by Michael Roemmele
We don’t need to deceive to be effective tentmakers. Here’s why and how.
There is a vast lack of understanding about tentmaking in the home churches accustomed to supporting missionaries. Worse, there are those who, given a little information, are negative and suspicious toward tentmaking. It is too readily identified with "covert operations," and it is difficult to understand why "sending churches" should help someone who will be self-supporting, and who indeed may be earning more than the majority of those who stay at home.
Just as there is a great need for more comprehension at the home end, practicing tentmakers urgently need a clearer self-understanding. Many problems arise for them through the attempt to combine in one person a "missionary" and a "secular person." These problems can arise from an inner conflict in the tentmaker’s conscience. They can also arise because of tensions between the demands of job and the concomitant place in society, and the constraints of being associated with a Christian organization.
THE TENTMAKING MOVEMENT
We truly are referring to a movement. All around the world today, men and women are crossing cultures to use their professions and trades for world mission. There are several ways of looking at this movement. Each may have some truth in it, but, if taken alone, can be misleading or even damaging. For example:
Tentmaking is a substitute for explicit missionary work, necessary because of reduced freedom to enter countries as "missionaries."
Tentmakers are just Christians who are simply part of the worldwide movement of people in trade, service industries, and so on.
Tentmaking is a cheaper means of world evangelization, because it is self-supporting.
Taken alone, each of these distorts the true, overall picture. Tentmaking is not simply a new response to the Great Commission of Matthew 28. It is something more.
Tentmaking is one facet of a renewal in the church worldwide, essentially a renewed understanding of the priesthood of all believers. While the Protestant Reformers perhaps emphasized this doctrine as an antidote to sacerdotalism and the dominance of the clergy, now it is more a statement of the responsibility of every believer to be actively bringing God’s grace to people everywhere. This ministry is not for "specialists," but for every Christian. This applies at home and abroad. Enter the tentmaker.
Further, in tentmaking there is no false distinction between the sacred and the secular. Work ("secular" work) is ministry. The "full-time Christian worker" is not spiritually superior to the lay Christian. All Christians are called to plan their lives to fulfill God’s purposes. That includes decisions about the where and how of work. For some, it means leaving home and going abroad. Enter the tentmaker.
Tentmaking also has no false distinction between work and word. Neither is superior as a means of witness. Rather, they are different aspects of it. The work expresses and agrees with the word of testimony; the word explains the witness of the work. Work is not just a means to an end, a necessary activity so that one can live and witness. Work is part of witness. Tentmaking is a movement of worker-witnesses.
THE INDIVIDUAL TENTMAKER
1. The period of preparation. Once abroad, the tentmaker will need to have a healthy self-understanding. He or she is not "a missionary in disguise," not "an agent of a foreign organization," not "an evangelist using a job as a cover." The period of preparation should help, rather than hinder, the development of an integrated, consistent view of himself or herself.
The prospective tentmaker needs to develop an integrated view of work, life, and ministry. He or she should be actively involved in the local church as a layperson, not because he or she has a label like "missionary candidate" or "mission internee." He should work hard on shaping his home life according to biblical principles, not just the norms of his own culture. The same applies to his relationships with society, and to recreation.
Biblical and cross-cultural studies will help the tentmaker develop a truly biblical understanding of integrity. We easily accept the norms of integrity from our own society, and react against practices differing from these, in another culture. The tentmaker needs to learn to live with such differences or ambiguities without them disturbing or distorting his or her own (biblical) world view. Examples are how a person responds to personal, investigative questions; how one views "secrecy" and "openness." The worst thing the tentmaker can do in the adopted culture is to take his or her stand on such things based on the home cultural norms.
The relationship with the home church needs to be clearly established and understood. Probably a smaller support group is advisable, one which understands the kingdom of God in terms of values like faithfulness and obedience. Such are the values the tentmaker himself needs to center on, rather than "success." The church and support groups need to understand that communications from their tentmaker will not be in the familiar style of the "missionary," and they should not pressure him by their expectations of explicit success stories.
If the tentmaker can establish a relationship with a mission-type support group before leaving home, it should be the kind he or she can comfortably handle as a "secularly employed" person. Probably that rules out being a member of any such group, so some other kind of relationship needs to be formulated.
The tentmaker should do the job-seeking and contract-making, even if he or she uses facilities (like a Christian placement agency) offered by Christian groups. Once at the new job, the tentmaker will have to demonstrate that he or she is "autonomous" and not an agent. In the interest of consistency and training, this should be the case from the beginning.
2. Once on location. Let’s look at seven factors that help the tent-maker maintain integrity both before others and also within his or her own conscience.
a) The tentmaker’s own conscience. The tentmaker needs to be able to explain who and what he is, comfortably. He really is a carpet salesman, a doctor, a teacher, a newspaper correspondent; not someone who has adopted a "cover" for other activities. Contrary to some popular beliefs, he also needs to know how to describe himself openly as a Christian (perhaps as "a follower of God") without feeling awkward about being one in his present position.
Usually a visa has been granted for a stated purpose. That is then the tent-maker’s declared, official identity In the country, and the one to which people will expect to respond. He needs to live consistently with this, otherwise he will have struggles with his own conscience, others will to question, and his testimony will be harmed.
b)The tentmaker and his work. The tentmaker should have a high view of his or her work, rather than seeing it as a necessary irritant in pursuing "real ministry." A healthy view of work includes seeing it as:
Therefore, the tentmaker will perform his or her work willingly, responsibly, creatively, and with biblical appropriateness to the culture and work situation.
c)The tentmaker’s profile. The tentmaker’s lifestyle and way of presenting himself or herself to others must be consistent and appropriate to the cultural context. Those who have been most successful long-term accept their roles, with the accompanying privileges, responsibilities and limitations, including social life, "standard of living," personal financial management, the kind of company one keeps, and time off from work.
The opposite of this is a tentmaker who, related to a mission organization, lives on a fraction of his salary and is unable to mix freely with his co-workers, and who spends most of his free time with other expatriate Christians, always insisting on holiday dates that are in fact the annual "mission conference."
d) The tentmaker and the local church (where one exists). Because the church situation varies greatly from country to country, and from place to place within some countries, we can’t generalize in this area. One sure mistake is to unilaterally decide to ignore or avoid the local church completely. That may be seen as the right thing to do because of "security issues" affecting the church or the tent-maker’s ministry to those outside the church. However, I urge the tent-maker to:
e) The tentmaker and the host government. Governments are part of God’s plan. The tent-maker should understand, respect, and honor the government of his host country and accept his responsibility to that government. This involves accepting the conditions and expectations attached to any visa granted, as well as the laws of the country in general, unless these clearly contradict the commands of God.
The tentmaker should take active steps to understand how governments work. For example, it is inappropriate in the Middle East always to press for a yes or no answer. It is vital for a tentmaker to fit a category understood and accepted by the host government, and to behave in a manner fitting that category. He should always have an identifiable "sponsor" in the country- this may be his employer, a friend, even a church. People with no local sponsor are suspect.
f) The finances of the tentmaker. People get suspicious if the tent-maker’s financial situation is hard to understand or inconsistent with his profile. If he or she lives better than the local salary would allow, where does the rest of the money come from? If he lives well below his salary, why? It seems important that the tent-maker be allowed to control his finances, rather than have others (a mission board?) decide. Also, if he is "subsidized" from outside, that source of funding should be explainable without embarrassment. (See c above.)
It is also important that the sending church and any "support group" understand clearly the financial arrangements for the tentmaker, lest suspicions arise in these quarters. If appropriate, there should be mutually agreed systems to report and account for the money.
The emphasis and motivation of the tentmaker lie in God’s calling to a particular people, not money. Therefore, finances will not be a determining factor, and the tentmaker must be flexible. However, the salary must be appropriate in context and fit the profile of the job.
Warning: Don’t become possessed by a materialistic lifestyle.
g) Relationship between the tentmaker and the support group.
Many tentmakers are related to a support group, whether of the "mission" variety or something different. Its purpose is to encourage, support, and facilitate the tentmaker in ministry, while providing accountability. Different kinds of relationships may be established with the support group, but commitment must mark any of The relationship is not that of employer-employee, but rather of a commitment to a goal, mutual commitment to spiritual responsibility and accountability, and possibly financial responsibility and accountability. To avoid the employer/employee relationship, the support group may wish to "put on offer" various support facilities such as a pension plan, education fund for children, and so on, rather have these built into a "contract." It is not a matter of organizational membership. I strongly recommend that the tentmaker attend annual conferences and receive pastoral visits by the, support group leadership. To safeguard the tentmaker and his or her job, the support group needs to be sensitive about mailings, visits, and publicity.
(Adapted and reprinted from The Business-Ministry Journal, Winter, 1991-92. The article is based on a paper, that was the outcome of the Mini-Consultation on Tentmaking in North Africa and the Middle East, 1988, sponsored by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. The same group continues to function as a consultation, and can be contacted through Angela Pursey, P.O. Box 7177, Nicosia, Cyprus. – Eds.)
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