship” are. We weaken the fiber of the Body of Christ when we continue the false teaching that “worship” means attending a lecture/concert each week. Paul’s pattern is much closer: true worship is a whole life, one’s whole self, one’s every waking moment and activity (including the work-a-day stuff) offered up to God (Romans 12:1ff). It is certainly how Paul understood his own “offering” of working to support himself (Acts 20:34-35).

That is all to say that I think apostles* and tent-making are still God’s main, blessed missionary strategy in church-as-God-wants-it, and mission-as-God-wants-it. The main problem we have for the salvation of the world is not funding or fundraising, since the main scriptural plan is the Body of Christ spread like salt and positioned like lamps strategically throughout the neighborhoods and workplaces of the world. The problem is mostly our misconception of church, and our misguided reliance on clericalism and the paid priesthood. It is a poor pattern, especially when we hear so many committed disciples talk about “quitting their jobs so they can go into full-time ministry.” Get thee behind me! EVERY Christian already IS in full-time ministry! Paul’s pattern already directly relates to most Christians’ experience of the tension of a working life and a call to full obedience and availability to God. It fits with the needs for mobile missionaries to share Jesus and proclaim His kingdom in new mission fields and pockets. This awareness helps us focus on the people in front of us, rather than the funding we don’t yet have or might lose in the future. Today each of us should remember to work hard “so that we can win the respect of outsiders.” With their respect we have their ear. With their ear, they can hear the indispensable good news about Jesus.

(Personal note: this thinking flows out of my Ph.D. studies at the University of Sheffield, England, focusing on Paul’s style of leadership. Ingrid and I consider ourselves to be obeying this scriptural teaching by being self-employed missionary workers. I was formerly a paid church-as-we-know-it professional for over 20 years.)


  1. I've heard you discuss this topic before and I find it a compelling argument. It certainly is the most challenging issue to tackle as a Christian. It reminds me of people who don't put the fish on their cars because they don't want to be held accountable to what it means in traffic. Is part of the system of corporate church avoiding accountability? Is this the bigger issue here?
    Anyway, this online book is coming along nicely! Why don't you send email reminders about your new postings anymore?

  2. Hi Brian. I've not met you. I came across this note through a mutual friend's FB link.
    I'm a church planter. My wife and I are establishing our 8th plant...the Amazing Grace Church in Bromley, Kent.
    We've lived out what you present here...for the same reasons you make.
    A good word. More!