What does it mean to be a tentmaker?


Before we get started, I want to be clear that your definition of a tentmaker is probably not the same as mine. I come from a background of vocational missionary work. When God opened up my eyes to the Church's responsibility to take the Gospel to the nations, I assumed He was calling me to become a front line church planter and missionary in another country. I was burdened for the lost. I wanted to see people from every tribe, tongue and nation come to know Jesus as their savior. Then I actually spent a summer, and later in life, 2 whole years "being a missionary."

As it turns out, I was actually a pretty terrible missionary. I prayed for the lost, I built relationships with lost people, I shared my faith with them. But I seemed to be entirely awful at effectively making disciples and helping to plant churches.  I'm actually more suited to "missionary work" (aka the work every Christian is given to do as a follower of Jesus) when I have a "real job" to do.

So this has me thinking. If you are like me, and you feel like the best situation for you living overseas is as a "tentmaker," what does that look like for you?  Most of you know that we get the term tentmaker from the Apostle Paul, who literally made tents to support himself while he did the ministry God asked him to do. But what does it mean to be a tentmaker today? For some people, a tentmaker is a person who builds a business platform in another country so that they have access to a certain people group. Sometimes these are businesses where the tentmaker/missionary only works a few hours a week on the "business" and spends the rest of their time trying to engage with unbelievers. These people are unable to be in the country on a missionary or religious visa, so they have started a business platform that doesn't really function like a business.

For others, the term tentmaker really does mean they are running a legitimate business in another country. This person probably was drawn to start a business in another country because of their desire to take the Gospel there, and their ability to run and start a company. This kind of tentmaker may raise some support or capital to get the business off the ground, but their hope is to eventually be self sustaining in their efforts so that they can remain in the country with a legitimate reason. Our partner Crossworld helps people do exactly this.

So where does the typical Skybridge member fit in? Is the member who lives in Saudi Arabia as a teacher "count" as a tentmaker? What about the guy who works as an engineer in Germany? Both of these (real) people, along with 400 others, have joined Skybridge because they believe that they too, are part of God's grand plan to share his story of redemption with the rest of the world. But should we and do we classify them as "tentmakers?"

If we look at Paul again, I can't help but wonder if he actually is closer to a modern day bi-vocational minister. It seems, and I could be wrong, that Paul's main task each day was to teach the early church, shepherd the early church, and take the Gospel to those who had not yet heard about Jesus. In order to do these things, he was supported by churches and he supported himself by making tents and selling them. The modern day Christian who teaches ESL in China has a main task each day too. For her, it is to teach ESL in a way that glorifies God. As she does that, we hope and trust that she is asking God to use her to share the Gospel with those He puts in her path. The ESL teacher in China and the Apostle Paul look very different. So are they both tentmakers? We'd love to hear your thoughts. How do you define a tentmaker? Does it matter who is considered a tentmaker and who is not?  

Julie loves all things social – both online and off. Two years in Spain with her family and a summer in Turkey gave her a passion for helping more people understand God’s heart for the nations. While she schemes and plots ways to return to Spain, Julie takes care of her three children and helps manage the household while her husband works as a counselor. Follow her on Twitter.

Defining terms used frequently gets messy over time. Multiple definitions tend to develop from different sources like the terms Tent-maker, Business As Missions, Missional Church, Etc....But for me personally and when I communicate with others, I use the term tent-maker to describe those missionaries who work a secular job in an entity owned or controlled by someone else on the mission field, not those working jobs in their own country/culture. I use Business As Missions to identify those missionaries who own businesses on the mission field among the Least Reached.

Per the article above, I can see where the the writer is coming from, when defining who a tent-maker might be, but it's just semantics. However, those missionaries who, so call, own a business or work "Fake" jobs or those who claim to work for an company in their home country (even when the business says they do) but don't do any work for them and they all do it simply for visas and to be in a country should never be called a tent-maker, should never be identified with Business As Missions and should not be considered doing any kind of legitimate work (secular job). while I'm not opposed to "Traditional" avenues of going as a missionary, the times we live in demand that the majority of us go as "Tent-makers" or by owning a business. Yes, I do agree that owning a business is also a tent-maker but for the sake of clarifying definitions for people, I separate the two.

These are my two cents for what their worth.

Thanks so much for sharing your input Steve! I totally agree about the "fake" businesses not being called tentmaker. Really, this article was also written to give some distinction that at Skybridge, we are NOT "BAM." Usually BAM and tentmaking go hand in hand, but people may confuse us with both terms. While we believe in both of these things, both terms aren't very helpful at describing what we do, which is train and equip people with regular jobs to move overseas and make disciples. Thanks for stopping by!