The term “tentmaking” has been used with different understandings since it came into frequent use in churches and missionary circles in the 1970s. The term and the movement enjoyed a boost from J. Christy Wilson Jr. (1921-1999) whose book Today’s Tentmakers: Self-support–An Alternative Model for Worldwide Witness, was published by Tyndale in 1979. Wilson reviewed how the term is derived from the practice of the first-century Apostle Paul who for extended periods of time during his missionary journeys across the Mediterranean world supported himself and his ministry by making and selling tents made from goat skins, a trade he likely learned as a youth. The author refers to precedents in past centuries whether or not the term was used in those earlier times. But the core idea of tentmaking is to use one’s professional training and skills in a cross-cultural context to support oneself financially while engaging in Christian witness in that same setting. Tentmakers may or may not have a formal association with a missionary-sending society, though some tentmakers would not entertain that option especially when working in a country that explicitly prohibits such a relationship.
The core idea of tentmaking is to use one’s professional training and skills in a cross-cultural context to support oneself financially while engaging in Christian witness in that same setting.
Some sending societies are inclined to use the tentmaking term for any and all of their donor-supported workers who are using professional skills in medicine, engineering, or other fields. But by the fact that these workers are dependent upon donor support channeled through the society, it is clear they are following a different model than the one Wilson described.
Over the past twenty-five years several books and many articles have appeared on the more recent movement called Business as Mission (BAM). The BAM movement advocates the establishment of profit-making businesses throughout the Majority World as platforms for Christian witness, employment of nationals, and community development. But such ventures, whether financially successful or not, at least in the initial years require investment capital, donor support, or supporting grants. That alone distinguishes it sharply from tentmaking which involves little or no fundraising. Some proponents of BAM have claimed that it now represents the evolution of earlier tentmaking implying that BAM now in practice replaces tentmaking. In fact, the two movements both exist and are readily distinguishable. Tentmaking remains a viable approach to cross-cultural Christian witness for professionals from North America, Europe, and the Majority World.
Neither BAM nor tentmaking can identify with undertakings abroad by people who purely for access to a country claim to be practicing professionals or business operatives but are these only in name.