by Howard Norrish
A look at the advantages and disadvantages of two tentmaker modes.
Tentmakers have to make a basic choice: Shall they go independently (in effect, be Lone Rangers), or shall they go in association with a mission agency? Either way, the tentmaker’s motivation is the same: to make Christ known. In this article, I want to look at the advantages and disadvantages of both tentmaker modes. My observations grow out of seven years’ experience as a Lone Ranger and five years associated with a mission agency. First, then, the advantages of being a Lone Ranger and the disadvantages of being associated with a mission agency.
The advantages of being a Lone Ranger and the disadvantages of being associated with a mission agency.
One’s image. One of the keys to being an effective tentmaker is developing a credible image. People generally are curious and they have few inhibitions about asking questions about what you do, why you have come to their country, how much you are paid, where your money comes from, and so on. They try to pigeon-hole you according to their culture. If you are to make friends, people must feel comfortable about what you do. People you make friends with will have to explain your presence to their friends and to the community. So, for them to feel comfortable with you, you have to fit into one of their legitimate pigeon holes, such as doctor in a particular hospital, teacher in such and such a school, engineer in that project, and so on.
Often, when they learn where you work, they will say, "Oh, yes, I have a relative who works there. Do you know . . .?" Personal friendship means everything. Where you work puts you into the network of personal relationships.
In some places, missionaries have a very bad press and the term is often synonymous with spy. You certainly would not want to be placed in that pigeon hole. Long, complicated explanations of who you are and what you are doing only create uncertainty and discomfort. Your friend may accept you for a time, but the embarrassment of being unable to explain you to his relatives and friends often will cause him or her to terminate the relationship, or at least not allow it to deepen to any extent.
Lone Ranger tentmakers have the advantage of being able to explain in a straightforward manner who they are and what they do. Occasionally they are asked if they are associated with a Christian group and they can legitimately say No. Therefore, Lone Ranger tentmakers have fewer problems establishing their identity than do tentmakers associated with a mission agency.
Greater freedom. The Lone Ranger has the advantage of far greater freedom of action and movement. At the end of the contract, he or she can freely move or stay. However, some cultures are not as individualistic as ours in the West. For example, Middle Eastern cultures are group oriented. Those who place a high value on freedom of movement will find adapting to local culture a very frustrating experience. They will have to die to their individualism if they are to get inside local cultures and permeate them with the gospel.
On the other hand, often the principles, practices, and structures of mission agencies are confining and confusing to tentmakers. For the most part, these policies were developed for career missionaries, not for tentmakers. Consequently, tentmakers associated with mission agencies often feel straight-jacketed by agency policies. The Lone Ranger has no such problems.
Security. One of the problems that comes with being associated with a mission agency is the possibility of security breaches. For example, the mission’s magazine may inadvertently title an article, "Our Missionary in Saudi Arabia." The article may even include the tentmaker’s name a family photo. The writer may describe where you work and what you do. Shortly afterwards, your contract is terminated and you are expelled.
Obviously, the Lone Ranger who quietly slips overseas to his or her job has a considerable advantage when it comes to keeping a low profile. Lone Rangers do not have to go through the long, difficult process of educating friends at home on matters of security.
Finances. Lone Rangers do not have to raise their support. They do not have to account to anyone about how they use their salary. They don’t have to submit budgets. Of course, they first have to find jobs that pay enough to cover their expenses, and that’s not easy in some countries.
Tentmakers associated with mission agencies may get agency subsidy and therefore be able to choose from a much wider range of jobs. However, they may have to raise support and prepare accounts and reports.
Receiving money from a mission agency may be fraught with danger. It’s no good receiving a regular check from the Middle East Missionary Society and cashing it in a local bank, if you hope to keep a low profile.
If the tentmaker’s salary is supplemented by a mission subsidy, the tentmaker will have to be careful not to live above the level of his salary. (What you earn will not be a secret.) To do otherwise will inevitably arouse suspicions about motives. Of course, the subsidy can help in ways that would not diminish the tentmaker’s credibility. But more of that later.
Applications to mission agencies. Some mission agencies require that all of their overseas people take two to four years of Bible and theology. Tentmakers associated with mission agencies would have to meet this requirement, but this causes trouble when they apply for jobs overseas. Potential employers spot the Bible school or seminary education and reject the applicant. You can omit this education on your resume, but not if it took a number of years. A four-year hiatus will be suspicious.
On the other hand, the Lone Ranger avoids this difficulty. He or she has a resume with no awkward facts to explain. This is a considerable advantage.
Divided loyalty. The Lone Ranger is accountable solely to his or her employer. But the tentmaker with a mission agency may well get into a situation where the employer requires something that conflicts with the policy, or counsel, of the mission agency. Whose "advice" comes first?
Some issues that may cause divided loyalties are emphasis on language learning and cultural adaptation; life style; children’s education; crisis management in a political upheaval.
These, then, are some of the advantages of being a Lone Ranger and some of the disadvantages of being associated with a mission agency. Now, let us turn to the disadvantages of being a Lone Ranger and the advantages of being associated with a mission agency.
The disadvantages of being a Lone Ranger and the advantages of being associated with a mission agency.
In his book, Give Up Your Small Ambitions, Michael Griffiths says this about Lone Ranger tentmakers: "The importance of the nonprofessional (Lone Ranger) missionary has been vastly exaggerated to the detriment of the main task of the churches, namely, to plant more churches in lands where there are none or very few."
He goes on to speak of the ineffectiveness of Lone Rangers and cites the following reasons: (1) The difficulty of doing two jobs at once, your tentmaking job and your missionary task. A lack of accountability to the latter means that most Lone Rangers end up concentrating most, if not all of their energies on the former. (2) Most Lone Rangers never adequately learn the language and adapt to the local culture, often remaining in the "golden ghettos" of expatriates.
The sad fact is that the rate of spiritual burnout among Lone Rangers is high. The main reason is the lack of an effective support group. We must never underestimate the importance of pastoral care and counseling for tentmakers, especially from those who have been tentmakers. Of course, an international church often supplies the Lone Ranger’s spiritual needs, but in many cases the church then consumes all his or her time. There is very little time to spend with local friends.
Spiritual restoration. The mission agency can be the source of spiritual renewal. Spiritual restoration should occur in the context of a support group. As noted above, a local church can do this, but the mission agency is much better prepared to give counsel and help about such things as indigenous religion, traditional religion, power encounter, spiritual warfare, cross-cultural evangelism, contextualizing the gospel, and so on.
From my experience in the Middle East I would say that pastors of expatriate churches rarely know much about the major issues facing tentmakers there. However, mission agencies specialize in these things and therefore can provide a strong support base.
Check and balances. Mission agencies can help us to discover God’s will. One of the Lone Ranger’s problems is not being part of an overall strategy. For example, in the Middle East changes are accelerating. It is essential that tentmakers be in the mainstream of what God is doing. Being associated with an agency, they can receive guidance about strategies and methods.
We can’t trust our feelings. It’s easy for Lone Rangers to be deceived and to head off into tangents. Tentmakers need to seek confirmation from their support groups when it comes to finding God’s will. We can’t trust our personal inclinations, because it’s too easy to mistake our own desires for God’s leading. It’s very easy to be overcome by egotistic tendencies and subjectivism. The support group provided by the mission agency can carefully and prayerfully scrutinize our thoughts and motivations.
Life style. The mission agency can hold tentmakers responsible for their life styles. It’s easy to get sloppy about personal devotions, Bible reading, Scripture memorization, and so on. This can lead to moral compromise. With a mission support group, tentmakers can be held accountable for their spiritual vitality.
Tentmakers must also be held accountable for their living standards. Economic disparity and social distance breed envy and suspicion. People tend to make friendships with their "own kind" economically and socially. If tentmakers are well off, this can diminish their chances of building friendships. The mission agency can remind tentmakers of this danger and challenge them to reduce the social distance between themselves and the local people.
Orientation and training. Being associated with a mission agency greatly helps to prepare tentmakers for their tasks. Tentmaking is not an easy way to fulfill the Great Commission, it’s a very difficult way. Tentmakers must be able to function without a lot of fellowship in an environment where they are often more deeply immersed in the local culture than a traditional missionary is. Cultural adaptation, job adjustment, and language learning may all be required immediately. Therefore, tentmakers must have the training and orientation required of all missionaries. Of course, their orientation and training often will take place outside the formal programs usually followed by missionaries.
Many agencies require not only prefield training but also ongoing training and education. Such training includes helpful advice on cultural adaptation, culture shock, how one perceives oneself as one becomes bicultural, how to overcome ethnocentrism, and so on. Mission agencies also are aware of various ways to study the language.
Agencies can also help on how to start friendship evangelism. It’s not easy to make enduring friendships, yet friendship evangelism is the very heart of an effective ministry for tentmakers. Missions people can take tentmakers from making friendships through the whole process of starting a church.
Financial considerations. Many very useful tentmaking opportunities are lost because tentmakers can’t support themselves on the salaries offered. Even with an adequate salary, the Lone Ranger tentmaker could be left without income when the contract expires. Further training is rarely possible and the cost of educating children is very steep.
In situations like this, the mission agency can help. Funds can be provided to cover some of these needs without making it appear that the tentmaker is getting his or her salary from a mission board. Agencies differ in how they raise their funds, and that is not the subject here, but suffice it to say that being associated with a mission agency could very well open otherwise closed doors to an effective tentmaking ministry.
General support. Mission agencies can give solid advice about such things as health insurance, pensions, taxes, living costs overseas, and so on. Because of their extensive research, they are often better prepared in these matters than some of the secular employers. The mission board can also help with children’s education and general standards of health and medicine.
Mission conferences offer a spiritual oasis and the chance for cross-fertilization of ideas and methods. Practical advice is given about continuing education and specialized training offered in various places overseas. Tentmakers associated with mission agencies can take advantage of this counsel to plan more profitable furloughs, but Lone Rangers often are unaware of these opportunities. Agencies can also help with preparations for returning home, including such things as unusual expenses, housing, children’s education, and reverse culture shock.
Many mission agencies have developed courier systems for mail and evangelistic materials. For many tentmakers this is a vital spiritual lifeline.
Home church. Often, home churches regard tentmakers as second-class missionaries, or as people just out for the money. Lone Ranger tentmakers often lack solid prayer support from such churches. They end up as casualties. As we noted above, it is difficult to communicate to one’s home church about the spiritual warfare, without risking unwise publicity.
On the other hand, being associated with a mission agency can help to allay people’s fears of false motivation. Tentmakers in this situation do not need to say as much publicly about what they are doing and find it easier to keep a low profile. Mission agency representatives can describe the strategy and explain the need for security restrictions.
Prayer support seems to be more readily forthcoming if a tentmaker is associated with a mission board. The home office keeps in touch with supporting churches and acts as a buffer between tentmakers and people at home who may not fully understand the need for a low profile.
If tentmakers decide to affiliate with mission agencies, it should be understood that the relationship is not a contractual one, but rather one of partnership. This distinction is useful when an employer asks if the tentmaker is a member of any Christian organization. Beyond that, the tentmaker should be able to share fully the ideals, principles, strategies, and tactics of the agency.
My own conclusion is that the advantages of associating with a mission agency far outweigh the disadvantages. Therefore, I recommend that tentmakers ought to be associated with an agency. While the Lone Ranger mode may appear attractive at first glance, the strengths of being part of a missionary team are far more important than the relatively few advantages that the Lone Rangers have.
Copyright © 1990 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.