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Tentmaking and Indigenous Urban Mission in China

The only occurrence of tentmaking in the Bible is found in Acts 18:1- 4. It took place during Paul’s missionary journeys and notably in the urban context of Corinth. When the concept was revitalized in the 1960s in the context of global world missions, the emphasis was on the professional status which a missionary needs for creative access to Islamic and communist countries where the doors are closed to missionaries. However, the intent of this article is to understand the significance of tentmaking for China’s indigenous missionaries and how it can help them overcome urban obstacles in their mission work. Although the rural church in China has undergone revival and developed dynamic models in leadership training and mission sending, it is now facing an impasse in urban missions.

Tentmaking in China’s Rural Context

Tentmaking has never been a concept emphasized by China’s rural house churches. It is the last thing they would like their evangelists to do. In their revival meetings, they have called thousands of young people, not a few teenagers, to dedicate their lives full-time for the Lord’s ministries. Many have been sent off after one to three months of intensive training. The harvest field in China is so great, and the need is so urgent, that pastors and missionaries should serve full-time for their entire lives. Tentmaking does not seem to be a good choice.

However, I would like to argue that house church evangelists and missionaries have been tentmakers. This is probably the most neglected ingredient of the house church revival. Back in 1985, I visited Henan many times and heard wonderful reports of revival and missionaries being sent both there and elsewhere in China. From what I heard, I listed the ingredients of revival: fervent prayer, hunger for God’s word, Scripture memorization, miraculous healings, itinerant preaching, persecution, house church models (deinstitutionalized), intensive training and mission sending. Tentmaking never crossed their minds or mine as a possible component of the house church revival.

However, in retrospect, I would like to add tentmaking to the list of revival ingredients. First, I would like to point out that few rural evangelists and pastors have really given up their farms or relied on the churches for their living. Their homes and fields are their workplaces. They evangelize people of their own profession (farming being the only rural profession!). They establish the church right in their workplaces (their homes) where they can take care of both church and farm activities at the same time. The way they schedule their services and training programs fits their work rhythm and agricultural calendar. For example, they have worship services and prayer meetings at noon when they come back from the field to take a break from the scorching sun. They hold training sessions up to three months long in between busy sowing and harvesting seasons. Even full-time evangelists need to help with fieldwork back home during busy seasons because their families and churches provide them with the strongest support.

Rural missionaries are also tentmakers without realizing it. They do evangelism and church planting in the rural context, reproducing their home models in the mission field. In busy farm seasons, they either help the host family in the mission field or return home to help their own families. Although they are serving the Lord full-time, they have never really given up their former farming profession. They still use it from time to time to enhance their mission work. House church mission work has been expanding rapidly precisely because of the perfection of the art of tentmaking in the rural context.

To confirm my observations, I have begun an oral survey with house church leaders. I ask any leaders I meet whether or not they agree with my observations and analysis presented above. Last week, I met fifteen leaders from three major church networks, and I was surprised to get a unanimous confirmation of my thesis: tentmaking has been a key ingredient—and a much neglected one—in rural house church revival and missionary expansion. This is a wonderful discovery both for me and for the house church. It follows that if churches in China want a revival in urban mission, their missionaries need to do tentmaking also, just as they have done during rural revival in the past.

Tentmaking in China’s Urban Context

In China, there are only two kinds of churches and both are weak in urban missions. While the official TSPM-affiliated churches, under the control of the Religious Bureau, may be large, the numbers of chapels in a given city are limited. There is no church planting or mission mandate in the TSPM churches because of their liberal theology. Urban house churches are small (at most up to thirty people), and few can support a full-time pastor. They are struggling for survival and few can develop systematic training and persistent mission sending like the rural churches. Besides the existing urban church polarity, there is the new migrant wave into the cities with urban missionaries sent from rural churches trying to establish a new brand of urban churches. Will they develop into another house church, TSPM church, or something else? How will this new influx of rural missionaries maintain their existence and establish their identities in the urban setting?

For the churches in China to engage in active urban mission, they must overcome three basic problems: an acceptable social status for the pastor-evangelist; a stable financial source to sustain the pastor’s family and church expenses; and a church model that will transcend the limitations inherent in the traditional TSPM chapel or house church meeting in a home. Tentmaking seems to provide feasible solutions to all these problems.

First, China’s urban pastors need an acceptable social status. Only registered church pastors are licensed by the state. House church pastors are considered illegal because they do not have a license granted by the TSPM and Religious Bureau and therefore are respected only within the church. They are either despised or ignored by the urban community. In greeting new friends, a pastor looks suspicious because he finds it hard to explain what he does for a living. This damages the credibility of the message he shares. Tentmaking will provide him with a respectable professional status that will facilitate his relational networking and enhance the credibility of his message.

Second, how can urban pastors be supported? This is not a problem for TSPM-affiliated churches because they have enough members to provide sufficient donations. However, it is a severe problem for the house churches because their size is limited by religious policy. Any gathering bigger than thirty people is likely to be pressured or persecuted by the police. If there are seekers or new believers in the group, they will be less likely to contribute much in terms of regular donations. Few urban house churches are able to afford a full-time pastor. I know an urban pastor who serves three house meetings but still cannot get enough donations for his basic living costs. He has to pray hard each day just for his daily bread. Some house churches have pastors only because they receive external aid. Tentmaking serves to alleviate the financial pressure on the urban pastor. It is a means of self-support.

Third, how can an urban church be built without being controlled by the state like the TSPM-affiliated church or harassed by the police from time to time like the house church? The wilderness “tent” model is an option worth considering. It was a place of worship designed for a mobile people traveling through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Urbanization in China has brought much mobility among people that could require a similar church model. A church could be set up in the Christian workplace instead of having a chapel exclusively for worship. Jesus himself liberated the concept of worship by allowing worship in any place at any time as long as worshipers worship in spirit and in truth (John 4: 20-24). In the past, communist workplaces were owned and controlled by the state, but economic liberalization has brought about privatization in many economic and social spheres with Party surveillance disappearing from the workplace. As a result, active Christian witnessing is increasing in these spheres. The only stumbling block is that urban missionaries are not radical enough to plant churches in the workplace. Amidst urban diversities, can we not have a variety of church models such as office churches, factory churches, and shop churches? Are chapels and homes the only alternatives? The tentmaker’s “tent” church model provides an innovative alternative to the traditional models and can meet the challenge of urban mobility and diversity.

Tentmaking is an urban strategy that can help the native missionary face the urban challenges in China’s unique context. I started to apply this tentmaking strategy two years ago. I helped a team of urban missionaries, originally from house churches, to do microloan “shop-church” planting in factory areas. In 2002, an urban missionary received the first micro loan of RMB10,000 and opened a shop. In the first month, he was able to sustain the living expenses of a family of four. In the meantime, he was able to evangelize and train up Christians in the shop. In seven months, he returned the loan and became the shop owner. In 2003, four other couples received one week of business-tentmaking training and learned to do the same thing. By June, there were five other “shop-churches” planted. By year’s end, three additional “shop-churches” were planted in neighboring cities with one being self-financed and another operated by a Christian from a minority group. Over Christmas, one “shop-church” had three worship services on Sunday and one of the services had an attendance of 50 believers!

In this particular application of tentmaking, the shop business provides the missionary with a socially recognizable status as shop owner, a sizeable income to sustain his family without relying on the mother church or external aid, and a “tent” church model which I call “shop-church.” These “shop-churches” are actually more secure than home churches, because it is quite legitimate for business people to have an occasional religious meeting in the shop because there is not enough time to go to church. It is quite respectable for the shop owner to sacrifice a little of his work time to share spiritual truths. It would be another story if the police found a missionary planting a church in a Christian home and spending all his time in religious proselytization. Increasingly, house meetings in the cities are reported to the police by neighbors, not for political or religious reasons but for security reasons. There is concern about unemployed migrants causing trouble in the neighborhood.

The shop is a tent both for the missionary’s family to live in and for God’s family to worship in. It is an evangelistic station, a meeting point and a training site for Kingdom business and ministry. A missionary can do nothing better than tentmaking in the urban context!

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Ronald Yu

Ronald Yu teaches theology and missions at the Chinese Mission Seminary in Hong Kong and facilitates workplace service platforms in China.View Full Bio