Should All Missionaries be Tentmakers?

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

It has been asked whether missionaries should support themselves with secular employments (rather than accept full-time paid support) for the sake of being a good example to believers?  A missionary working full-time in the secular world without monetary support from home would be a benefit to the church in two ways:  1) gives an example of living out the Christian life in the secular world, with integrity and hard work and Gospel witness, and 2) gives an example of how one can do ministry and work in the secular world at the same time.

Many Thai churches are very small (less than 50 people) and can not afford to support a full time pastor or church planter.  If the missionary church planter sets the precedent (whether intentionally or unintentionally) that “real” ministry can only be done by a full time paid professional, then the expansion of the church could be hindered as those with a heart for evangelism and serving the Lord think that they need to quit their job and go to Bible school before then can “really” be a minister of the Gospel.  For many Thai Christians with a heart to serve, and a call to ministry, bi-vocational pastoring and church planting is probably the most viable option that will not be a burden to them and their families, and beneficial to the planting and development of new churches.

With that said, we come back to our original question: Should foreign missionaries work full-time in the secular world instead of receiving financial support from back home so that they can provide this model for believers and churches?  It may be tempting to say, “Yes” but several very practical questions of missionary life immediately come into view.  John Nevius, 19th century missionary to China, felt very strongly that new Chinese believers should in general be left in their current jobs instead of made into full-time paid evangelists.  However, when it came to missionaries doing the same thing, Nevius had some rather helpful thoughts on why it would be both impractical and unhelpful for foreign missionaries to be bi-vocational, doing secular work and ministry.  Granted, in some countries it is just not possible to only do religious work full-time, but in those counties where there is the option, Nevius reasoning is good food for thought.

“Some will probably ask, ‘Why do not the missionaries themselves work with their own hands and set the same example that Paul did?’ If circumstances were the same, and the course chosen by the Apostle were now practicable and would secure the same end that it did in his case, it ought to be adopted, and I believe missionaries would adopt it gladly.  The reason we do not is, that doing so in our case would defeat the objective aimed at.  Our circumstances as foreign missionaries in China are different from those of the Apostle Paul in almost every particular.  He was a Roman citizen in the Roman empire.  He labored in this native climate; was master of Greek and Hebrew, the two languages required for prosecuting his work; and his physical and intellectual training had been the same as those with whom and for whom he labored. We, in coming to China, are obliged from the first to undertake the work of acquiring a spoken and a written language, both very difficult, taxing mind and body to the utmost, and demanding all our time and energies.  We have to submit to the disadvantage and drudgery of learning in comparatively advanced life - so far as we are able to do it - what the Chinaman learns, and what Paul learned, in childhood and early manhood.  Besides, for a foreigner to support himself in China in competition with natives in any department of manual labor is manifestly impracticable, and one attempting to do so would diminish rather than increase his influence.  Were it practicable and consistent with duty, how many of us who have a natural taste for mechanics, or agriculture, or business, would gladly spend a portion of our time in these pursuits, rather than in the wearisome work of study.  Is it not obvious that the only persons who can furnish in China the much needed example of propagating Christianity while they labor with their own hands, are not Europeans, but natives laboring for and among their own people?” (John Nevius, The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches, Monadnock Press, Hancock New Hampshire, 2003, p.33-34)



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