TentMaking – Can it be a Trend Today?

The world is urging us to choose our work or career wisely. Often, the ‘spiritual’ teachings in our fellowship and the ‘career guidance’ teachings in colleges often points to two different directions which confuses us Work by Definition

Work can be defined as’ the job that a person does y in order to earn money’. Cambridge dictionary defines work in different ways. One of the definition which is related to our topic is the noun’ work’ and I am picking up the first and most popular meaning which states it as “an activity, such as a job, that a person uses physical or mental effort to do, usually for money”. The synonyms of work include employment, labour, toil and many others based on different contexts.

Vocation by Definition

Vocation is a type of work that you feel you are suited to do and to which you should give all your time and energy, or the feeling that a type of work suits you this way. Thus, vocation is the work through which God calls us to serve others. The synonyms or related words to vocation include calling, mission, purpose, pursuit and niche among others.

Then we have many other related words including Employment, Career, Job and Profession which carries closely related but slightly different meanings.

When a student hears the word ‘vocation’, the student might think it as a new field of study introduced by the UGC in 2013 called Vocational Studies and B. Voc. Courses in many universities are led by central universities. Also, some states like Kerala have vocational higher secondary schools trying to teach life skills like carpentry, painting etc in schools. In B. Voc. degree courses are focussed on teaching t electrical maintenance, computer operations and such subjects in detail. Thus, it is a training in a practical trade for a living which is intended by our government ..

Vocation for Christians.

Genesis 2 describes the creation of man and also the work which was entrusted to him.. It says “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15 ESV). Thus we can see that the first work assigned to man is to work the garden and cultivate the land. Then he is to keep it well and steward the resource well. So, the work is an intention of God even before the fall of man and it was purposed by God even before sin entered the human race.

Paul in his letter to Colossians says “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”(Col 3:23-24). Thus, any work we do should be as working for the Lord.

Purpose of Our Life on Earth

The purpose of life for all can be derived by the commission given to his disciples. “Jesus said to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” John 20:21 ESV. This is echoed in Matthew 18:20-22 which reminds us to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations”. This is a commission to all of his followers, not a suggestion or option. So, living a life witnessing Him is our life purpose and calling.

Bi-vocational Missions or Tentmaking over centuries

From the early century starting with apostle Paul, many of his disciples were engaged in a vocational skill along with preaching and teaching ministry. Like vocational studies, Gandhiji envisioned for all in India and attempted in some of the vocational courses, Paul was trained in making tents, as a vocational skill. As a missionary, he continued to make tents. This was first to support himself and his teams by not depending on anyone else for their day-to-day expenses. Also, it was an important part of his mission to model for his disciples of how they should live and work. (Acts 20:33-35; 1 Thess. 2:9). This model gave the name “tentmaking” to bi-vocational ministry, where one works for a living alongside with ministry.

In the early church history, we can see this as the way of ministry followers took. Apostle Thomas is believed to be a master carpenter in India. Prominent bishops in different parts of Christendom were bi-vocational missionaries or tentmakers. Spyridon of Cyprus was a shepherd. Priests under Basil of Cappadocia worked for their daily bread. Chrysostom of Constantinople spoke of rural pastors who yoked oxen and drove the plough. Zeno of Gaza was a linen weaver. So, working a job and doing ministry was a normal practice then. In 1800’s when Moravian missionaries went in to China and parts of North India, they moved as bi-vocational missionaries. This was true for Jesuit missionaries who went to many parts of the world.

William Carey, father of modern missions was a tentmaker. In 1793, after his arrival in India at Serampore near Kolkota, he worked as an indigo plantation manager for several years while studying the local language for Bible translation. Then he worked as a professor of Bengali for 30 years at Fort William College, where he trained British officers and influenced them as civil servants. He learned and taught many more languages and introduced many skills and research inIndia. He continued to work in many ways and support his ministry during his lifetime. We can read more about his life from his biography The Legacy of William Carey: A model for transformation for a culture by Ruth and Vishal Mangalwadi.

In recent years, Ruth Siemens pioneered student ministry by starting IFES movements in 5 countries as a tentmaker. Christy Wilson Jr. first associate General secretary and Missions Secretary of IVCF-USA pioneered ministry and pastored the first church in Afghanistan going as an English teacher, a tentmaking vocation in 1950. He pioneered the first missions conference in 1946, which later became Urbana and this conference had Bro. Bakht Singh asa speaker. We can learn more about his life in his biography Where no one has Heard, the life of Christy Wilson Jr. by Ken Wilson
Many of our fellow Indians have moved as tentmakers within India and abroad since 1970’s and pioneered student ministry, NGOs and Schools in many parts of our country and stood as great testimonies among the local population they served.

Why not Tentmaking as a vocation?

In the classic article which is freely available on the internet by a modern day tentmaking pioneer Ruth Siemens titled “Why did Paul make tents?” gives the definition of a tentmaker as follows “Tentmakers are mission-motivated Christians who support themselves in secular work as they do cross-cultural evangelism on the job and in free time. They may be business entrepreneurs, salaried professionals, paid employees, expenses-paid voluntary workers, or Christians in professional exchange, funded research, internship or study abroad programs. They can serve at little or no cost to the church.”.

Let us look at some of the reasons to be a tentmaker in order to be an active witness and missionary in needy places

  • It gives easy entry into a needy place or to an unreached society
  • They are accepted by the society because of the job or position compared to full time missionaries and share Christ in a friendly way by words and deeds. It provides contact with non-believers in a natural setting and friendships can be sustained for years.
  • They can support themselves and the family financially without depending on the organization or Church. Many can even extend local, financial, spiritual and emotional support for mission work, if they are well paid instead of the need to raise money for their work
  • They can decide the activities as he sees the need and urgency without waiting for the organizations approval and can use his time beyond work hours as well.
  • Many can use their already acquired skills in resource constrained settings.
  • It will bring legitimacy to the Gospel as they are not paid to share the Gospel, they can be a living example for local believers by giving their time, finance and resources sacrificially for ministry without expecting any benefits in return.

There are many models of tentmaking where there are fully self-supported, partially supported and others. In UESI ministry, Tentmakers Cell under NEGF is committed to provide member care and encouragement to those who are passionateabout being a tentmaker.

James Sebastian, A tentmaker since 2005 and now based at Patna. He took a decision to be a tentmaker in UESI Missions conference 2001 at Banglore. He is married and has two lovely daughters.


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