Against “Tent Making”

One of the most startling things I have encountered while pioneering a new ministry has been the conversations I have with other Christians about money and work. Since I left the prosperity gospel (which was obsessed with money-talk), I have now found myself in the Church of England, which is wholeheartedly avoidant of money-talk. I used to find this a breath of fresh air, but now that I’m fundraising for ministry, I seem to have uncovered some seriously worrying and very unbiblical views about money, giving, mission and ministry as a vocation!

I have no doubt in the future I’ll have a series of reflections on all sorts of money and ministry issues, but today I want to make a clear argument against “Tent Making” as a legitimate model for sustainable ministry. 

In Christian jargon, Tent Making is a term used to describe a financial model for ministry, where pastors or missionaries have secular jobs so that they can either fully or partly support themselves as they do God’s work. It is based on the fact that the apostle Paul took a brief interlude from full-time ministry in order to work in trade (he literally made tents, hence the name) while he ministered to the church in Corinth for one day a week. Although this was a brief period of his life, many Christians now refer to Paul’s temporary small business in metaphorical language to imply that ministers or missionaries ought to adopt this model to financially support the ministry God has called them into. 

To be clear, I am not in any way against the actual trade of manufacturing or selling tents! Nor am I calling out pastors or ministers or missionaries who have been forced to do this so that they and their children don’t go hungry. 

But what I am saying is that this so-called “model” is a social and spiritual tragedy, not a legitimate economic method for those who are called into ministry. Of course if you can’t raise enough funds you will have to support yourself and your family through paid employment. But if all Christians followed God’s Biblical principles of supporting those in ministry, then this would not have to happen, and we may not see so many pastors burning out by their mid-thirties. 

Of course it can be (rightly) pointed out the the line between a missional vocation and a secular career is often blurred; it is indeed true that all Christians are missionaries to some degree. However some are called to it as a full-time vocation while others are called to be missionaries in their workplaces or schools. The Bible is very clear on this, and suggests that both callings are honourable, valid, and deserve a fair wage. 

In any case, if God calls you to full-time mission, then be encouraged that the people of God should be supporting you in this. And if God has called you into secular employment or business, then I hope this challenges you to consider supporting not only your local church but also missionaries who have taken a considerable risk to obey God’s call and spend their full-time lives making disciples of the nations. 

So without further ado, here are five reasons why the so-called model of Tent Making should be viewed as a sad Plan-B rather than a Plan-A archetype:

1. It goes against God’s command in the Bible

While many Christians point out that this was how Paul sustained his ministry in Corinth, the rest of the Bible is abundantly clear that this is not the way things should be. While Paul did indeed briefly work in trade, God’s command is for the exact opposite, and Paul himself later argued that his tent making should not have been necessary. 

In Numbers 18 we see what is often now regarded as the “Levite Model.” In this scenario, the people of God who are called to full-time ministry lay down their rights to earn wealth through business and instead live off 10% of the wages of the rest of the people of God. (Another 10% of the people’s wages were given for the poor, which is a bit more complicated for those of us in a welfare state and/or living on less than a living wage). But in short, if everyone earned a living wage, then every Christian missionary or minister would only need ten people to financially support their salary. There are of course added costs of general ministry expenses, teaching materials, buildings and the like, however the principle remains the same: the people of God should give 10% of their income specifically to support the wages of those who are called to full-time ministry. This is not an optional choice but rather a commandment of God throughout scripture (see Malachi 3). 

This is then carried into the New Testament. We know that Jesus and all of the Apostles each received financial support from other believers. Similar to the Levites, Jesus’ disciples left their family business and trades in order to be full-time apprentices to Jesus and subsequently spread his good news throughout the world. This was only legitimately possible because none of them had full time work; all of them lived off financial support from other believers (see Luke 8:1-3 and John 13:29). 

With regards to the Apostle Paul, we know that Antioch was the sending church who gave him an initial gift to go spread the gospel to other regions. From then on, those who received the message of the gospel then supported him as he then went to whichever next region God sent him to. I would tentatively call this a “Pay It Forward” model, whereby people paid Paul to teach in their church and would then give a final gift for his travels to the next city God calls him to. We see in his letter to the Philippians how Paul essentially writes to say thank you to his supporters in Phillipi, while then also providing them with further pastoral ministry and answers to their most pressing questions.1 

So, for a while, Paul’s Pay It Forward models seems to be sustainable. That is, until he reaches Corinth. The church in Corinth had a number of issues regarding having to “pay” for spiritual nourishment, so because money was a clear stumbling block for them, Paul decides to take up his old trade of tent making and work round the clock to keep them satisfied. This is only for a very short season (a “gap-year” if you will), and it drastically reduced his teaching hours to a mere one day a week, although he no doubt would have had discipleship conversations with people while working with his hands.

Most importantly though, Paul later writes to the Corinthian church, arguing that he should not have had to do this (see 1 Corinthians 9). He writes harshly against their “judgement” on him and fully argues against the Tent Making model in no uncertain terms. 

The sum of his argument is that the necessity of tent making was because of their hard hearts and his desire to remove all stumbling blocks in their way. It was never intended to be a legitimate model in itself. Rather, Paul, the ever-passionate long-suffering servant to the gospel decided to lay down was was the norm in order to accommodate for these stubborn people. In verse 7 he says, “Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?” It is clear to Paul that if every other trader is allowed a legitimate income, so too should those who work for the Lord. 

But he does not just appeal to the human argument of fair wages for a fair day’s work. In verses 13-14 he appeals to the command of God, “Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” A similarly worded argument is also made by Paul to Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:17-18.

Many would go on to argue that ministers should lay down their rights to an income, just like how Paul did for that brief period of his life. But it’s worth remembering that this was a temporary measure and in no way something that Paul advocated as a sustainable model for ministry. Not only does it provide various unhealthy cultural problems in the church (which I’ll expand on in a moment), but in no way is this part of the commandment of God. Scripture is clear that minsters have rights to a fair income, and nowhere does God himself ask anyone to lay that down. Only one church in the Bible does this, and that church ended up getting scolded for it. 

In short, Paul’s need to make tents for a brief interlude of his ministry was simply due to the failure of his local (and undoubtably wealthy) church. In no way is it ordained by God or endorsed by Scripture. 

2. It values autonomy over family

The whole argument for Tent Making is usually hinged around the idea of self-sufficiency and not depending on anybody else. If you’re depending on the generosity of others, well that makes you a leach. 

But here’s the problem: we are not created to be autonomous units. The Bible is very clear that we are interconnected, relational creatures who have been designed to love and be loved. Implicit in this Biblical worldview is the idea that we are all ultimately dependent on God and each other if we are to flourish and thrive. While the Bible does indeed warn against taking this too far and using it as an excuse for laziness and overdependence (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12 addresses this quite aptly), we must be careful to create a healthy balance and not go too far in the opposite direction towards ultimate autonomy. 

Sartre and other philosophers from the Existentialist movement have spilled a lot of ink arguing that we are autonomous free agents floating around in a world that is devoid of meaning. This has trickled into mainstream culture and is now often accepted as an inherent truth that informs our beliefs. But as Christians we must remember two things: first, autonomy is a myth, and second, the desire for full autonomy is the root of sin. 

The myth of autonomy is a prevalent one that usually thrives in societies who are prosperous and not in crisis. Paul Foster writes, “When we are tempted to think that what we own is the result of our personal efforts, it takes only a little draught or small accident to show us once again how utterly dependent we are for everything.” All of us are dependent on God, the land, and other people. Everything that we do is interconnected, and no-one ever makes a life choice that does not have ramifications on those around them. 

I believe that one of the Church’s greatest witnesses to the world is how we look after one another and be a healthy family (see 1 John 4:7-21). When we are interconnected in a healthy way and when we live in such a way that we are reliant on one another, this shows the world how to love well and how to resist the lie that autonomy is a good thing. 

The sin of autonomy is very clearly spelled out in the first chapter of Genesis, and I would argue is the root of all other sins. “I want to do life my way and own my own” runs counter to God’s model for Christian living. God himself says, “it is not good for man to be alone” and them provides a compatible companion for Adam in the garden. When the two of them end up sinning, what they ultimately say with their actions is that God’s definition of good and evil is not enough, we must take matters into our own hands and decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. In doing so, this severs mankind’s relationship with our creator, and ultimately results in us repeatedly choosing autonomy, with God repeatedly chasing us down and making costly sacrifices to restore our relationship with him. One day, all these ruptures will be restored. But until then we must constantly resist that ongoing temptation to be independent of God, the land, family, and the church.

It is the enemy’s goal to isolate us from each other and whisper the lies that independence is both a possible and worthy pursuit. 

3. It implies that ministry isn’t “real work”

Back when I was traditionally employed, I remember being partial to conversations about missionaries who, behind their backs, were accused of laziness and of not having a “real” job. This is deeply shameful and I had had to apologise to God and also to a missionary friend of mine for this. I will also say that I’ve noticed these conversations are often harsher towards men who have families, which brings up another whole issue of sexism, gender roles in bread winning and the general idea that “God-stuff” is for women while “real-world” stuff is for men.2

The idea that spreading the gospel is somehow less worthy than working for a bank or school or business is absolutely ludicrous. It is fundamentally important that we acknowledge that all of us are called to mission, and that those of us who have been called into it as a full-time vocation should be honoured for the sacrifice that has been made, not mocked for being reckless or stupid. If you question the validity of Christian vocation then you should perhaps question the seriousness of your faith. 

Sadly, I have seen many (often wealthy) Christian families all over the world offer missionaries employment in their homes (usually as a cleaner or child-minder) and then call it “supporting the ministry.” This is not supporting the ministry. This is providing a normal wage for normal work. Those who genuinely want to financially support the ministry give money for nothing, so that the missionary is then free to spend their time actually working in mission. When you tell missionaries that you’re “supporting” them but add the clause that they have to work for you, you are actually taking away from the ministry because you are occupying time that would have otherwise been devoted to serving God. 

I would in fact with a very heavy heart say that know of “Tent Making” work that has been offered to more than one missionary for an illegally low wage, all the while being branded as “supporting the ministry.” This is not supporting ministry. You are taking away time and energy that would otherwise be used for mission, while also exploiting the missionary’s vulnerable financial position so you can benefit from illegally cheap labour. This may be well-meaning, but it is actually deeply sinful and should be dealt with better in the church. 

Paul’s personal decision to lay down his own rights in no way legitimises the exploitation of missionaries by richer families in church. 

4. It promotes burn-out culture

I’m sure there are some churches and mission organisations who still need to read Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians and think about their inherent laziness, but most churches I’ve been in all over the world have massively over-corrected and swung too far the other way into seriously damaging burn-out culture. 

This is especially true in church plants that I have seen, where wealthy churches commission a few families to plant a new church elsewhere, but don’t supply enough funding for the pastor/minister to earn a living wage. This is when the Tent Making model is advocated most strongly, and unfortunately means that these pastors almost never have a holiday or a day off, which is not only counter to God’s command in the Bible, but also counter to how he made our bodies!

Sabbath rest is a command from God. It is not optional. If you don’t believe me, check out Exodus 20:8-11, Hebrews 4:9-11 , this Bible Project video or this teaching from Bridgetown Church. Rest is not a luxury for the elite, but rather a fundamental right and command from God. And yet too often we ignore this in our own lives and then project our distorted views onto those in full-time ministry!

When writing about burnout culture in Millennials, Anne Helen Peterson says, “Exhaustion means going to the point where you can’t go any further; burnout means reaching that point and pushing yourself to keep going, whether for days or weeks or years.” We now know that burn-out literally makes us physically sick and ignores the crucial fact that God made us to be embodied creatures with limitations and finite capacity. Why do we still ignore the obvious?

I did an internship for a church, which involved 3 days doing “church stuff” and 3 days working in the “real world” in order to earn a survivable wage. This meant I was working 6 days a week, with 1 day left to see friends, maintain a relatively clean home, buy food for the week and organise my life. Tragically, and somewhat ironically, it was during this church internship that I stopped feeling the presence of God, which continued for over four years.

Burnout culture is so inherent in our society that many of us don’t even know how to spot it. But in all honesty, I think the calling of the church is to be a counter-cultural resistance the idols of the spaces that we minister to. One of the best ways we can do that for our missionaries and ministers in particular is to actually fund them so they can have a living wage while serving the gospel full-time. If we force them into a position of needing extra employment, we are heading them towards a collision course between their bodies’ capabilities and the unreasonable amount of work that we expect them to do. 

5. It lacks love

I would argue that the Tent Making model inhibits love for two reasons. The first is that the church is being unloving towards the missionary by placing a heavy yoke on them to be self-sufficient, all the while hoarding money that these days is often used for fancy music tech and new projectors. This both devalues the mission and the missionary. The second is that it also doesn’t allow the missionary herself to minister out of love because she is simply too exhausted to serve well. 

I have no doubt that the many people who tell missionaries to “consider Tent Making” or “stop being lazy and get a real job” must have some good intention deep down somewhere. Perhaps they are concerned for said missionary’s children, or perhaps the missionary has struggled to communicate to them the validity of the work that they do. But it almost always comes across as unloving because it ultimately tells the missionary that they do not value what they do or who they are. It is worth noting that I have never seen this in poor churches and only ever seen this in rich churches. I think there is something inherently worrying, unloving, and unbiblical with the idea of storing up wealth for fancy lighting on a Sunday while ignoring the basic needs of those who are called into mission. Churches that prioritise the Sunday consumer experience over and above the the living costs of full time missionaries are becoming more and more common, and this troubles me greatly. 

I remember visiting a vicar’s humble dwelling and commenting on how much I liked his furniture. The poor guy then got so stressed out that he proceeded to give me a tour of the whole house and point out that every item was either given to their family for free or bought on a clearance sale at Ikea. I hadn’t meant anything by the comment other than to compliment their good taste, but the poor guy is so used to people expecting him to live in poverty that he now gets jumpy at the slightest hint that he might be marginally above the poverty line (he is not). I have no doubt that this is because people in the church have repeatedly made unkind comments that devalue his vocation and tell him that he should be embarrassed for earning a living from it. 

I think this happens even more frequently to missionaries, and I would say it is fundamentally unloving because it causes the missionary a great deal of stress and forces them to constantly be on their guard to “prove” their poverty and think of themselves as second class citizens. 

Out of this, the missionary herself then struggles to live out her ministry from a place of love, because she is ultimately stressed and rushed in all aspects of her life. If your idol is self-sufficiency and autonomy then this may seem glorious. But if your aim in life is the gospel of love and peace then this should trouble you. A stressed and burnt out person cannot love well. Think of any time in your life when you’ve been stressed or running late for something and out of that you’ve said something wonderfully kind and loving to someone else. It just doesn’t happen. In the same way, a missionary ought be to a loving non-anxious presence in the world, and they will struggle to be this long term if they are under heavy financial pressures because the church has unlovingly withheld finance that could have released them into full-time mission from a place of security. 

I think it is worth remembering that when an individual is called into ministry or mission, there is usually a clear discernment process, and a recognition that there are ramifications for all those around them. If the minister has children, then this has ramifications on their children. Likewise, if the missionary needs to raise support, then this has financial implications on their church family. They are not stupid when they go into this, although many people of treat them as though they are. 

All in all, I think missionaries could all do with a little bit more kindness from the body of Christ, especially those who are new to the field or pioneering something unusual for the kingdom. 

I really like how one of my supporters put it when he offered to help fund the work that I’m currently doing. He said that in his eyes, we are both missionaries, it’s just that the work that we each do for the kingdom will practically look very different. While one of us is on the front line going into prisons, the other one is in the business world earning money and setting up a kingdom investment portfolio so that missions like mine can be sustained long term. Both of us are working for the Lord, it’s just that our work is different and therefore our stresses, obstacles and temptations will ultimately look different as well. 

I appreciate that the overall tone of this post has been rather critical, but I do hope this serves as an encouragement to all Christians to love and be generous, and for missionaries in particular to not be afraid when asking and praying for a real living wage. We’re not asking for riches or fame – we’re just asking for enough to get by without being condemned or judged. 

Until next time,

S


1Of course it must be noted at this point that Paul’s needs were minimal: he is likely to have had few if any possessions, and he often stayed in the homes of believers and ate their food. Nevertheless, there would have been traveling costs on his journey, and he would have had to buy his own food fairly regularly. I would never ever suggest that those in ministry should earn enough to live highly lavish lifestyles – I know of many multimillionaire preachers who advocate for the prosperity gospel that is fundamentally unbiblical. My argument against Tent Making is about alleviating missionaries from crippling poverty; not an excuse to hoard vast sums of wealth. 

2 I will caveat that there are some lazy missionaries out there! But while these are generally the exception and not the rule, it is worth pointing out that it’s neither healthy nor kind to lump all missionaries into that category simply because of the few. I can’t think of any other vocation that is judged quite so strongly when a small minority don’t live up to particular standards.  


Recommended Resources

For All Christians

Bible Project short video on the Biblical worldview concerning generosity. 

Bible Project podcast series on money and God’s provision

John Mark Comer’s teaching on why hurry, hustle and burn-out culture are enemies of the gospel of peace: book here and podcast here. Further teaching from his church here

For Missionaries

Advice from Stewardship on financial support raising: a three part YouTube series called ‘What I Wish I Knew Before I Started Support Raising.’ 

For Christians with Capitol 

This podcast by the Bible Project, which explores Biblical themes concerning business, wealth, generosity and mission while situating this in the life stories of two Harvard Business School graduates who had their lives changed by exploring the Biblical view of wealth and money. 

2 Comments

  1. Great points Sarah! I’d also add that the whole bi-vocational ministry model is also super inaccessible to disabled and chronically ill people as you hedge at when talking about Sabbath. If we’re already working all we’re able for ministry, how are we supposed to earn something to live on? Bearing in mind many chronically ill people physically cannot work full time hours, that may be contributing to the lack of disabled and chronically ill pioneers, missioners and ministers. And lack of representation then perpetuates harmful theology around disability…

    1. Thanks Charlie! Yes I wholeheartedly agree. In this particular post I wanted to argue against Tent Making more broadly for everyone, not just the sick. But whenever people ask me specifically why I’m not Tent Making, I do also bring up my illness and explain that my capacity is limited as it is! I became unwell the same week that I obeyed God’s call to step out of employment and commit fully to this ministry, and although this has been very hard, God has taught me a lot about depending on him and ministering out of weakness. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” from 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 comes to mind. Here I see an example where illness does not exclude Paul from ministry, but rather it enhances his ministry because he learns a valuable lesson about dependency!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s