Should all missionaries be tent-makers?

The greatest missionary in the New Testament (NT), the Apostle Paul was a tent-maker by trade and he used this skill for various reasons in his ministry – to fund it financially (Acts 18:3) and to set an example for others in ministry (Acts 20:34-35). Is this the model (supporting oneself, at least partially, through some sort of vocation) that all missionaries are to follow?  Is this a model that Paul used but is not applicable for today? If I were to ask several Christians these questions I would probably get several different well thought answers. So, as one who has had to think extensively about this subject, allow me to share some brief thoughts…

  1. Paul’s working as a tent-maker is only described as a practice of his and not prescribed as something all missionaries must do. In other words, he never mandates it for all missionaries – we only see that he did it and are even given a reason as to why he did (Acts 20:34-35). However, the very fact that Paul saw it as a helpful practice should cause all missionaries to consider the possibility of doing so.
  2. Paul did receive financial support (along with prayer) from other believers/churches (Philippians 4:10-20).
  3. It is unclear if the other missionaries that traveled with Paul or of that day were doing the same thing. In fact, at times it seems like he was helping to support not just his own needs but their needs as well (Act 20:34).
  4. Paul’s trade was transferable and needed wherever he went in the Roman world. This type of trade can be difficult to find today especially if one is going from a highly technological culture like the US to a more primitive culture where skills, services, etc needed are radically different.
  5. Paul operated within a, more or less, monolithic Roman culture. Missionaries today are often crossing cultures therefore they face challenges that Paul never had to such as learning a new language (getting to Spain would have made him deal with this), learning how to survive and function in a radically different culture where one does has to adjust to learn how to do the basic necessities of daily life, etc.
  6. Paul did not have to deal with visas. Why is that important? Many visas that missionaries obtain to gain access into a country do not allow for them to get a job in that country because the government of that country does not want them taking jobs from nationals. Therefore, in many cases even if the missionary wanted to have a job to support himself it would be illegal for him to do so.
  7. Transferring financial support is much easier and safer today than it was back in Paul’s day. In his day, if the Philippian church wanted to send him financial support they would have had to send a messenger to him carrying the money. This would be difficult because they may not know where Paul was at a given time and it would have been dangerous to carry large sums of money on the roads when going to find Paul. Today, of course we have checks or automated giving that can be deposited into a bank account without even leaving one’s living room. If it was this simple and safe back in Paul’s day, perhaps financial contributions to his ministry would have been more plentiful and regular.

Final Thought: Missionaries today should seek to have some kind of “tent-making” trade that they can use in the mission field. They may not always be in position or in the right circumstance to use it but, like Paul, the missionary will have it available to them when the time is right. Even if they cannot supplement their support financially through the skill – due to visa restrictions – it gives the missionary a place and a way to contribute to the community.

For example, in many villages (both indigenous and non-indigenous) in Mexico everyone in the village has a responsibility or a way that they contribute to the village. Of course, this is mainly through their vocation but not always. Thus, it is strange to have the only white person in the village, who they already assume is incredibly wealthy, not “working” or “contributing” to the village. We are tempted to think, “What do you mean not working? They are out evangelizing and preaching everyday!” Before we go there we must think about what a missionary looks like from their eyes – a guy who walks around and talks to people and hangs out with people all day everyday and has so much money that he does not have to “work” at all.

So, let me present a viable option. Missionaries should seek to obtain a skill/service that can be used in a mission context (i.e. missionary dentistry, construction, medical, etc) even if they can never use that skill to support themselves financially. Take missionary dentistry as an example. The missionary can use this skill to open the door to gain access and build relationships/trust with a people group through short term trips to the village. Once the missionary is invited to live among the people group he could have a room in his house dedicated as his “dental office”. The missionary could have set working hours (8a-1p) where he sees patients. If he cannot be be paid with money perhaps they could pay him with fruit, tortillas, etc.

This helps the missionary to fit more naturally into his new culture since he now has a role in the village. It also provides a good context to meet every person in the village in a non-confrontational environment. The missionary can meet a genuine physical need of the people in the village in the name of Christ. It can be strategic in opening up gospel conversations and relationships. In the example above, the missionary can spend afternoons following up with patients from the previous week by going to their houses and praying with them and furthering the relationship. It generates good-will and trust from the people. Finally, it is harder to run someone out of the village or want to harm them (or their family) if they have shown a care for the physical needs of the people and provide a valuable service to the village.

Why take money? Two reasons: 1) It puts a value on the service and helps nationals to understand that the missionary does not have an endless money supply (apart from God)  2) It fights against dependency/unhealthy expectations – nationals depending on the missionary for handouts among many other things.

When considering all of the above, I would propose that all missionaries work to learn a trade that can be transferable across cultures using it whenever possible in whatever “tent-making” way fits the situation.

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