by Jim Reapsome
It’s easy either to blame or bless tentmakers. They aren’t the answer to unplugging evangelistic bottlenecks, but properly trained and with the help of missionaries, they can probe the stony ground of unbelief.
Are tentmakers copouts from being real missionaries? According to some critics, yes. Are tentmakers God’s secret weapon to evangelize the world? According to some backers, yes.
Our answer to both questions is no. Full-time professional missionaires ought not to assume that tentmakers are taking the easy way out. Tentmakers ought not to see themselves as conquering the bastions of unbelief that professional missionaries can’t reach.
It’s conceivable, of course, that when a young adult looks at career options, he or she may be more attracted to becoming an engineer for an American oil company, or a government teacher, than to becoming a missionary, especially if there’s a bonus: you can also be a tentmaker missionary.
The reaons for such a choice aren’t hard to find. At the top of the list you would certainly put the desire to be a Christian witness in an unfriendly or even hostile culture. But there are other reasons as well. You don’t necessarily have to be a Bible college or seminary graduate, you won’t have to raise support, you won’t have to sweat through a pile of mission board application papers, pass a doctrinal exam and complete a missionary orientation course.
When those reasons surface, it’s easy to think that the young adult is dodging the bullet of missionary service rather than biting it. But few of us have absolutely pure motives. In lieu of hard data to the contrary, why not assume that many people honestly see the tentmaker as the Western church’s Trojan horse? It certainly sin’t a violation of any biblical command to want to be a tentmaker.
But the other question remains, Is there enough evidence of success to warrant the Trojan horse theory? Can we honestly expect evangelism to be done this way, in countries where missionaries are unwelcome?
The answer is yes, if we take a broad view of evangelism as a process that includes seed-sowing by the godly life and occasional verbal witness of the engineer, teacher, doctor or whatever. The answer is no, if we expect to see conversions right and left and churches springing up in Arab capitals.
We must also recognize tentmakers who don’t fit the Trojan horse illustration. They work in countries packed with welcome missionaries. (See Daniel Snyder’s story of his teaching job in Nigeria in this issue.) But they believe they can both witness and nuture believers in certain settings or levels of society, where professional missionaries do not usually find regular opportunities.
Snyder makes several succinct observations that will pay careful pondering. The most obvious is that in his case at least he can’t produce startling victories to write home about. To his credit, this doesn’t bother him, but
it might bother some who see tentmakers as somehow being more effective in their role than the traditional missionary is in his.
Prospective tentmakers must be content to do their full-time job well, and not constantly look over their shoulder at their witnessing records. They are paid to work at a profession, or job skill, and this must be their prime commitment. They cannot get antsy and wish they had as much time for church work and evangelism as the missionaries do.
Snyder demolishes the idea that you can be a good tentmaker without Bible and missionary training. He sees both as essential. He himself has affiliate missionary status with his denomination. He also appeals for tentmakers to tie in with the local missionary force. If the missionary sees the tentmaker as a wedge, or as a supplement to his or her usual ministries, and if the tentmaker sees the missionary, not as an ineffective relic, but as a stable standard-bearer of the gospel in his or her own right, then both tentmakers and missionaries can link arms and hearts for a more full-orbed penetration of society than either would accomplish alone.
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