by Nathan Niles
Professional involvement in a credible job opens doors to in-depth interaction within our circle of activity and influence.
A tentmaker once told me that he felt ill-at-ease reaching out to fellow teachers in his university department because he didn’t share their higher professional qualifications. This lack of standing can inhibit the effectiveness of tentmakers. A variety of jobs can provide residency, but if tentmakers are not properly qualified for their jobs and are not active professionally, they can feel isolated from the very people with whom they spend most of their time and energy. This problem harms effectiveness in ministry. Part of becoming incarnate in a society is moving onto a group’s “turf”—its social territory— and living fully among people in ways they can understand. The tentmaker has a unique opportunity to do this. However, unless there is an adequate level of professional excellence and activity, the job itself can distance us from those we are well placed to reach. We want our professions to open doors to ministry.
Professional involvement in a credible job opens doors to in-depth interaction within our circle of activity and influence. I’m concerned about three relevant aspects of this issue: the value of obtaining and sustaining an appropriate level of professional skills, the advantages of making our professional context the focus of primary outreach, and how these two aspects enhance incarnational living.
Long-term effectiveness in a job improves our ability to move with ease in that professional context and increases our sense of contribution to the society. Having adequate professional qualifications and growing in our skills are foundational to that process. In my own interaction with teaching colleagues over the years, I have sometimes been reluctant to spend time with them—feeling that I was not sufficiently involved with them in the struggle to face our academic challenges, i.e., “not pulling my weight.” On the other hand, when we have been actively engaged together in curriculum development, classroom research, and workshops, I have found that personal relationships develop more naturally—in the hallways, over a cup of coffee, or driving together to a seminar.
It is worth building a solid professional foundation for our tentmaking careers. Twenty-five years ago, I realized that I would have to maintain residency with a secular profession, even though my primary calling was to see the church planted. English teaching seemed to be the way to go, but I had no natural leaning toward English (it was certainly not my favorite subject in high school). But I decided that I could be an English teacher, for Jesus—and like it. A two-year graduate course at a university then gave me the necessary professional foundation. I have never regretted that initial preparation. I may not be totally absorbed with teaching, but I can enter my professional context with relative ease.
Maintaining those skills is another major aspect of our careers as tentmakers. Without it, we dry up, and the staleness of our professional life can lead quickly to discouragement and withdrawal. In-service training should be a deliberate, budgeted part of life. Professional journals, seminars, summer courses, and a sabbatical between jobs are some of the many ways to fit it in. Another, sometimes overlooked, way to maintain skills is through locally organized training (e.g., through a chamber of commerce or in a seminar on linguistics). The additional benefit is that we receive training from experts from our host context, and in learning from them, we show respect for them. So we grow in our skills while we multiply our opportunities to be salt and light.
Our credibility hinges on our professional excellence—on the quality of our tents. If our job identity is built of cardboard and plastic, it soon becomes painfully obvious to those who get close to us (colleagues, the authorities, neighbors) that we are not “for real.” People distance themselves—or the authorities refuse our residency applications. Even those we spend time with may find it hard to relax and allow themselves to open up with us if they can’t understand us or if they detect a phoniness about us. For example, a lifestyle obviously higher than our perceived financial means would raise eyebrows.
One unfortunate spinoff can be a tendency to reach out to our social peers from a distance—not allowing them to get close enough to pick up the incongruities of our lives. Another possible result is our ministering only to those on a lower social level; they may appear less able to understand our inconsistencies—due to our differing ways of life (or their social distance may inhibit them from raising the issue).
In addition to doing a good job, we tentmakers face the constant tension of knowing how to focus our easily diffused energy. That’s where one of the principal benefits of our pursuit of excellence comes in. It enables us to create and maintain a long-term ministry focus on those with whom we work. This may be particularly relevant in the field of education, but it can also be applied to other professions, such as those in business. Our jobs put us among certain groups of people; that’s where we naturally spend much of our time. This context, then, can generate many ready-made opportunities for entering the lives of our colleagues and other circles of relationships that overlap (e.g. their immediate and extended families, leisure clubs, interest groups). The challenge of incarna-tional living demands that this aspect of our lives also be an example.
Incarnational ministry implies that we should identify with a group in society, living as its members do, and get as close as possible to them. Those who live “out of synch” with their peers have a hard time interacting successfully with them—because they are not understood or respected. Yes, often we are called to live counterculturally, in obedience to our understanding of Christianity. Jesus often lived counter to the norms of his society, e.g., eating with “sinners” or including women in his teaching.
However, our friends will recognize our behavior as countercultural only if they first consider us as one of them. We want to reach our host society from the inside out, not from somewhere out at the margins looking in.
We tentmakers have the opportunity to fit into a society in roles that are understood and accepted. Our vision is to proclaim the Good News and plant churches. Our jobs enable us to do it—from the inside—a privileged chance to identify with and reach people where they are. Even if I were not living in a restricted-access country, I would still teach English.
Nathan Niles (a pseudonym) has been a tentmaker in North Africa for over 25 years. He is with Arab World Ministries (Upper Darby, Pa.).
CONFESSIONS OF A TENTMAKER TURNED LAYMAN
By Phil Skotte
I read J. Christy Wilson’s book Today’s Tentmakers as a seminary student. The idea of being a tentmaker—instead of a full-time Christian worker—immediately appealed to me. First, as the book pointed out, much of the world with little access to the gospel is accessible only to tentmakers. Second, my one attempt to raise support (to be a carpenter on the Operation Mobilization ministry ship Logos) had been less than successful. Third, my pride and self-sufficiency make me hate to ask anyone for anything.
While at Princeton Theological Seminary I had a happy tentmaking experience. Over the summers I fished in Alaska to support myself. During the school year, while I studied, I worked as a guard and, on weekends, did small construction jobs. At the same time, I pioneered a chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. There were three Bible studies, lots of Christian growth, and new births in Christ. In my view, this was tentmaking at its best. By the time I graduated, I thought that we should just scrap the full-time Christian worker model in favor of tentmaking. I remember saying in a prayer letter that my ministry “cost the church nothing,” and that everybody should become a tentmaker.
And so I became a teacher and headed to Taiwan. Instead of being a seminary student with minimal expenses, now I had a full-time job at a small Christian school with increased responsibilities as teacher, athletic director, and coach. And I now was a husband. How was the ministry side of the equation holding up? In two years I led a Bible study twice and ushered at church a couple times. I figured I was just a greenhorn and needed some time to work into the roles. Still, my appreciation for full-time Christian workers, who had taken the time to learn the language and dedicate themselves fully to building the church, began to grow.
Then I joined the diplomatic corps. We had our first child and headed to Manila. We went to church every Sunday. I gave my testimony in church once. Just before we left, a missionary and ex-OMer told me that I had amounted to very little in Manila for the Lord and should set as my standard that of an active layman back in the States. How the mighty had fallen.
Since Manila, we have lived in Rome and Hong Kong. I have done a little better at church involvement. You could say that I am a fairly active layman in the expatriate churches we have attended. But you could not say that my model of tentmaking is going to win the world. My job responsibilities have grown. We have two children and another on the way. There is soccer and ballet and shopping. I come home tired and play with the kids. Maribeth wants to talk. A neighbor drops by. I wash the dishes, straighten the house, balance the checkbook, and fall exhausted into bed.
Tentmaking, like communism, is a great idea—in theory. The problem with the theory is life (my life). OK, maybe sometimes it does work. It worked for the apostle Paul. It worked for me once, when I didn’t have kids and a serious full-time job. But, usually, we tentmakers are a lot more like active lay people than like Paul, our erstwhile inspiration.
I admit it, Lord. Life is more complicated than I had thought. We still need full-time missionaries. We need tentmakers. And we need active laymen—like me.
After serving on the Operation Mobilization ministry ship LOGOS as ship’s carpenter, Phil Skotte attended Princeton Theological Seminary (M.Div.). He has taught at Christian schools in Miami and Taiwan and has served as a U.S. diplomat to the Philippines, the Vatican, and, currently, Hong Kong.
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