by Steven L. Rundle
Today thousands of people, inspired by tentmaking pioneers like J. Christy Wilson and Ruth Siemens, are using their professional skills as a vehicle for cross-cultural evangelism.
Today thousands of people, inspired by tentmaking pioneers like J. Christy Wilson and Ruth Siemens, are using their professional skills as a vehicle for cross-cultural evangelism. It is no longer uncommon to hear of missiological breakthroughs that resulted from people becoming more strategic and intentional about using their profession to fulfill the Great Commission. However, there have also been many examples of failure and attrition which have not received the same publicity. Derek Christensen (1997, 133) compares the first wave of tentmakers to a “resistance army hastily thrown together to stop the spread of an oppressive regime.”
He adds: Sometimes these guerrilla forces achieve great things, catch the oppressors by surprise and drive them out of a region. Too often though, our global telecasts carry pictures of broken bodies . . . cut down by superior weapons, training and discipline.
There are as many reasons for these problems as there are definitions of “tentmaker.” But they generally fall into one of three basic categories.
1. The first blames inadequate training in Bible, theology and cross-cultural evangelism.1 Those who identify this as the main problem view tentmakers mainly as people who have strong professional skills but who frequently have gaps in their ministry skills.
2. Another commonly discussed problem is the ambivalence many tentmakers have about their “secular” job, and the perceived tradeoff between work and ministry. This mindset gives rise to what Gibson (1997) calls “ministry schizophrenia,” in which tentmakers find themselves struggling with their own identity and integrity, which ultimately jeopardizes the credibility of the gospel. Those who view this as the main problem see tentmakers as having strong ministry training, often a degree from a seminary or Bible college, but who have weaknesses in their professional training or experience.2
3. The third category has received much less attention and is specifically related to the business platform. It points out that Western-trained business professionals of all stripes—Christian and non-Christian—are having trouble adapting their know-how to countries that have little experience with free market capitalism. This suggests that tentmaker attrition cannot be blamed entirely on a distorted theology of work, or to inadequate training in Bible and cross-cultural evangelism.3
In this essay I focus on the ministry implications of one’s attitude about profit, which relates most closely to the second issue but also has implications for the third. Many tentmaking entrepreneurs handicap themselves from the start with a confused attitude about profit. I have found that when asked directly about the profitability of their business, many seem embarrassed or even ashamed to admit that they have ever thought about it. One tentmaker admitted that if he ever started to make money, he would never let his home church know, fearing that his financial support would drop.
One of tentmaking’s often-mentioned advantages is how it can extend limited mission resources. However, tentmaking businesses that lose money actually add to the cost of missionary work. One could try to justify this as an extra cost of evangelizing difficult-to-reach people groups. It stands to reason that more difficult-to-reach peoples require more costly evangelistic platforms. However, in addition to the extra cost, an antiprofit mentality is a poor witness and is unethical, given its context. Ruth Siemens (1997, p. 5) is even more critical, claiming that “phantom businesses [those that have little intention of actually doing business] sooner or later bring shame to the name of Christ.”
This is simply the “work versus ministry” problem in a different form. Because of scriptural warnings about earthly treasures, many missionaries are ambivalent, to say the least, about any attempt to make money.
Ironically, many of them use an ostensibly for-profit business as their mission platform. They fail to understand that a successful business can both be a ministry and pay for the cost of other ministry. An unsuccessful business does neither.
I am not claiming that evangelism should become subordinate to profit, but in a tentmaking-business context, they are intimately related. Having a servant spirit in business is not only biblical, it makes good economic sense. Likewise, looking after the interests of the business ensures that the ministry, and others like it, can continue (1 Tim. 6:17-18). Ignoring profits, however, is counterproductive because it often leads to a ministry that is even more distracted by economic pressures. A struggling business has a shorter life expectancy, which burdens the family as well as the entire ministry. In short, although there can be tension between the goals of ministry and profit, they work better together than apart.
A STRAINED RELATIONSHIP
Not long ago, the leader of a nonprofit, donor-supported mission organization told me about some financial problems facing his organization, which had launched a number of highly effective ministries in the 10/40 Window. One of its subsidiaries clearly had the potential to generate a positive cash flow which, in turn, could subsidize the losses of its other operations. When I asked him about this, to my surprise, he told me that profit was not one of the organization’s goals, although breaking even “would be nice.” He stated that the business aims to employ Muslims and teach “Christian business principles.” Yet how many people will be attracted to these principles if they are perceived to be incompatible with economic success?
It is clearly valid when presenting the gospel to teach virtues such as integrity and diligence. However, just as Christians are not guaranteed financial success, neither should the gospel be presented as a guarantee of business failure or lifelong dependence on donors.
The apostle Paul’s ministry team, which consisted of mission-minded professionals, or profit centers, was almost entirely self-supporting. At a minimum we know that Paul himself worked in Corinth (1 Cor. 9), Ephesus (Acts 20:34-35), and Thessalonica (1 Thess. 2:9, 2 Thess. 3:8). We can also infer from passages such as Acts 4:32, 6:1-6 and 18:5 (especially clear in the NIV) that these early missionary teams combined their resources and skills however they could to be most effective in advancing the gospel. Although the team occasionally received donor support (Phil. 4:15-16), Paul’s vigorous denials of donor support in 1 Cor. 9:12 and 15 suggest that this was not his standard practice. In 1 Cor. 9:16-18 Paul boasted that he was not a professional missionary, preaching out of financial necessity, but one who preached the gospel “without charge.” A self-supporting missionary team is mathematically impossible unless at least one of the team members generates a positive cash flow sufficient to offset the losses of the others.
Despite Paul’s apparent endorsement of ”secular” occupations (see also 2 Thess. 3:7-9), Christians have always struggled with the morality of business and profit. Many historians credit Protestantism, and its emphasis on hard work and thrift, which enlarged the investable pool of capital, for creating the critical mass necessary for the Industrial Revolution. However, the problems of unrestrained capitalism soon followed, prompting many Christians to reject capitalism as fundamentally un-Christian. In the 20th century, opposition to business and profit gained momentum, especially among clergy and academics, following the apparent failure of capitalism in the 1930s and the rise of the seemingly more egalitarian (and stable) alternative of socialism.
Throughout most of the 20th century, Christians have debated the compatibility of Christianity and capitalism, and whether Christians should be in business. Some see the pursuit of profit as antithetical to good corporate citizenship. According to this view, a business can either serve society or make money, but not both. This perception has been reinforced by the fact that, for most of this century, activities which have the highest moral callings, such as education, health care, and other social work, have been conducted mainly by nonprofit organizations. Thus, many believe that the higher the social or spiritual value of an activity, the lower its compatibility with a profit motive. It follows therefore that out of all possible activities, world evangelism is the least compatible with a desire to earn profit.
The other side argues that society’s needs are generally met better and faster when the profit motive is permitted to operate. Profits are not possible unless the entrepreneur first identifies a need, develops a solution, and charges a price that consumers are willing to pay. When the profit motive is absent, there are fewer guarantees that needs will be met.
Scholars such as Novak (1996) and Chewning, Eby, and Roels (1990) have forcefully argued that business is itself a calling, a legitimate mission field, indeed an arena that needs Christians who will stem the corrosive economic effects of an unchecked sin nature. After much initial resistance and ambivalence, most Christian colleges and universities now offer business degrees that are based on free market economic principles.
THE EMERGING ROLE OF “BUSINESS AS MISSION”
With that issue largely settled, some people within business and mission circles are beginning to ask how business—meaning a real business with a genuine intention to make money as well as disciples—can become a more integral part of mission. The term “business as mission” has entered the mission lexicon to distinguish this agenda from the more commonly practiced Christian business career.
Perhaps the best way to do this is to use the E-scale first introduced by Ralph Winter of the U.S. Center for World Mission. E-l evangelism is “near neighbor evangelism,” what takes place between two people who share a common language and cultural background. As the similarities decrease, the inherent difficulties in sharing the gospel increase. In E-2 evangelism, the languages are closely related, but the cultural differences have become more significant. An example would be the white, middle-class suburbanite doing evangelistic work among inner-city gangs. For E-3 evangelism there are both language and culture barriers, which the gospel does not generally cross without deliberate effort, and ideally some formal training, on the part of the evangelist.
Winter argues that E-1 is the most effective and potent form of evangelism. So it is not surprising when a local pastor is more fruitful, in terms of commitments for Christ, than the typical foreign missionary. However, “E-1 evangelism is literally impossible where there are no witnesses within a given language or cultural group” (Winter, 1999, p. 345).
The distinction between missionary and local pastor is similar to the distinction between “business as mission” and the more typical Christian business career. The typical Christian business degree program has focused primarily on E-1 and E-2 evangelism. When put into practice, these business professionals establish a reputation for integrity and high ethical standards. They also distinguish themselves by having high quality products or services, employees with high morale, and loyal customers. In the course of doing business, the gospel is preached in both word and deed, and lives are changed. It is not uncommon for these servant-minded business people to also be financially successful in the long run.
The term “business as mission” simply means being more intentional about using business for E-3 evangelism. Unfortunately, current tentmak-ers are either graduates of a seminary or Bible college, or have received an E-1 to E-2-oriented business education. Almost nothing has been available, until recently, that adequately prepares the student in both business and E-3 evangelism skills.4
Yet the increasingly globalized nature of the modern economy is making it easier, in fact, often necessary, for a business person to maintain a variety of relationships, from E-1 to E-3. The implications for world evangelism and the mission-minded business professional are still being fleshed out.5
The business person’s sphere of influence includes some combination of customers, suppliers, employees, community leaders, government officials, and so on. Often these people cannot be reached effectively by more traditional tentmaking platforms. In fact, in unreached parts of the world they may represent entirely separate unreached people groups. By maintaining links in different parts of the world, a business can become an integral part of a frontier mission strategy without necessarily relocating.
Invariably, when the words “business” and “mission” are spoken in the same sentence, some people automatically think of microenterprise development, microbanking, and the business educational and consulting programs that have been so successful.
However, these initiatives represent only a small subset of the ways business can become a more effective mission strategy. It is a basic fact of human nature that not all humans are cut out to be entrepreneurs. Most people do not have the self-confidence, self-initiative, or the extraordinary tolerance for risk required. Some people, indeed, probably most people, function better as an employee than as an employer. To focus entirely on microenterprise development is to miss other significant opportunities for ministry.
Generally, the conflict over ministry and profit is sharpest for those I have called elsewhere “tentmaking entrepreneurs,” those who relocate to a strategic, unreached part of the world to start businesses. Amazingly, their business visas represent official government permission to create the largest spheres of influence possible. Why do so many tentmakers, upon receiving their visas, feel compelled to neglect the business in order to focus on “ministry”? It is hard to imagine that Paul, who exhorted his followers to “imitate me” (1 Cor. 4:16) or to “follow us” (2 Thess. 3:7-9), was a negligent businessman.
WHY PROFIT MATTERS FOR MISSION
The Bible clearly warns against trusting in wealth (1 Tim. 6:9-10; Prov. 11:28). However, it does not prohibit wealth (1 Tim. 6:17-19). Nor do money-losing businesses bring glory to God. Indeed, a business that loses money is in effect a destroyer of all sorts of resources—financial, intellectual, and otherwise—which is almost certainly contrary to what God intended when he instructed mankind to manage the earth’s resources (Gen. 1:28-30).6
To the contrary, the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30) reveals that God is pleased when we use the resources entrusted to us wisely and in a manner that creates more resources and thus makes more ministry possible. (See also Prov. 11:24-26.) Proverbs 11:26 suggests that this may occasionally involve selling at a loss, but as a general rule, we are expected to be productive, that is, to use resources to benefit society and create more resources. This is precisely God’s calling for business—to manage the earth’s resources, create wealth, and thus to bless the ever-increasing population (Gen. 1:28). Moreover, he has called and gifted many within the church to serve this function in society.
In a free market economy, this calling can only be fulfilled by producing something people need and are willing to pay for. Thus, a successful business person identifies a need and pulls together the resources necessary to meet it. Someone led and empowered by the Holy Spirit will, all things equal, be the most successful in fulfilling this purpose.
A mission executive recently upbraided his organization’s tentmakers for spending too much time with the business and not enough time “evangelizing.” This reflects a deeply ingrained view in the church that some forms of work are more effective for “getting people saved” than others.
However, according to 1 Peter 3:1-2 our conduct is often more effective at winning the lost than our words. What message is sent about Christianity when the tentmaker, contrary to the implied promises given when applying for a business visa, puts only a minimal amount of effort into the business? We can show the “Jesus” film all day long, but if our conduct is not consistent with a life of service and obedience, our verbal testimony is worthless.
A profitable business can use its newly created wealth either directly or indirectly to develop more products, and create more jobs. In contrast, phony businesses squander the resources they’ve been given and do little to meet the physical needs of the community. In short, only a successful business can truly claim to be involved in ministry. And indeed, this is a significant ministry, especially in parts of the world where unemployment rates in the range of 60 to 80 percent are not uncommon.
Speaking of the “Jesus” film, which tentmaker is more likely to be expelled for these sorts of activities—the one running an expanding, job-creating business or the one who is little more than a “missionary in disguise”?
Finally, a more balanced view of business and profit will significantly increase the financial resources available for frontier mission. Until recently, the tentmaking community has relied almost exclusively on the generosity of donors for financial resources. As a consequence, the most common business “platforms” have been projects which require little capital, such as import-export, tourism, consulting, and the like. There are straightforward economic reasons why these sorts of businesses usually struggle, even in the most friendly environments. When transplanted to an underdeveloped and unstable part of the world, the prospects for success are almost nil. It is no wonder that many tentmakers are dependent on donor support their entire careers.
A truly credible, influential, and successful business requires what is referred to in economics as a “barrier to entry,” that is, something that makes head-to-head competition more difficult, such as a unique technology, brand loyalty, or large-scale operations. These require significantly more capital than what has generally been available to tentmakers. To address this need, there is an emerging network of mission-minded “angel investors,” or high net-worth individuals who provide financing, often on generous terms.
However, even these angel investors represent only the tip of the iceberg. There are countless other wealthy Christians who have the passion for the unreached and the tolerance for risk to invest in, rather than simply donate to, this Great Commission work. Risk is easier to tolerate when it is diversified among several projects at once. To accomplish this we can borrow a page from the secular capital markets and create a venture capital fund, which invests in and oversees a diversified portfolio of business ventures on behalf of the investors.7
As the probability of getting money out of the fund increases, so will the probability of getting more money into the fund. Capital preservation obviously requires that the “kingdom companies” chosen for such financial assistance have an honest intention (and plan) for achieving the twin goals of making money as well as disciples.
Almost 30 years ago, in his book Profit for the Lord, William Danker (1971, 13) claimed that: Protestant overseas missions in recent times have often demonstrated massive opposition to economic activities, particularly if these were intended to produce income.
This statement is no longer entirely true. Economic activities such as microenterprise development and microbanking, which empower the world’s poor to develop their own businesses, are now commonly accepted as worthwhile mission-related activities. One reason is because those who profit are the poorest of the world’s poor, and those administering the programs are nonprofit organizations. The same socioeconomic results achieved by a for-profit firm would be viewed much more skeptically. Attempting to make money in this context would be viewed by many as opportunistic, even immoral. At the very least, it would be viewed as a distraction from true ministry. This reflects a widely held perception that nonprofit corporations are more trustworthy servants of society than for-profit firms. More generally it reflects the deep-seated dichotomy in the church between things sacred and secular, eternal and temporal.
This ambivalence about income-producing activities handicaps the tentmaking movement in several ways. It creates an erroneous distinction between sacred and secular activities, as if God is more interested in the soul than in the body.8 This apparent conflict creates a sense of guilt in the tentmaker, which strains the family and the entire ministry. It also leads to a struggling business, which adds more pressure on the tentmaker.
There inevitably will be some weaknesses in every tentmaker’s training. However, the attrition problem identified by Christensen and others cannot be blamed entirely on the tentmaker. Also to blame is a schizophrenic church that is more confused than ever about the role of work, business, and profits in the kingdom of God, and how to appropriately mobilize, train, and support tentmakers.
1. See, for example, Hamilton (1987), Reapsome (1996), and Taylor (1997).
2. Gary Taylor (1998) would add work ethic to the list of weaknesses. In his attempt to establish a “kingdom company” in a “creative-access” country, he “found few in the missions industry who could work in the normal secular sense of the term. It seemed very few cues remained from pre-missionary work-life to guide them into producing for their living and witnessing for their calling” (p. 24).
3. See my own paper in the Journal of Biblical Integration in Business for a discussion of this issue.
4. The notable exceptions are YWAM’s CEED (Centre for Entrepreneurship and Economic Development) program, Regent University’s M.B.A. in Entrepreneurial Tentmaking, and Biola University’s M.A. in Intercultural Studies-International Business. Other closely related programs focusing primarily on relief and/or development include Wheaton College’s HNGR (Human Needs and Global Resources) and Eastern College’s M.B.A. in Economic Development programs.
5. Recent consultations focusing specifically on this topic have been held by the Centre of Entrepreneurship and Economic Development (August, 1999), Interdev’s Central Asia Business Consultation (October, 1998, and 1999) and the Business Professional Network of AD2000 & Beyond (November, 1999). Many more are sure to follow.
6. See Flow (1997) for an elaboration of this point.
7. For more information about efforts being made to create such a fund, contact me at steve_rundle@peter. biola.edu.
8. See Sherman and Hendricks (1987) and Volf (1991) for more discussion of this topic.
Chewning, Richard C., John W. Eby, and Shirley J. Roels. 1990. Business Through the Eyes of Faith. San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc.
Christensen, Derek. 1997. “Training: Endurance Food for Serious Tentmakers.” International Journal of Frontier Missions, 14(3): 133-138.
Danker, William. 1971. Profit for the Lord. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Flow, Donald. 1997. “Profit.” in R. Paul Stevens, et. al. (eds.) The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, pp. 809-813.
Gibson, D. 1997. Avoiding the Tentmaker Trap. Ontario, Canada: WEC International.
Hamilton, Don. 1987. Tentmakers Speak: Practical Advice from Over 400 Missionary Tentmakers. Duarte, Calif.: TMQ Research.
Novak, Michael. 1996. Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life. New York: The Free Press.
Reapsome, Jim. 1996. “Tentmakers: Strengths and Weaknesses.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly, October: 420.
Rundle, Steven. 2000. “The Christian Business Scholar and the Great Commission: A Proposal for Expanding the Agenda.” Journal of Biblical Integration in Business (Forthcoming).
Sherman, Doug and William Hendricks. 1987. Your Work Matters to God. Colorado Springs, Colo.: NavPress.
Siemens, Ruth E. 1997. “The Tentmaker’s Preparation for Work and Witness.” Global Opportunities Paper A-6, Pasadena, CA.
Taylor, William. 1997. “Challenging the Missions Stakeholders: Conclusions and Implications; Further Research,” in W.D. Taylor, (ed.) Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
Taylor, Gary. 1998. “Don’t Call Me a Tentmaker.” International Journal of Frontier Missions, 15(1): 23-26.
Volf, Miroslav. 1991. Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work. New York: Oxford University Press.
Winter, Ralph. 1999. “The New Macedonia: A Revolutionary New Era in Mission Begins.” in Winter, R. D. and S. C. Hawthorne (eds.) Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. Third Edition. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library, pp. 339-353.
The author wishes to thank Neal Johnson of Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of World Mission for his comments on an earlier draft. Send comments to .
Steven L. Rundle is an assistant professor of economics at Biola University. He also teaches a course in tentmaking entrepreneurship and serves on the boards of Intent and Global Opportunities. He and his family live in Pasadena, Calif.
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