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Book Review – Tentmaking: The Life and Work of Business as Missions

Patrick Lai, Tentmaking: The Life and Work of Business as Missions, InterVarsity Press, 2006, 418 pgs.

This is an excellent manual for anyone preparing to serve as a missionary, whether as a tentmaker or not. The book discusses the many pros and cons of various forms of missionary work and provides much food for thought and exploration. Many aspects of missionary life are discussed: motivation, preparation, accountability, visas, relationships with authorities and team members, "third culture kid" issues, finances, home assignments, etc.

Lai began his missionary service as a traditional missionary for four years, then later lived and worked as a “tentmaker” in a creative access nation (CAN) for nearly two decades. In the book, he points out that both traditional missionaries and tentmakers are similar in feeling called to do missionary work, but the “missionary” is openly identified as such in the place of service while the “tentmaker” is not. Tentmakers are therefore able to gain access to the increasing number of countries which do not issue missionary visas, as well as to the workplaces which are natural settings to befriend nationals.

During Lai’s service in a tentmaking role, he was challenged by a mentor to provide support for his pro-tentmaking views. Over six years, he surveyed and interviewed 450 workers (various types of missionaries, including tentmakers) from many organisations working in the 10/40 window. Nearly 50 factors were identified, including their background, education, training, motivation, life, ministry and work. These factors were related to the workers’ effectiveness (defined in terms of evangelism, discipleship and church planting). Read a summary of the findings: Tentmaking Unveiled—“The Survey Says”. The findings from the survey form the basis of the book.

Classification of Tentmakers

One of the most useful outcomes of the survey is Lai’s classification of tentmakers into 5 common groups, and his discussion of the pros and cons of each group.

  • T-1: Employed abroad in the course of their careers without any initial commitment to cross-cultural ministry; self-supporting.

  • T-2: Called to reach out to specific people, and so seek out training that qualifies them to work in a foreign or national firm in that country; usually self-supporting.

  • T-3: Often associated with a mission agency; has a job, but part or all of their income is derived from supporters back home.

  • T-4: Works in an NGO to serve the community in a job consistent with their identity; part or all of their income may be derived from supporters back home.

  • T-5: Missionary in reality, but with a non-missionary identity; spends most or all their time on missionary service; income is derived from supporters back home

Measures of Effectiveness

Lai uses three criteria to assess tentmakers’ effectiveness in ministry:

  • the number of people they led to Christ;

  • the number of people they discipled in the Word; and

  • the number of churches they planted.

Based on these criteria, the survey indicated that the most effective tentmakers belonged to the T-3 and T-4 categories, while the least effective was the T-1 category.

While these criteria are relevant to all missionary endeavours, it should be noted that there are other activities which missionaries engage in that do not fall within these categories, such as social or development goals, or Bible translation (of particular interest to Wycliffe!). Some social and development goals may be carried out under NGOs, but not all.

Heart Language and Bible Translation

Ultimately, as Lai affirms, the aim of all missions work is to plant churches where no churches exist. In Revelation 7:9, John describes the vision of a multitude “from every nation, tribe, people and language” worshipping the Lamb. Lai himself advises tentmakers: “learning their (the target people’s) heart language is not optional”, and recognises that “heart language” is not necessarily the national language or trade language. He strongly encourages the use of the heart language for discipleship and in churches, and while he does not specifically mention scripture in the heart language, it can be assumed that he would advocate the use of heart language scripture.

Wycliffe missionaries also share the ultimate aim of seeing churches planted and lives transformed in every people group. However, Wycliffe’s work encompasses a crucial element absent from Lai’s criteria of effectiveness – foundational to Wycliffe’s mission is the provision of heart language scripture for use in evangelism and discipleship. In ethnic groups where heart language scripture has not been translated, then the missionaries will embark on language learning and Bible translation along with the initial efforts to befriend the target people group. Without this, all missionaries seeking to reach that people group will have to translate scripture “on the fly”, or use scripture in some other language.

An issue faced by missionaries whose ministries are not compatible with a secular workplace or a welcomed NGO (such as Bible translation) is this: what is the most suitable strategy that meets their needs? While evangelism and discipleship can more readily take place in the workplace and in the surrounding social settings, translation work requires dedicated and extended time for study, discussion and concentration, and involves nationals in the work. It is probably only the T-5 category that would allow this amount of dedicated time and focus. Unfortunately, this is also the category that is most likely to attract suspicion.

As of now, a good solution has yet to be found. Can there be a different model of tentmaking or some other solution which may involve some form of tentmaking, be devised for ministries such as Bible translation? Pray also for wisdom for those who are currently involved in translating the Bible into heart languages, so that evangelism and discipleship can be even more effective.

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