The Reputations of Tent-Makers

A local friend of mine invited me to his birthday party a few years ago. I was excited to get the invitation, since this was a good friend who had once professed faith, but had sadly been drifting away for years. He was one of many young men in our Central Asian city who had eagerly identified as a Christian in the first wave of house churches planted, only to grow cynical after they imploded. Many of this first generation of believers have fallen away and no longer claim faith in Jesus. Others hold out, but are determined to never gather with other locals again. Such is the devastation wrought when new churches are destroyed by domineering leadership, outside money, power conflicts, and prosperity theology. The foundation wasn’t deep enough when the missionaries (eager to not be paternalistic) went home. Little today remains of that budding movement of house churches once touted as a great success.

Right as things were falling apart, a new group of missionaries arrived and got to work opening an English center. They were to become close partners for my team when we arrived some years later. The birthday party I attended took place after about a decade of steady labor by these partners, a point that I think should not be lost in the account to follow. In the wake of the collapse of generation one, our partners faithfully taught English, learned the local language, and told people about Jesus. When this birthday party took place, I had probably only been teaching at that particular center for two years. I have since realized just how well set up I was by the labors of this partner team.

Our local Central Asian people group is very much into Instagram-worthy birthday party celebrations. At this particular party (where everyone was dressed seemingly for prom) they included candles that were essentially fireworks and a gorgeous cake that tasted like cardboard – the norm, sadly. While the smoke was still hanging in the air and the world-conquering “Happy Birthday” song had been sung in our local tongue, one of the guests approached me.

“So, you teach at the _____ English Center, right?”

“Yes, I do! You have heard of it?” I asked.

“Of course I have! All over the city people say that there is no better place to learn the English language. Tell me, what’s your secret?”

“Well,” I said, “All of our teachers are native English speakers, so that’s part of it. But our teachers also have a culture of spending time with their students, even outside the classroom. It’s normal for us to go to the tea houses with our students and to go on picnics with them. This kind of relational and conversational way of learning English has a big effect. We’re not like some other foreigners that you only see in the classroom, but not in the bazaar.”

“I see,” my questioner said, narrowing his eyes and leaning in. “But I also hear that you can learn about Jesus there.”

I wasn’t sure where this man was coming from. Could he be a seeker? A Salafi? Unlikely in his spiffy suit. A member of the secret police? Thankfully, I don’t remember my anxiety spiking, as sometimes happens when it feels like someone is trying to “out” our work as missionaries in a country where it is illegal. This time I felt a welcome confidence and a clear mind. Perhaps it was the effect of the gunpowder birthday candles, or just a simple Spirit-given calm.

“You are right that all of our teachers are followers of Jesus, true Christians. And this makes a huge difference in how we teach, because we genuinely love our students as God has loved us. When teachers truly love their students in this way, of course their students are going to learn well.”

My new friend smiled and seemed to accept this answer. I invited him to visit our center soon, but I’m not aware that he ever took me up on the offer. To this day I don’t know exactly where he was going with his questions, but I’ve often remembered that conversation as I’ve thought about what it means to do “platform,” or tent-making work, well as a missionary – or even how to work any job for the glory of God.

This man may have not intended this, but he paid our English Center two huge compliments, all the more so because many would view his observations as being in opposition to each other. Sometimes we are faced with a false choice – either work excellently and leave the witnessing to non-business hours, or we just do what it takes to get by with the platform, focusing instead on sharing the gospel. Because it could be used by the secret police to shut us down, we tried not to share the gospel too explicitly in our English Center, but we also had a softball policy. If someone lobs you one, hit it out of the park and trust God with the consequences. Plus, even though not always sharing explicit gospel, we labored to model Christian character and alluded to God’s word as much as we could in the classroom and in our discussion groups.

To be known all over the city as offering an excellent product and to be known as a place where people can learn about Jesus – that’s just about as ideal a reputation as you could ask for when running a business or NGO among an unreached people group. Our partners had truly done some great work. And my fellow guest at the birthday party may never know it, but he has helped me better frame my goals for my new team’s current and future platforms: How can we offer an excellent product that gives glory to God? And how can we be the subjects of good gossip as those who can help others know more of Jesus? We don’t have to choose one over the other.

I remember NPR doing an interview with a coffeeshop in our home city in the US. The owners were Christians and NPR showed up because, along with winning national awards, this coffeeshop had a steady presence of Christians and those becoming Christians. Some locals murmured about it being “a front” for evangelicals. There was suspicion that conspiracy was afoot.

The owner responded to the NPR interviewer with wisdom and truth.

“We are Christians, so we are motivated by the glory of God. Of course, that affects the quality of each drink that we make and the care we put into it! And this naturally leads to good conversations about our product and about who we are as well.”

Exactly. No conspiracy. Just good Christian work, done to the glory of God – and the kind of reputations that follow.

Photo by Nicolas Hoizey on Unsplash