Some years ago an Adventist couple in Atlanta, Georgia, felt a growing burden to work for the thousands of people who lived in a low-income housing project. The conviction that they had to move there with their children became stronger and stronger.
But as they planned their move, the couple discovered that they earned too much money to live in the project’s government-subsidized housing. In a simple yet transparent way, that family’s answer to God’s call was a replication of the eternal mystery of Jesus’ own incarnation: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling [literally, “tented” or “tabernacled”] among us” (John 1:14).
The family quit their well-paying jobs, took lower-paying positions, sold their middle-class house, and moved into the projects. They began visiting their neighbors, organizing community cookouts, arranging games and activities for neighborhood kids. They were tentmakers.
Tentmaking is a ministry that may be understood both in practical human terms and in the most profoundly spiritual sense.
Tentmakers are those who commit to making a difference for Jesus, but aren't employed by the church. They typically move into areas where it is extremely difficult to plant the gospel and work for some company or business that not only provides for their living needs but also gives them access to people they would otherwise not be able to reach.
This young man accepted the new truths he was learning and was finally baptized. Today he is a pastor.
The life of Paul defines, and is our prime example of what it means to be a tentmaker: preacher Paul lived by literally making tents (Acts 18:3). Highly confident in both his evangelistic success and his tentmaker status, Paul gave up his right to be paid, and preached free of charge so that no one could say he did it for money.
Tentmakers cannot be accused of doing what the church tells them just so they can keep their job. In fact, in some parts of the world, what they are doing could jeopardize their jobs, even their lives. They aren’t witnessing from selfish motives of increasing their income.
I’m not a tentmaker. I work for the church. When I lived in Lebanon, my residency permit said “missionary” on it. If I applied for a visa to visit Algeria, its embassy in Lebanon would look at my residency permit and say, “Missionary? We don’t want you in Algeria!”
But a tentmaker doesn’t have that stamp in their passport. It may say “plumber,” “computer programmer,” “nurse,” “cell phone tower engineer,” “professor,” or “geologist.” And that would be true. Those individuals can go where I may not be allowed.
Tentmakers don’t cost the church anything. Someone else arranges their visas, ships their belongings, and pays their salaries. The church supports them socially and emotionally, but it doesn’t have to help financially, because they earn their own living.
The church back home can pray for them. The church where they live can pray with them (if there is a church in the new place). But the church’s resources are not required to support their ongoing physical needs.
Roger* lives in a country in which it is difficult to spread the gospel. A few years ago he traveled back to his country carrying a number of books we had given him. He had done this many times before. Each time he had witnessed small miracles as God helped the customs agents skip right over him, or even search his bags and not see the books.
But this time the customs agents saw the books. Their eyes narrowed. Their lips grew hard. Angrily they ordered him out of line and took him from one office to another, where he was roughly interrogated most of the night.
Finally, he was fined $800, which he had to pay on the spot. Then they released him saying they would be reading these books and get back to him.
Roger left tired, frightened, and overwhelmed. Why had God let him down? These were God’s books. Why did God waste all this money and time?
Then a thought popped into his mind, almost as if God said to him, Roger, you’re right; these are My books. And the money is Mine. And you are Mine. And so are those customs officers.”
Roger told me about it later. “Think of it, Pastor,” he said. “For years I would have gladly paid $800 for the chance to give books like that to government officials, without knowing whether they would read them or just throw them into the trash. Now several of them have been assigned to read our books, and it only cost me $800.”
Roger was, and still is, a tentmaker. The church doesn’t pay him, but his witness is powerful.
“Pastor,” Janet said, “I’m a failure! For 17 years I have been working in this Middle Eastern country, and no one has been baptized, no one has come to church, no one is even taking Bible studies. Sometimes I think I’ve been wasting my time.”
A few days later Janet invited my wife and me to visit a friend with her. As we drove through town, I realized we were driving into more expensive areas. Finally, we turned a corner and pulled up to a massive mansion.
I knew that just inside the door would be an ornate visiting room. Men are not allowed into a house unless they are part of the family, so we would be taken there and would visit with the men of the family. Women would slip in only occasionally (veiled, of course) to serve us.
But when the door opened and the people saw Janet, the family welcomed us all in and took us right upstairs to the living room. Obviously, this family felt really close to Janet; and because we were with her, we were also treated as family.
We sat in the family room and talked—with the whole family. The women and girls didn’t slip in and out; they weren’t even wearing veils. They were in jeans and T-shirts and sat and visited with us as though we were extended family.
Soon the men excused themselves to go to the mosque. After a few minutes the women went to the other room to pray. This was a devout Middle Eastern family.
As they left the room, Janet stood up and whispered, “Look, Pastor.”
She walked to the massive entertainment system on the wall with the big-screen TV and pushed the start button on the remote. Instantly up popped the last thing they had been watching: an Adventist TV program. I gasped and whispered, “Janet, is this family watching Adventist TV?”
“Yes,” she said, “they watch it a lot.”
“How did that happen,” I asked?
Janet laughed, “I tried to get them to watch one of our Adventist cooking schools, but they just never got around to it. So one day I asked if I could program it into their favorites. They let me, and I put it right on top. They started watching a little of it—just to humor me, I think. But they liked it and watched more and more. Soon they started watching a little of what came before and after. Now they watch all our Adventist programs. They know Mark Finley, Doug Batchelor, Dwight Nelson, and all the others.”
“Janet,” I asked, feeling sure I already knew the answer, “have you done this with anyone else?”
“Yes,” she replied thoughtfully. “I guess I’ve done it with most of my friends and coworkers.”
As we left that home I said, “Janet, don’t tell me you’ve been wasting your time here. These people may not be taking Bible studies from you or sitting in church with you, but all across this city are people who are watching Adventist TV. Some of them will be on streets of gold in heaven as a result of your time being here with them.”
Janet was a tentmaker. She worked as a nurse and was paid by a local hospital.
But she worked closely with the organized church. Her work was effective because there were also employees working for the church producing TV programs. And their work was effective because she was there on the ground making friends.
An Adventist from Africa was working in a bank in one of the countries of the Middle East/North Africa region. One day she stopped by a shop and began visiting with the young cashier. During the conversation a topic came up, and she said, “I’ll be praying for you.”
She smiled and left, but the young clerk couldn’t get that comment out of his mind. God answered the prayer. So when she came back a few days later, he excitedly told her about it and asked if she was a Christian.
Our Adventist tentmaker wasn’t sure how to answer this young man. He saw her hesitation and whispered, “I’m a believer, too.”
A friendship began to develop. One day this Adventist bank employee invited the young man to church. Little by little this young man accepted the new truths he was learning, quit smoking, and was finally baptized. Today he is a pastor in that region.
But it would never have happened if an Adventist woman hadn’t gone there to work, live, and love the people. It would never have happened if a pastor (a paid employee) hadn’t been sent to that country to work. It is because a tentmaker and a pastor worked together that that young man is an Adventist pastor today.
Think of the Future
Being a tentmaker isn’t always safe and easy work. People won’t always notice what’s being accomplished. But in heaven the results will be clearly seen. I’m praying that God will lay a burden on the hearts of many dedicated Seventh-day Adventists to become tentmakers.
For more information about being a tentmaker, visit te.adventistmission.org.
* Names used in this story are pseudonyms.
Homer Trecartin directs Global Mission Centers and Tentmakers programs at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.