Sunday, February 22, 2009

National Tentmakers

Okay, I have to admit, I am very excited about this. As far as I know, I coined the term "national tentmaker" but it wouldn't surprise me if someone else has used this term for years without me being aware. That's okay with me.

There is a really good book about Tentmaking written by Peter Lai. I really recommend reading it because there is a lot of good stuff in there. However, one tendency I don't really like is that it seems Lai has taken "tentmaking" and made it an office. You know what I mean, "God gave some to be apostles, some to be pastors, some to be tentmakers..." I don't agree with that tendency.

Tentmaking, for one, is a modern term we use for people doing any kind of vocational work with the purpose of doing mission work. Originally, Paul actually made tents. (Well, he was a leather-worker, I'm told, which is the meaning of the term.) So, we've taken his example, assuming that he did this to fund himself (which I'm sure he did) and applied it to other types of vocations or businesses done with the view of doing missions. And I'm fine with all of that.... I just would never want to become dogmatic about it, "Well, you're not a REAL tentmaker!"

Traditionally we think of tentmakers being tentmakers for two purposes:

1. Access to restricted areas (such as "closed" countries)
2. Financial support

But I think there is a third purpose and is perhaps the best reason to be a tentmaker:

3. Association

Being a tentmaker allows a Christian worker to relate to regular people as regular people and not as some kind of religious clergy that are often hard for the local people to figure out. It also shows that we are not Christians because we're paid to be Christians or because it is a requirement for our job. We follow Jesus because we ourselves really, really want to. And that goes a long way in encouraging others we meet to consider believing in Christ themselves. They can't just say, "Well, I'm not a pastor (like you)."

But we most often think of a tentmaker as being a missionary.... that is, someone (usually from the West) who goes cross-culturally. But after serving here at our location for a number of years I asked myself, Why can't the nationals be tentmakers themselves without going cross-culturally? If tentmaking is an effective way for me to do ministry, why can't the nationals do ministry through tentmaking, too? If we really believe in the priesthood of all believers then I think that national tentmaking is the natural conclusion.

Now, this opened up a whole new can of worms in my thinking. And there is too much to put into one blog post. However, I still believe that nationals can be tentmakers for the same three reasons: Access, Financial Support and Association.

Access. In our location nationals are not free to travel about the country and live in any village they choose for any reason. They can move to a village they want, but they have to have a good reason. If they simply go to preach the gospel they will get arrested and all their property will be confiscated. However, if they go to do some sort of business then they are allowed to live in a village where they can do that.

Financial Support. In my post "Easy Money" I talked about some of the problems with simply paying people to do ministry. Well, there are more. For one, it is illegal in my location for a foreigner to hire a national to "spread religion." So, when people do that (and they do) it has to be "under the table." But it leaves the national without a good explanation for those in authority about the source of their funding. It raises suspicion. I personally know nationals who have been arrested and disappeared by the authorities never to be heard from again. But when a national works for a legitimate company or does legitimate business, the officials can clearly see how they make a living, and suspicions are eased.

Association. Beyond government officials, being a national tentmaker helps other nationals accept them as well. These national tentmakers are able to demonstrate that they aren't Christians because they're being paid to be Christians. They have to work to make a living just like everyone else. They follow Christ because they really believe in him, not because anyone expects them to.

So, to answer the question in my last post of what do we do with people who we've discipled... Well, some of them return home. Others go to work with us in some fashion. And some are being set up as national tentmakers.

During their time with us as interns we are able to get to know them really well. We don't promise to set anyone or everyone up as a national tentmaker... we don't even dangle it out in front of them. But when we see those who have a true heart for God and know they are ready, this is our goal--to put them in a position to reach people in very unreached places with the transforming love of Christ by doing a business that makes sense for our location.


  1. Wow. Great post. I'll be going back to tentmaking soon, after the church I planted sends me to start a new one later this year (or sooner, whenever our house sells).

    One of the things I've noticed being a "professional" is that all of the responsibilities of getting a "Sunday service" together really limits time to spend among those outside the church. Not only that, but when people ask what you do, and you tell them, they change instantly--they watch their language, they avoid certain topics for discussion. I've found that it's actually a barrier. You're certainly right--tentmaking adds credibility, because you're identifying with those you work with... you've incarnated yourself among them.

    Love the post. Great stuff.

  2. Hey Koffijah - thanks for coming by and commenting on my blog. I'll take your question as a compliment, but I can give you a legit answer too.

    Basically, it takes work and time to get lots of people to comment. It took me a couple of months of writing 'to myself' before I had a break through. Find other blogs, especially those that are related to yours and 'break the ice' by commenting on them. It's time consuming at first, but it tends to build momentum. I also try to visit my commentors blogs once every couple of weeks and leave a comment. Finally, I encourage conversation by ending my posts with a question for people to answer. Just some thoughts.

    I hope that God is making your ministry fruitful and satisfying to you. I'll be reading more in your blog in the future. You don't have to post this comment, but I'll post a 'real' comment somewhere else. :) God bless and happy blogging!

  3. Koffi, great site. Just found it via Katdish. I was reading this post to learn a little bit more about your work and background. I want to encourage you in your work.

    A thought that I believe we miss is that IF we as Christians start from the perspective that (1) we are all in a foreign land (not at home in heaven with our Heavenly Father), (2) all are called to be "replicating" disciples and minister to others, and (3) all are asked to work and to use the skills and resources God provides, THEN the terms we use to segment our world of ministry into BAM (I have also used both definitions), tentmakers, vocational ministry, etc. become somewhat meaningless and we are left with the notion of followers of Jesus living out life in an intentional way to follow God's calling. While there are various strategies (and the labels we assign to them) to gain access to certain situations, even in a post-modern western culture, there exist challenges... but certainly not like you are facing and some of our other friends in "far away places."

    I am hoping we can start changing the way we refer to our calling and ministry such that we don't create easy barriers to hide behind (e.g., "those people are tentmakers, while I am just going to my job"), and thus transfer responsibility to only those that God has placed in more extreme situations.

    I think you have started down this path with National Tentmakers. I encourage you to extend this idea to all who are believers that want to live a fully integrated life for Christ.

    May God bless you on your journey, and lead you through the current challenges.

  4. Hi John, Thanks for coming by the Koffi House and leaving some thoughts.

    I hear what you're saying. I think on one hand people can sometimes get dogmatic about "offices" we create in Christendom--which tends to come from an institutional view of the church on earth rather than a missional view of the church. (I totally hold the latter.)

    On the other hand, if we say something is everything then it is also nothing. Meaning, if we say "everyone is a missionary" it is watering down the term so much that it really doesn't have any usable meaning anymore. The same would hold true for the term "tentmaker." If we can describe what a tentmaker is, then we can certain describe people who are NOT tentmakers. Not everyone is a tentmaker. I'm fine with that.

    But I think when it comes to doing ministry in the world, there is a line between intentional ministry and passive ministry. Meaning, even though we say all Christians are priests and ministers of Christ, the vast majority of people who call themselves Christians do not have an intentional ministry that is primary in their lives to reach out to others, or assist them in some way.

    Beyond that, of those who do have intentional ministries, there are those who are "sent" by other Christians and those who are not. (Interestingly enough, the word "missionary" has to do with being sent, and not about doing evangelism or ministry.) If a church or body of believers commissions a person to do a particular task, then they are accountable to do it. If this person receives money from said body of believers, there is even more accountability. Those who are supporting want to know that the person has an intentional plan (and follows it) in order to accomplish the task.

    The problem with calling calling all Christians in the workplace "tentmakers" is that (1) many don't have an intentional plan to do ministry, and (2) many haven't made themselves accountable to anyone else (who may support financially, prayerfully or as overseers) for their efforts and activities toward completing the intentional ministry they have set out to do.

    But, you know what.... I think God wants all kinds of witnesses--even those who may not have made themsevles formally accountable to a body of believers. Even those who down own or manage businesses, but just work for them. I would like to see people become more intentional about getting on mission with Jesus. I would like to see people do it to the point they make themselves accountable to other Christians.

    And everything I've said above has nothing to do with what location or country in the world people live. :-)

    Thanks again!!

  5. Koffijah, thanks for your insight. If we can use these terms to identify various ways we can be intentional in our walk, it is beneficial. I appreciate you clarifying some ideas for me, especially on intentional plans.