Missionary tentmaking, a Definition
Missionary tentmaking is were the missionary actually supports himself via some secular job instead of by donations by people in his home country and/or the field where he is going.
I have worked in a secular job while in the US raising support to go to the field. So I cannot say as a missionary that I have done missionary tentmaking. Having clarified that, let me also say that I have no desire to do. Tentmaking missionaries have a lot of problems that a regular missionary does not have.
Tentmaking problems: with tentmaking
First of all, in almost all areas of secular work, you will find that you are displacing nationals which do the same thing, and this is not well received by the host country, and in most cases, the host country will not cooperate with you very much to give you the needed visa to some secular job. Moreover, doing this job and making money from it without permission is simply illegal, and you risk being deported or even jail. So that road is not so open as when Paul took it.
Tentmaking problems: Is it biblical?
Secondly let’s get a bit of a focus on New Testament missions. Paul and his companions were not going around the world tending to the medical needs of people in other countries. In fact we see no real examples of this. The church at Jerusalem at one juncture had economic problems coming from persecution, and other churches send economic help. That is a far cry from sending food to starving kids in Africa, which number one are not saved, and number two are not in a church, and number three, the money is not going to a church to be distributed to their own people. Sending money via some government or world organization often ends up putting the money or goods in the hands of corrupt people who only sell it at double or triple the market rate, and there is nothing noble or righteous in doing that.
What Paul and his companions did is they were sent out from biblical churches as missionaries, and to the best as we understand the New Testament, at least some local churches sent support to them for their work. Considering the situation of the times, these churches probably took up or used their funds to give these missionaries a lot of money at one time, probably a year or more support in a single offering. With a couple of churches, they could travel and work for several years, and then they returned home.
In other words, they went out in faith and worked trusting God to provide for them along the way (think Matthew 10 here). They were not missionary tentmaking.
Moreover these missionaries worked on a certain basis: i.e. the laborer is worthy of his hire, and somehow, those that accept the gospel have a responsibility to support the ministers among them.
1Cor 9:1 Am I not an apostle? am I not free? have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? are not ye my work in the Lord? 1Cor 9:2 If I be not an apostle unto others, yet doubtless I am to you: for the seal of mine apostleship are ye in the Lord. 1Cor 9:3 Mine answer to them that do examine me is this, 1Cor 9:4 Have we not power to eat and to drink? 1Cor 9:5 Have we not power to lead about a sister, a wife, as well as other apostles, and as the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas? 1Cor 9:6 Or I only and Barnabas, have not we power to forbear working? 1Cor 9:7 Who goeth a warfare any time at his own charges? who planteth a vineyard, and eateth not of the fruit thereof? or who feedeth a flock, and eateth not of the milk of the flock? 1Cor 9:8 Say I these things as a man? or saith not the law the same also? 1Cor 9:9 For it is written in the law of Moses, Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. Doth God take care for oxen? 1Cor 9:10 Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and that he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope. 1Cor 9:11 If we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things? 1Cor 9:12 If others be partakers of this power over you, are not we rather? Nevertheless we have not used this power; but suffer all things, lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ. 1Cor 9:13 Do ye not know that they which minister about holy things live of the things of the temple? and they which wait at the altar are partakers with the altar? 1Cor 9:14 Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel.
The clear intent of Paul here is that a missionary has a right, and this is a principle of God, that missionaries should live of the same gospel they preach. Now this comes to bear 1) from the church where they labor. 2) from other churches that send them out.
What happens if a missionary goes out but not to start a church? This is not figured in the NT and we don´t have any examples nor commands about it. In other words, that is not the biblical norm for missionaries to begin with, and why would you discard the biblical example to seek something else?
Faith Missions: Is it biblical?
Faith missions is going out living by faith. God can and will provide for you as a minister of God. But there are some problems with faith missions. First of all the amount of money you think you need. If you think God is going to give you 100s of thousands of dollars to go set yourself up as a sultan or something akin to that, think again. That is not faith missions. Faith missions means living by faith that God will provide you your daily bread, and in our day of medical insurance, retirement funds, emergency funds, vehicle replace funds, purchasing a house fund, etc., you will probably not be able to live by faith if you are placing non-faith demands on top of more of the same.
Faith missions is to make due with what God sees fit to give you. That is biblical. Emergencies will happen, and we need to deal with them in sharing them with our people on the field and back home. Many (most) churches have abandoned faith missions, and they don’t want to hear emergency needs from missionaries and if they do, they will accuse that the missionary is irresponsible for not going with all this taken care of. Bottom line: Yes you have a crisis, but don’t bother us with it.
Matt 10:9 Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses, Matt 10:10 Nor scrip for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves: for the workman is worthy of his meat. Matt 10:11 And into whatsoever city or town ye shall enter, enquire who in it is worthy; and there abide till ye go thence.
When Jesus sent out his disciples on a missionary journey, notice what they were to carry with them or prepare before they were to leave. Nothing! You go, and live off of your preaching. That kind of minister is rarely seen.
The point of this is the following, why do we want to work a secular job instead of depend on the saved? Many times this concept of tentmaking is put forth as the ideal way to do missions when it was never done the way these people are presuming. Paul mended tents because his donations hadn’t come in. That is biblical “tentmaking”. We see no where that this is how Paul always supported himself (according to the popular missionary tentmaking concept). We see him rather receiving donations as the principle way of supporting himself.
So for those cheap people who don’t want to have to think about supporting missionaries, letting loose with hefty amounts of money, missionary tentmaking is perfect for them. They are not living by it, and so they push it.
The bottom line is this, if you have to work 40 hours a week to support yourself because you are missionary tentmaking, how much time can you devote after that to God’s work. Very little. Moreover, being an American, with an American level of living, in most places you cannot support yourself at that standard of living doing most common jobs in the country. Sure, if you are a heart surgeon, it would be easy. But few young people wanting to serve the Lord are heart surgeons. Most high paying jobs take a goodly amount of preparation, and this is lacking in most cases.