A few years ago, a Seventh-day Adventist couple in Atlanta, Georgia, felt a growing burden for the thousands of people living in a low-income housing project. At first, they thought “the church” should do something. But, as time went on, they became convicted that they needed to do something themselves.
Eventually, they decided to move there with their children. But as they began to make plans, they discovered they earned too much money to live in that government-subsidized housing community. So, they quit their good-paying jobs and took lower-paying positions, sold their nice middle-class house, and moved into the projects. Now that is real sacrifice!
They began visiting their new neighbors, organizing community cookouts, and arranging games and activities for the neighborhood kids. They were tentmakers.
What are tentmakers?
The term refers to the apostle Paul’s practice of making tents to support himself while being a circuit evangelist. So, in short, a tentmaker is someone who moves into a difficult area for the purpose of mission but does not work for the church. Their work for a “secular” employer provides for their living needs and gives them access to people they normally would otherwise not be able to touch.
We desperately need tentmakers—thousands of them all around the world. If we have to rely on church-employed workers, we will never finish the work. There is not enough money, and church employees cannot get the permits or visas necessary to live and work in many of the most difficult places. We need dedicated professionals who creatively find jobs outside the church in those challenging areas.
In some parts of the world, we are talking about whole countries that only tentmakers can enter. In other places, it is large cities. In highly developed countries, we have towns and villages, high-rise apartment blocks, expensive gated communities, and slums that need to know about God’s love. There are thousands of massive businesses around the world without even one Christian working in them.
We need to change our perspective and start finding out where members are not living and working. Then, we need to begin to intentionally increase the number of dedicated members moving into those unentered countries, cities, communities, and businesses. And most of them will have to be tentmakers.
Let’s look at seven tentmaker principles from the life of Paul.
Principle 1: A tentmaker’s work will not hurt their witness
In 1 Corinthians 9:12, 18, Paul says, “If you support others who preach to you, shouldn’t we have an even greater right to be supported? But we have never used this right. We would rather put up with anything than be an obstacle to the Good News about Christ. . . .
“What then is my pay? It is the opportunity to preach the Good News without charging anyone. That’s why I never demand my rights when I preach the Good News.”1
I was never a tentmaker. I worked for the church. When I lived in Lebanon, my residency permit had “Missionary” printed on it (in Arabic). So, if I applied for a visa to visit Algeria, their embassy in Lebanon would look at my residency permit and say, “Missionary? We don’t want you in Algeria!”
We each need to be using the gifts God has given us. And we need both church employees and tentmakers. One is not better than the other.
But a tentmaker could say that they are a teacher, plumber, computer programmer, nurse, cell phone tower engineer, professor, or geologist, and they would get in.
Paul had the right to be paid, but he gave it up and preached free of charge so that no one could say he just did it for the money or to keep his job. He did it to gain access to people and places that he could not have reached otherwise.
A tentmaker’s work will, in fact, open doors for witnessing that would otherwise be difficult or impossible.
Principle 2: Tentmakers help stretch church resources
In 1 Thessalonians 2:9, Paul says, “Don’t you remember, dear brothers and sisters, how hard we worked among you? Night and day we toiled to earn a living so that we would not be a burden to any of you as we preached God’s Good News to you.”
Tentmakers do not cost the church anything. Someone else arranges their visas, ships their belongings, and pays their salaries. The church supports them spiritually, socially, and emotionally but does not have to help financially. Therefore, tentmakers are not a financial burden to the church. In fact, they strengthen the church with their tithes and offerings and greatly multiply the number of witnesses available for the work.
Roger,2 for example, works as a tentmaker in one of our difficult countries today. A few years ago, he was returning to his work, joyfully carrying a number of books I had given him. It was illegal, but Roger had done this many times before. And each time, he had witnessed miracles. Sometimes God helped the customs agents skip right over him without even opening his suitcase. Other times they searched his luggage and just did not see the books.
But this time they saw the books! Angrily they ordered Roger out of line and interrogated him through most of the night, one officer after another. In the early morning, they fined Roger $800 cash on the spot. Then they released him, saying they would be reading these books and get back to him. It was clearly a threat!
Roger was scared, tired, and overwhelmed. Why had God let him down this time? These were God’s books. Why did God waste all this money and time? And then, suddenly, a thought popped into his mind. It was almost as if God said to him, “Roger, you are right. These are my books. And the money is mine. And you are mine. And so are those CID officers.”
As Roger told me about it later, he was rejoicing again. “Think of it, Pastor,” he said. “For years, I would gladly have paid for a chance to give books to government officials. And now, several of them have heard my testimony and been assigned to read our books. And it cost me only eight hundred dollars!”
Roger was, and still is, a tentmaker. The church does not pay him, but his witness is powerful in a part of the world where the church cannot send regular workers or missionaries.
Principle 3: A tentmaker demonstrates that work is not demeaning
In 2 Thessalonians 3:7–9, Paul says, “We were not idle when we were with you. We never accepted food from anyone without paying for it. We worked hard day and night so we would not be a burden to any of you. We certainly had the right to ask you to feed us, but we wanted to give you an example to follow.”
One reason Paul worked as a tentmaker was so no one could sit around and say, “I want to be a minister and be employed by the church so that I don’t have to work.”
Jesus worked most of His life as a carpenter. His hands were rough. He got splinters in His fingers. He smashed His thumb with the hammer. And the way He responded to those situations was itself a powerful witness.
A tentmaker shows the world the blessings of real work and that being a follower of Jesus changes even the way we work.
Principle 4: Tentmakers provide an example for new believers
I am a strong supporter of sending missionaries and Global Mission Pioneers into new areas to start new work. But too often, the only model the new believers see is the minister or missionary or pioneer, someone who is paid by the church. So, they think that to be faithful followers of Jesus, they need to leave their jobs and become full-time employees of the church. That is the only model they have seen.
Tentmakers show new believers a model that all can follow—that of a believer who lives a life, has a job, and shares God’s Good News through all of it while not being employed by the church.
Principle 5: To be effective, tentmakers must demonstrate accountability
Acts 14:26, 27 says, “Finally, they returned by ship to Antioch of Syria, where their journey had begun. The believers there had entrusted them to the grace of God to do the work they had now completed. Upon arriving in Antioch, they called the church together and reported everything God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles, too.”
Paul reported back to his home church. But he was also working closely with the local churches where he had been sent to labor. Writing to the church in Philippi, he says, “For you have been my partners in spreading the Good News about Christ from the time you first heard it until now” (Phil. 1:5).
Tentmakers are not just out there on their own; they are part of the local and world church family and must demonstrate accountability to the body of Christ.
Principle 6: One size does not fit all
Have you ever tried on something that says “one size fits all”? It really does not fit—not with clothes and not in the work of the church either.
We each need to be using the gifts God has given us. And we need both church employees and tentmakers. One is not better than the other. Paul even switched back and forth between tentmaking and church employment, depending on the needs.
One day, in the heart of a sprawling capital city in North Africa, a foreign bank employee stopped by a shop and began visiting with the young cashier. Over the next few months, a friendship began to develop. One day, this Adventist tentmaker invited the young man to a Bible study and later introduced him to her pastor, who was working in that city as a missionary.
Little by little, the young man accepted the new truths he was learning and joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He married an Adventist girl from a nearby country and is now a pastor working for his own people. It is because of a tentmaker and a missionary pastor working together that this young man is an Adventist pastor today.
Not everyone should be a tentmaker. And not everyone should be a church worker. We need both working together.
Principal 7: Being a tentmaker is not always safe and easy work
In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul gives quite an overwhelming list of things he endured, including jail, whippings, being stoned, facing hunger and thirst, and even being without enough clothes.
Does that make you want to be a tentmaker?
People often do amazing things for money and fame. But tentmakers may not get much of either. Many times, no one notices what has been accomplished. Often, tentmakers do not even get to see that they are making a difference. But in heaven, the results will be clearly seen.
Whom shall I send?
Not only can tentmakers go where church workers often cannot, but also when the church is shut down and the leaders imprisoned or killed, tentmakers are often able to continue their work. I believe we are seeing the beginning of a mighty tentmaker movement that will sweep through the world and help complete the spread of the gospel so that Jesus can come. Let us keep these dedicated tentmakers in prayer as they answer the call to go wherever needed—from Atlanta, Georgia, to the most unentered and most difficult places on earth.3
- Scripture is from the New Living Translation.
- For more information, visit www.totalemployment.org.