How do you support yourself overseas? Fundraising? Tentmaking? Business as Mission?

How do you support yourself overseas? Fundraising? Tentmaking? Business as Mission?

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Every person who has dreamed of making a cross-cultural move has asked the same question at some point: “How do I support this idea?” And believers across centuries have answered in different ways. Does God have creative methods to meet the financial challenges of overseas workers in our generation? Today’s guest contributor Luke believes He does.

Christian workers moving overseas have traditionally been financially supported by donations from their home countries.

Some have gone around fundraising, while others, such as Hudson Taylor, never mentioned their financial needs but were still reliant on foreign funds from their supporting churches. In the past years a number of people and organisations have noted that the fundraising model does not always work well when trying to bring the gospel to unreached countries.

Fundraising

Something we have seen many times in the unreached country where we are serving is that when local people come to faith they expect to be able to give up their jobs and work full-time for Christian organisations or the local church. After all, if that is what most of the other (foreign) Christians in the country are doing, why can’t they? This can lead to very big problems and tensions within the church.

One issue with fundraising from your home country is that the cost of living where you are moving can be more expensive (especially for our brother and sister workers from poorer countries such as some in Latin America).

Another issue that foreigners who are financially supported face is the question of identity. How do they respond when neighbours (or police and immigration officials) ask what they do for work, or where they get their money from?

Tentmaking

Noticing these problems, there has been much written about “tentmaking” – which is basically the idea of workers supporting themselves. This could be through a business or profession that they can practise in the host country, or from retirement funds. This removes the issues surrounding identity and financial support requirements and may also provide some opportunity to witness in the workplace.

A major disadvantage of this that method we see in practise, however, is that this makes it very difficult to find time to serve the local church or witness.

Another issue with tentmaking is that most people doing this struggle to learn the local language (especially when doing something only requiring English, such as English teaching).

These issues combine to make it incredibly difficult for people to dive deeply into the culture, which means they cannot be particularly effective. This often leads to frustration and disillusionment.

Having seen this scenario played out a number of times, nowadays whenever people ask my advice for looking to move to another country I say that there are three key things:

It is very rare, if not impossible, to excel at all three of these – especially when employed full-time.

Business as Mission

Another stream of thought has advocated “Business As Mission” (BAM) or “Business For Transformation” (B4T), where people start a business in the host country that can employ and bless local people, provide a legitimate reason/identity for being there, and also provide a platform to model Christian values and life. Instead of using the hours outside of work, the business itself becomes a mission catalyst.

This sounds ideal in practise and there are some contexts where this has been successful. Unfortunately of the 10-15 people I know of practising these models in the country where we are based I’ve only seen one or two that are successful at both Business and Mission.

In fact, most practitioners of BAM are struggling to succeed either in business or in mission/transforming local society. That’s not to belittle the efforts, talents or sacrifice required; it’s simply a combination of many factors.

Firstly, it’s hard enough starting a business in your own country. Even in easier markets such as the UK or the US the majority of new businesses fail within the first two years. In many countries that we are trying to reach with the gospel the business environment is rife with corruption and tax evasion, and foreigners will almost always find it harder than locals to compete on a level footing.

Many people trying to do BAM have no real background in business in their home countries, let alone in the countries that they are trying to reach. The sad fact is that in many foreign-Christian-owned businesses there are one or two foreigners running the business on full financial support from abroad (i.e. not able to draw any salary from the business), perhaps employing one or two locals through the money that the business makes but still working 60+ hour weeks trying to keep the business afloat. This means that whilst they may be able to witness and financially support the one or two local employees, they have very little time left over for doing anything else.

At the end of the day a business that is not paying a living salary to everyone employed as well as making a profit is not a viable business.

This is not to say that if God has called you to one of these particular methods of doing mission you are wrong, nor that there are not people that are succeeding in any of these methods.

There is a great book called “Tentmaking” by Patrick Lai which is a very good survey of successful businesses/mission in the Muslim world. I’d recommend this as a great read for anyone moving overseas. While it is aiming to be a business-focused book, it is actually more about how to successfully plant churches in closed or difficult countries.

Lessons in Flexibility

Something that is often missed out of the discussion of financial support versus using business skills to earn money comes from the verses in Acts 18 – the passage from which the very term “tentmaking” is taken:

“After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them. Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks. When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah.”

Here we see that Paul was not tied to one particular model, in fact we see all the above models mentioned.

It seems that when Paul required money and his needs were not being met from his supporting churches or friends, he happily worked as a tentmaker. In fact in this passage he clearly worked in partnership with other people of the same profession, even though at this stage they may not have been believers (certainly they came to faith pretty quickly as twenty verses later we see them correcting Apollos’ teaching). Assuming this is the case it is also therefore one of the first examples of successful “Business As Mission” in terms of seeing unbelievers come to faith through witness in the workplace.

Then in verse 5 we see Silas and Timothy come from the churches in Macedonia with a financial gift, which enables Paul to devote himself completely to church and mission work. (Compare with 2 Corinthians 11:9 “when I was with you and needed something, I was not a burden to anyone, for the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied what I needed.” Also note Philippians 4:15, which says the money only came from one church – the one that Paul was able to establish in the rich Roman colony city of Philippi.)

We see from these verses that Paul was incredibly flexible and pragmatic when it came to getting enough money to live on. He knew his calling and was determined to do anything to be able to complete it.

Initially he didn’t want to have to depend financially on the people that he was trying to reach with the Good News, but after he had established a church in one place and moved on, he was happy to be financially supported by them.

He was also happy to be supported from other established churches such as the church in Antioch.

When he did not have enough money to live on, however, he could return to his previous profession and work in order to live. While working he spent as much time as possible witnessing to those around him (e.g. Priscilla and Aquila) as well as outreach in the local synagogues as he found the time (in this passage, once a week on the Sabbath).

I want to add that this flexible approach can and does work.

As someone trying to follow Paul’s methods, in just the past year I have made use of all three of these models at different times – sometimes working to earn money to support my family, sometimes on full support leading the church of which we are a part, and sometimes working in partnership with local believers and non-believers to create businesses in our adopted country.

So, how do we apply this to mission today?

Both as people moving to other nations and people sending, we need to think much more flexibly about how we will earn money. We need many more people who have a passion to say “I’ll go and live there and do whatever it takes to financially support this.”

Rather than relying on a traditional fully-supported model or a more modern self-financing/trying to start a business model, we should be equipping people in as many flexible and transferable skills as possible.

English-teaching is an obvious choice for many people, however if you are not passionate and well qualified for this it can be very hard – often the hours can be long, the pay relatively low, and it severely limits your ability to learn the local language.

These days there can be legal issues surrounding performing work in host countries, but I believe we can be creative with this especially by using the power of the internet to do work remotely in our home countries. For many of us this would actually pay better than jobs in the countries we are trying to reach.

Remote working can now, with a little bit of creativity, be used by many different professions. For example, someone who is a writer could do copywriting or paid articles when they need more immediate cash or could work on some books or e-book projects for longer term sources of sustainable income. Someone who is a teacher could give lessons on their subject online via Skype or in person in the country when they need income, or as a longer term method of support create lessons for online courses such as Udemy. Someone who is a software developer could do remote contracting work to meet immediate financial needs and work on different startup projects for a longer term potential source of income. (These are all real-life examples that I have seen.)

Sending churches, prayer supporters and friends all have a vital role to play in this new world of sustainable missions.

One of the challenges I have discovered is that whilst I have a number of transferable skills and typically try to work over the internet, it is vital to have people in your home country who can try to pass work your way. It’s much harder to sell a service remotely than face-to-face.

So if, for example, a local company could partner with someone going overseas, this would be a massive benefit to reaching different countries with the gospel. The idea is not to pay someone for doing a sub-standard job, but as a valued quality employee who happens to need some additional flexibility with regards to hours.

Perhaps you would be interested in starting businesses or networks that can connect skilled Christian workers living abroad to the local marketplace in sending countries. Drop me a line if that’s the case. [Note: You can do this through our Connect page, and we’ll pass emails on to Luke. –Grace]

We live in an increasingly connected and globalized world. It’s time to start realizing the benefits of this with regard to supporting and sending people out to reach other nations with the Good News of Jesus.