I recently did a piece on missionaries and working, in which I challenged the use of certain terminology and noted some pros and cons of various options.
At missions' prayer the other evening, we had an interesting discussion about "tentmaking." Again in some ways I dislike how it's been made into a catchphrase, and I don't necessarily agree with taking one example (Paul) and making it into a rule. I think the situation is a little more complex than that.
As I mentioned in my previous piece, there are plenty of good arguments for missionaries to have a career aside from their church activities in the field. The question is, how does one go about becoming a missionary with a job? Is it actually possible to take what many people have theorized about and put it into practice?
Here's one scenario. At 18, a missionary hopeful already knows where he would like to serve, as well as what his gifts are. He chooses a college major that will give him the education to work in his gifting. He gets a degree or two, as well as Bible training. He finds himself a wife, who, lo and behold, is also perfectly suited to the task. Since the country where they want to be missionaries is "closed," they use their job skills to enter the country as professionals and start their ministry.
That is really great for someone who is young and has a clear sense of what he/she wants to do. But what if the person is older? Should he still go through 4-5 years of training, before entering the mission field? What if someone has a skill that doesn't translate very well? Is an artist going to find work in the jungle? Is there a place in the mission field only for doctors, teachers, engineers, and computer technicians?
I suppose I have a question of what comes first. Do you choose missions and then decide what exactly you will do? Do you choose a profession and then see which country will accept you? Do you choose a country and then see what professions would be appropriate, and then start all over again with your education? Do you move to a country and study in their institutions so that you have both an education and a profession that are locally acceptable? For that you will need language training.
And where is your missionary zeal, while you are thinking about practical things like schooling?
What do you do with something like Bible translation? If you have to work full-time as well, the translation is going to take a long time, and in the meantime, people are waiting to read the Bible in their own language.
One issue we discussed was the necessity of being genuine and not hiding under a "mask." People do notice if you have hidden motives. I've seen English language curriculum for missionaries that involved "sneaking" little Bible truths into the lessons. I don't think that is effective. It is proper to say materials are Bible-based, if that is so. As I also wrote about one time, I do have an agenda, since I want people to get saved. I pay attention to what they have strong feelings about. I might bring up certain topics on purpose, to make them think more about it. But it's not an agenda in terms of having a schedule. I don't want to manipulate hearts, and only God can change them anyway.
At the prayer meeting, we also talked about tentmaking skills needing to be well-developed and not just a job that you pick up to gain access to a place. I have mixed feelings about this. I believe that we should do things in excellence, but I don't know how much you have to love the work itself. The passion is in knowing that our lives are hidden in Christ, but there's not anything romantic in living that out. Sometimes it is just a lot of daily perseverance.
If the point of tentmaking is to live like the people around you and be financially independent, then it's more an issue of practicality. I think Americans are more introspective about the "career" search than in other cultures. It's great when there's a choice, but that's not always the case. When it's a matter of survival, you take the job that is available to you and will support your family. If you're not qualified, then that will become evident in the quality of your work, and you'll have to try something else.
The issue is that, for most of these questions, there are no answers. First of all, you can't learn it in a classroom (the principles). Even if you do hear it somewhere, like at a conference, or read it in a book, it will not sink in until you've lived it, and by that time you have discovered it independently, it's just that you are able to confirm what others have said. Also, the world is changing, and we have no idea what it's going to look like in 5 years. How can we know how to prepare for it? And we don't know what God is going to do in our hearts. It's hard for me personally to imagine myself at age 18 knowing what I wanted to do. And what will He want me to do at 30? I don't know. I can only take certain steps of faith.
Missionaries have to make the same sort of life decisions as everyone else, especially when it comes to jobs. I greatly respect those who have faithfully worked in a certain field for many years, as well as those who have realized that their term is up and have left the field. It takes obedience, in either case. These are practical decisions, though not void of emotions and passion. And they affect others, depending on how long and how strong your ties are. When I think of all the people I love in different places, I have to remember that my devotion is to Christ.