Why I Don’t Believe in Making Tents

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I have a long rather adversarial history with tents.  They get dirty easily, leak and blow away.  Bugs and critters can access them with little to no effort.  They are not climate controlled.  They usually come without necessary accommodations. Starbucks are usually very, very far away.  I mean, need I say more?  When I was Girl Scout, I even refused to camp in one. I was about as good of a Girl Scout as I am a vegan. 😳

Early in the first decade of my missions career, I was introduced to the term “tent-making”.  It sounded like a good idea to my inexperienced ears.  The popular missions definition approximates as “doing a job or occupation in order to get into places in the world you could not go as a missionary”.  A way to access places you otherwise couldn’t sounded like a brilliant concept.  But throughout my next 20 years in missions I began to realize the concept of tent-making as a strategy was usually at best incomplete and at worst down right destructive to God’s Kingdom.

The term tent-making is a reference to the life of Paul. Paul was the most traveled missionary in the Bible.  He made tents.  So, it must be a great term to use for missions and if I take a job as an English teacher in order to get into a place I couldn’t otherwise, then that is like Paul making tents, right?  And tent-making is an awesome missions strategy, right?

Wrong.

Let’s look at Paul. Yes, Paul made tents.

After these things Paul departed from Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla (because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome); and he came to them. So, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them and worked; for by occupation they were tentmakers. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded both Jews and Greeks.  Acts 18:1-4, NKJV

I have heard this taught so many times as Paul made tents to support himself while he was doing the real ministry of preaching and teaching the Gospel.  That understanding demonstrates a deep and profound confusion as to what ministry and vocation actually are.  It also shows an unbiblical division between sacred and secular work steeped in centuries of broken understanding.

Paul believed in supporting himself, that he may not be a burden to those he was serving and to be a good example when such an example was needed.

For you yourselves know how you ought to follow us, for we were not disorderly among you; nor did we eat anyone’s bread free of charge, but worked with labor and toil night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, not because we do not have authority, but to make ourselves an example of how you should follow us. 2 Thess 3:7-9, NKJV

But he also believed in making his work, his business a channel of provision supporting the community around him beyond his own needs.

I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. Yes, you yourselves know that these hands have provided for my necessities, and for those who were with me. I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ” Acts 20:33-35, NKJV

Paul believed and taught it was right and appropriate for those who served in ministry to be compensated materially for their work in ministry (1 Co 9:11-14, Gal 6:6) and he, himself, received financial support from some of the churches (Ph 4:15-18).  However, Paul chose to lay down the “right” to receive compensation when that compensation could be counterproductive to the Gospel.

There are powerful things to take note of in these passages which stand in contrast to popular concepts of tent-making:

  • Paul wasn’t “tent-making” to sneak into a closed country. He owned his own business, while writing many of the letters in the New Testament and discipling the known world.  He was a Roman citizen with free and open access to virtually the entire known world of his day.
  • Paul was not working at a trade reluctantly to compensate for any lack of provision or in order to get on with his “real” work of ministry. Paul had the sense that everything he was and did WAS ministry, whether making tents or having discussions in the synagogues.  There was nothing in his life that was not part of serving Jesus.
  • Paul was not “bi-vocational”.  Vocation is about calling, not profession, occupation or employment.  As followers of Jesus we have one calling (everything we are and do is to be ministry), with multitudes of expressions for that calling (professions, forms of service, seasons, occupations and trades).

Some practical observations about “tent-making” from my time in the missions field:

  • When the occupation is authentically embraced as central to the calling, it can be powerful.  i.e. Someone goes to country x because they are called there and becomes an English teacher because they have calling and passion to be an English teacher and work at it with all their heart, and have a sensitivity to Jesus, it can open tremendous doors of real conversations and authentic relationships.
  • When the occupation is only a means to the end of gaining access, it more often than not unravels.  Someone feels called to country x and they find out they can get into the country by teaching English- but they hate teaching and could careless about English.  But they do it anyway because it will become a platform for their real work. Missions peeps please, please don’t do that.  People are really smart and can usually tell less than authentic a mile away coming.
  • If you go somewhere as an English teacher or business person or anything else, be the best darn Spirit-led committed trades person that you can.  Genuinely love and serve people, be authentic and wise and conversations will happen.  A less than genuine you makes folks wonder if the One you say you serve is also less than genuine.
  • When we befriend and build relationships with people for the solitary purpose of getting them to accept the gospel we present, we are actually being manipulative.  And folks feel manipulated.  It is one reason so many feel like Christians are duplicitous.  Be real.  Be a great friend with no other motive but to love like Jesus. Be honest and wise about your own faith journey when appropriate.  Stay aware of what God is doing in the moment and equally aware that no one wants to feel like a project or a new notch on someones wall of attainment.  No one.  Ever.

The design and branding company I have started is not in place of missions.  It is not to fund me so I can go do missions on the side.  It is missions at its most fundamental and genuine.  (Love God. Love people.)  And I’ve been called to invest in it the same fervency with which I planted the work in South Sudan, by simply doing each day what God puts before me, and trusting Him with the vision, the provision and the results.  Selah. (Pause and think on these things.)

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