It’s important to distinguish marketplace ministry from the concept of “tentmaking.”The term tentmaking is linked to the apostle Paul, who made tents as told in Acts 18:3. Paul had a secular vocation and thereby supported himself and at the same time worked in ministry. In today’s mission circles, a tentmaker is usually someone who has taken up a job with a company in a foreign country; that employment gives them opportunities to share Christ with their colleagues and others.
Tentmaking is a valid concept and is not to be confused with marketplace ministry, although both are part of the Christian Business Movement, even though there is some overlap between the two concepts, and they may even be complimentary. Tentmaking, like marketplace ministry, is difficult to define; however, several components help clarify its definition.
First, tentmakers are those individuals involved in marketplace ministry, NGOs, and enterprise development while living in an intercultural context, so tentmaking refers specifically to a person, not a business. Second, tentmaking has an intercultural component. Third, the tentmaker normally, but not always, chooses the context or people group in which he or she is working.[i] Rundle clarifies that tentmakers follow Paul’s example of an individual choosing to work cross-culturally because a particular context “has been historically unreached by the Gospel.”[ii] He continues, “It is the combination of this intentionality and the cross-cultural aspect that distinguishes a tentmaker from other Christian professionals.”[iii]
Tentmaking and marketplace ministry approach the task of ministry through business from nearly opposite directions. For example, marketplace ministry focuses on: (1) job makers; (2) entrepreneurs, owners, and operators of businesses; (3) business development; (4) and personal and societal transformation through business.
While tentmaking focuses on: (1) job takers; (2) all kinds of workers and professionals, not just owners; (3) work in general, as opposed to the development of businesses; and (4) to witness and be a testimony at and through work at the interpersonal level.[iv]
Patrick Lai gives another definition of tentmaking. He writes:
Tentmakers know that tentmaking is not about money, visas, entry strategies, or all the other issues missiologists love to debate. The objective of tentmaking is to put Jesus in front of those who have never had an opportunity to hear the truth about him…Tentmaking is using daily-life strategies to tell people about Jesus.[v]
Lai refines his thoughts by placing tentmakers into the following categories:
T-1—Christians employed abroad as a part of the course of their careers.
T-2—Christians employed abroad as a part of the course of their careers, but who would identify a calling in their lives to reach the people group to whom they have been assigned.
T-3—Christians whose partial, or in some cases entire, income is derived from churches or supporters back home. They are in control of their tentmaking job and as such when ministry opportunities present themselves, they are able to respond. Paul was a T-3 tentmaker.
T-4—Christians who raise their financial support in their home country and work for NGOs.
T-5—Regular Christian missionaries in a closed country. These tentmakers are associated with a shell company that provides a cover visa, but they do not do any actual work for that company.[vi]
What can be seen in Lai’s delineation is that tentmakers are the field workers, the actual intercultural workers on the ground, whereas marketplace ministry is a much broader term in which a company starts various factories or businesses in multiple sites throughout the world with a clear mission strategy. The owners of that marketplace ministry enterprise might reside full-time in one country while employing tentmakers to run a company and practice holistic evangelism strategies in another part of the world.
Criticism of Tentmaking
Although the previously provided definitions of tentmaking are often descriptive, they are not necessarily complete. For example, if a tentmaker must be intentional and cross-cultural, that definition may excludes many who actually are engaging in tentmaking with some different characteristics.
We know a woman who is a technician with specialized knowledge popular with oil-producing companies in the Middle East. She spends most of the year in a variety of countries, sharing her holistic life, including her relationship with Christ, with all who she encounters. She’s not aware of this as a mission strategy and is not doing this intentionally. Rather, she believes in “flowering where God planted you,” whether that is the Middle East or the Midwest. Based on the above definitions of tentmakers, she would not be one, because she lacks intentionality.
At that rate, Paul the apostle would not have been a tentmaker because he was not cross-cultural enough. He did not learn a new language and never worked for residency permits, as many contemporary tentmakers do. And although he primarily worked among the Gentiles, of whom he had only a basic understanding, he often worked with Jews in each of the cities he visited.
In a twenty-first century globalized world, a tentmaker is just as likely to cross cultures, as well as experience their own, in their hometown of London, Los Angeles, or Bangkok. One can be a tentmaker in a domestic context, not just an international one.
Consequently, we think Dan Gibson’s definition of a tentmaker as “an intercultural Christian worker with a secular identity” is more appropriate.[vii] Gibson is consistent with Rolland Allen, who argues that the idea of paid clergy does not fit the biblical model. Allen argues that the clergy should earn their own income through secular employment, which seems much more consistent with the practices of the early church than a contemporary salaried clergy or missionary model.[viii]
In addition, some have raised ethical issues about tentmaking.[ix] For example, if a country is closed to Christian missionaries, yet a Christian tentmaker chooses to enter that country by subterfuge on a work permit, is that Christian lying? It creates an internal debate for the tentmaker between lying, which God condemns (Proverbs 12:22) or not fulfilling the Great Commission as God commands believers to do (Matthew 28:16-20).
We are more comfortable with the concept of tentmaking than we are with that of marketplace ministry. We know many tentmakers. Some are what we call “accidental tentmakers,” individuals who settle somewhere for the same variety of reasons that Christians or non-Christians settle anywhere. For example, a job, school, the climate, family, friends, etc. These folks seem healthy—spiritually, physically, emotionally, and financial. In such a situation, the love of Christ pours out of them organically and they impact their community and spheres of influence positively by just being authentic with all whom they encounter.
On the other hand, traditional tentmakers, individuals who have taken a job with a company in a foreign country as a missions strategy in order to share Christ with their colleagues and others, is something we struggle with. The practice seems deceptive and phony and we have not seen positive outcomes from its use.[x]
We personally can find no disadvantage to being genuine, authentic, and real in all aspects of one’s life, including in one’s relationship with God and others.
[i]Steven L. Rundle, “The Christian Business Scholar and the Great Commission: A Proposal for Expanding the Agenda” in The Journal of Biblical Integration in Business (Fall 2000), 94.
[iv]Johnson, Business as Mission, 146.
[v]Patrick Lai, Tentmaking: Business as Missions (Franklin, TN: Authentic Publishers, 2005), 3-4
[vii]Dan Gibson, Avoiding the Tentmaker Trap (Ontario: WEC International, 1997), 41.
[viii]Roland Allen, The Case for Voluntary Clergy (London, UK: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1930).
[ix]George G. Robinson, IV, “The Ethics of Planting Churches in Muslim Lands” in Global Missiology English 3.3 (2006).
[x]From our experience, the individuals who engage in this “undercover” evangelism seem odd and off-putting and have a secret-agent mentality about them which is telegraphed to all they encounter. We believe that produces the opposite of the tentmaker’s original goal of successful evangelism.