The following is a brief summary of the longer article: “Lessons from a Tentmaking Ascetic in the Egyptian Desert: The Case of Evagrius of Pontus,” Missiology: An International Review 39:4 (October 2011), 485-496. Subscribe to Missiology to access the entire article.
In his recent book on missionary tentmaking, Patrick Lai asserts that “. . . churches tend to look backward instead of forward for direction. We look backward at what has already been accomplished and limit the opportunities for God to work based on what He has done in the past” (Lai 2005:371). While Lai is warning against a complacent acceptance of traditional thought and practice in mission without a fresh vision for the present or future, I suggest that a healthy interaction with mission and church history will actually humble, inspire, and even instruct modern practitioners. My aim in this article is to consider the case of the fourth-century monk Evagrius of Pontus (c. 345-399), who, though not a missionary, took an apparent tentmaking approach in his monasticism—that is, he sustained himself and his ministry through labor.
Five major principles have been proposed as key components of Evagrius’ theology of work: (1) work was to be done with excellence; (2) work should be done with integrity; (3) work should render the monk self-sufficient; (4) work was for the sake of providing for others; and (5) work ultimately aided monastic progress. His case has been read and considered in light of his fourth-century monastic context in which voluntary poverty was embraced and manual labor was necessary. Given that, what lessons can modern tentmakers, particularly those from the majority world, learn from Evagrius?
First, today’s tentmakers can learn from Evagrius’ general regard for possessions. Though they may not embrace the level of poverty that Evagrius suggested, they can reflect upon the meaning of simplicity and humility as it relates to worldly goods. Certainly, Evagrius’ warnings about the love of money transcend time, culture, and various economies, and missionaries are not exempt from being tempted by material things. While possessions can cause problems in the missionary’s own spiritual life, they can also place barriers between the transcultural worker and those in the host culture that the missionary desires to reach for Christ. In short, does what we drive, where we live, or what we own create unnecessary obstacles to sharing the gospel with others?
Second, for tentmakers from modest economic backgrounds or for those who are struggling financially, Evagrius’ perspective on poverty seems quite helpful. Feelings of anger, bitterness, and worry over finances can beset people today just as much as they did in the fourth century. Lai asserts, “Money hinders missions by distracting us from evangelism, and keeping us from relying on Jesus to meet our needs” (Lai 376). Will today’s tentmakers trust God for daily bread as Evagrius and his colleagues did?
Third, much can be gleaned from Evagrius’ theology of work. It was an integral part of his monastic theology and practice, aiding him in spiritual growth. He enjoyed his work, carried it out with excellence and integrity, and set a standard for monks after him with his innovative monastic labor. Evagrius did not see work as an annoying task that he had to do so he could remain a monk. Rather, he seemed to identify more with Adam in his pre-Fall garden labor (Gen. 2:15) than in the cursed toil Adam experienced after leaving Eden (Gen. 3:17-19; cf. Evagrius, On Prayer 48). Given Evagrius’ position, how do modern tentmakers view their labor? Is tentmaking work integrally related to other ministries? Is it a means of honoring and worshipping God? Can work be enjoyable for the tentmaker?
Fourth, and very much related to the last point, Evagrius asserted that an important reason for work was caring for others—in his case, the poor and visitors. While work is a form of worship, it is also a means of blessing others. This value has certainly been affirmed by modern proponents of holistic mission—those who proclaim the gospel verbally and also care for human needs. The increasing emphasis on business as mission is a healthy trend and a winsome model for the global church as it ponders mission.
Finally, Evagrius’ ideas on self-sufficiency, which were taken directly from Paul in his tentmaking, church planting context, serve as an important model for majority world missionaries today. While transcultural workers from the non-Western world now outnumber those being sent from North America and Europe, over 80% of the Christian resources remains in the Global North (cf. Laing 2006:165-177; Johnson 2007). As today’s missionaries are getting poorer and the Western “professional ministry model” is being abandoned by non-Western mission leaders, Evagrius’ model should become increasingly relevant (cf. Mordomo 2006:224-225).