Today, "tentmaking" has become Christianese -- Christian shorthand, a kind of insider code word for the kind of work a person does in a "secular" job to pay their expenses while they do Christian ministry in the rest of their time. Tentmaking today might mean working as a custodian, a plumber, a phone repairman, a teacher, a financial consultant, or anything at all. Very few people, if any, actually fabricate tents to pay their expenses.
What's very interesting today is that this practice -- tentmaking, or working another job to pay expenses while serving Jesus in some way -- is growing more common. This growth parallels another trend that I have portrayed many, many times on this blog, namely, that the church is getting pushed to the margins of our culture today. As churches get farther and farther from the centers of power and influence, we are less and less able to pay full-time pastors. So more and more churches are smallish groups of people who cannot -- and don't really want to -- afford a full-time pastor, so they have a leader, a pastor, who works forty or fifty hours a week doing finish carpentry and who spends another ten or twenty hours a week working on pastor things like sermons, leadership, equipping others for ministry, and so on.
A couple things happen in this scenario. First, it's very hard to put a finish carpenter up on a pedestal. He has sawdust in his hair and he smells a little like wood glue and he's got that band-aid where he popped a nail through the fleshy part of his finger the other day. It's easy to put a full-time pastor on a pedestal because they're so holy. Yeah. And if we put them up on a pedestal we don't have to feel any pressure to be like them. But if a person can work a real job (sic) and still be concerned for the kingdom of God, then maybe I should, too.
The other thing that happens here is that more than likely, a tentmaking pastor is going to be a lot more in touch with the real lives of people in his or her church than a seminary-educated pastor who knows the difference between Docetism and Gnosticism but who hasn't dropped the business end of a hammer on his finger and dealt with the ensuing verbal consequences in a very long time. There's something real about tentmakers.
Round about 1992 I took on a second job as a custodian in a local HMO clinic to augment my small youth ministry income. The guy who trained me in was a tentmaking pastor. He had a "congregation" of about eight people who met in his home and were actively in the business of inviting others to come and join them each week. Paul -- the custodian / pastor / tentmaker -- taught me the ropes of how to clean the toilets and the carpets and the countertops. He also taught me how a custodian can communicate Jesus' love to doctors, nurses, and patients in some very simple ways. For example, each night Paul would take a strip of paper and fabricate a seal for the toilet seats -- the kind you sometimes find in fancy hotels where the maids certify that nobody has used the toilet before you. Then he'd take five minutes on his break and look through the Readers Digest in the waiting room to find some funny, pithy saying which he would write on the paper, tape the toilet seat shut with the strip of paper, and move on to the rest of his job. Each Tuesday morning (Paul worked at that clinic Monday evenings) the nurses and doctors would watch for Paul's strip of paper, and usually it ended up carefully taped to the mirror in that bathroom so everybody got to read and enjoy it. People loved Paul, because he took a few seconds extra to try to brighten their day in addition to keeping the clinic spotless.
It's incredibly significant that the Apostle Paul (along with Aquila and Priscilla) worked as a tentmaker. Paul knew the significance of this, and he refers to it several times in the New Testament.
I'm a full-time pastor. I get a good salary and benefits. The upside of this is that I can devote myself full-time to serving my church. The downside is that I often start to think of being a pastor as my "job" and I forget that it is a holy calling, as holy as being a custodian or farming or making tents. My great grandfather preached whenever he could and farmed to pay expenses. I often have to remind myself not to let myself get complacent, not to let myself lose his passion for the good news of Jesus Christ.