Tentmaking is a metaphorical term used to refer to holding a career in order to allow oneself the opportunity to engage in Christian ministry. Tentmakers are Christian workers, usually missionaries, who work full-time to support themselves rather than draw support or a salary from a church or mission organization. Tentmaking is so-called because the apostle Paul was a tentmaker by trade and relied on that trade to support himself in Corinth on his second missionary journey. Paul met Priscilla and Aquila, and, “because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them. Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:3–4).
Although Paul worked full-time planting churches and preaching the gospel, he made it a point to support himself whenever possible, and he did so by his chosen trade of tentmaking. He later told the elders in Ephesus, “I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions” (Acts 20:33–34). Using outside employment to supply one’s own needs in the ministry is what tentmaking is all about.
Some Christians are called by God into ministries or areas of the world where they cannot be financially supported by the spiritual work they do, so they find employment in addition to their ministry. Start-up churches are often pastored by a person who also works a full-time job. Some missionaries move into regions where they find employment while hosting Bible studies in the evenings; in some “closed” countries, tentmaking is the only option for a missionary. These are examples of Christian tentmaking.
Sometimes a person called into ministry prefers tentmaking to the more traditional method of seeking outside support. Tentmakers choose to provide their own financial support as a means of staying connected with the people to whom they minister. They believe that maintaining full-time secular employment helps them better identify with others and ensures they are not a financial burden to those they serve. Also, the struggles of the business world give them opportunities to live out their message and model lifestyle evangelism. First Corinthians 9:14 makes it clear that those who teach the gospel have the right to make their living from the gospel, but it’s a right that some choose to lay aside. Tentmaking is a worthy method of obeying Jesus’ command to “make disciples of every nation” (Matthew 28:19).