This is a question that I get asked more and more frequently. The reasons go beyond just a reluctance to raise funds. In truth, the number of reliable, traditional funding sources is diminishing and new methods are a growing necessity. Are “tentmaking” models an answer? The short answer is “yes” and “no”. Other terms used to mean similar things are Business as Mission (BAM), Business 4 Transformation (B4T), Profession as Ministry (PAM), among others.
The term “tentmaking” comes from the book of Acts where the apostle Paul, in his early years as a mission worker, made tents (his previous profession) to support himself. What most people don’t realize is that he moved to full support some time afterward. This is clear from his requests for funding in some of his later letters to churches. Paul also had an entourage on several of his travels providing for his needs. This was a common practice of the time. Jesus had one as well, in addition to his disciples. So, self-support was not the only method used in the early church mission worker experience, but it did exist.
Let’s begin with some current definitions:
- Supported mission workers are those who trust God to provide all their financial needs through the giving of others.
- Tentmaking, in the general sense, is doing some kind of work while in another culture to support yourself; while also engaged in Kingdom work.
- BAM or B4T (Business As Mission or Business 4 Transformation) has a number of applications which include: 1. Operating a business for profit and doing Kingdom work on the side (sometimes illegally) 2. Operating a business for profit with Kingdom principles and impact embedded in the business practices; 3. Facilitating a business that provides jobs for people and opens up opportunities for Kingdom impact which may or may not provide enough income for the missionary. This list is not exhaustive as new ideas are being tried yearly.
- PAM (Profession As Ministry) defines opportunities where the work is actually the ministry and provides an income, which sometimes is enough to sustain the worker. The ministry provides open doors through relationships developed for Kingdom growth. Examples of PAM are: 1. Teaching English, 2. Providing medical care 3. Working for a multi-national company in another country 4. Immigrating to another country to live, work and minister etc.
There are other types of self-funded examples that are outside of the above and they would include: using retirement funds, one spouse working to while the other is in Kingdom work and investment or inheritance income etc.
In most of the above examples there are some realities to consider.
- When work and ministry are mixed, less apparent ministry is accomplished. I say “apparent” because only God knows the real impact of what is done, no matter what method is used.
- Running a business in a culture foreign to the one that you have training and experience in is much harder than you think. If most attempts fail here, even more of them do somewhere else.
- Almost all business examples require startup capital (money!) so fund development is still necessary.
- It takes years for a business to become profitable here in the US. That is true in other countries as well. Once again, fund raising is necessary.
- Most countries do not pay enough in wages to sustain a worker from the US. Though you can make adjustments for a while, eventually you will need more funds than local jobs will provide. There are some exceptions.
- Legally working in another country, getting appropriate visas and permits, is normally very expensive and can take a long time.
- When the stress of living in another culture is added to the stress of working in another culture along with trying to get something accomplished for the Kingdom, the sum is often to great and the family suffers and often fails.
- You should only consider doing something in another country that you are trained and experienced to do in your home country. Working as a barista in a coffee shop does not guarantee that you will be able to run a coffee business in India.
So as I said in the beginning, the answer to the question is “yes” and “no.” Yes, tentmaking is an option, but it is seldom an easier option. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the vast majority of attempts using a tentmaking model do not end well. With some of the PAM exceptions, nearly all tentmaking opportunities require some funding.
The real pursuit you should be undertaking is one of obedience to what God is leading you to do. If God is leading you clearly to undertake a non-traditional path using business or employment abroad, then, by all means obey and trust that He will make the way (though expect it to be a difficult one). If he is directing that you use a more traditional model that will require fund raising, then once again, obey and trust that he will meet your financial needs in his time and way.