What is a tentmaker ministry?

The label is specifically associated with the apostle Paul.  He was a tent maker by trade and would often take up his trade in order to bring in financial support.

Acts 20 is instructive on this.  Paul says

33 “I have never coveted anyone’s silver or gold or fine clothes. 34 You know that these hands of mine have worked to supply my own needs and even the needs of those who were with me. 35 And I have been a constant example of how you can help those in need by working hard. You should remember the words of the Lord Jesus: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”[1]

This is important because every church member apart from those specifically set aside and financially supported through the church including pastors and missionaries is likely to be doing paid work alongside sharing some of the burden of body ministry. So, when we describe “tent-making ministry” we are describing something a little bit more intentional than this.

Elsewhere, Paul acknowledges that he would be entitled to receive support just as the other apostles do. However, he chooses not to do this, in order that he won’t be a burden to the fledgling churches.[2] However, this does not prevent him when passing through Rome from encouraging the church there to support the mission work he was involved in as he planned to head on towards Spain.[3]

So, first of all, I would suggest that a tent-maker is someone who is specifically called to pastoral and missionary work but who recognises that the local church will not be in a position to support them or that they will be best placed to raise the support themselves.

Secondly, I am interested by the second part of verse 34. The tent maker is not only concerned about supporting their own needs but sees the need of the wider team and is able to provide for them to.

I want to make two side applications from this. First of all, it is not a lack of faith to sit down and to identify sources of income and it is not a backward step for a gospel worker who identify a gap in their support to go and earn income from other sources. They are not neglecting their calling if they do this.   Secondly, there is a gift in being able to recognise that you have earning capacity and so are able to support a wide range of gospel workers.  Those of us who find ourselves able to support Gospel work because God has given us good jobs should not belittle or undervalue that. Fascinatingly, Paul seems to be in a position to reverse the usual model, instead of one man’s ministry being supported by a wider group of people, one man is able to provide for the wider team.

However, my primary focus here is on the role of the tent-maker. I suspect that if we are going to really reach into urban Britain with the Gospel and if we are going to see lots more churches planted where the Gospel is proclaimed then we will need more people with a tent-maker approach. It is possible that we should be explicitly looking for teams that include those with a specific and intentional “tent-making” calling.

Now, one obvious benefit of this is that we will be able to bring more workers into Christian work, especially into areas where there is great need and little resources. This could become particularly important as we look to plant new churches and revitalise old ones on our urban estates. This may mean that rather than assuming as seems to be the predominant conservative evangelical trend that Christian workers will primarily be drawn from recent graduates that we will see people who are a little older, free of responsibilities to young children and released from the debt of a mortgage, perhaps with both husband and wife able to make a living. These will be people that are able to free up time and resources for Gospel work.

Another potential benefit is that the tent maker will find that his work gives him opportunities to get to know people and to build up gospel relationships. This means it is important to think carefully about the type of work that you choose.

Conclusion

“Tent-making” ministry is not about “part time Gospel work but about a full and serious commitment to Gospel ministry.

[1] Acts 20:33-35

[2] See 1 Corinthians 9.

[3] Romans 15:24.

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