The Dark Side of Bivocational Church Planting According to Paul
It was there all along but I didn’t notice it. To say I didn’t see it before wouldn’t be true. Over the last couple of years as I read the New Testament every day I have set aside a different highlight color for any time and every place there is the mention of giving in the church. Obviously we know the whole tithe concept did not carry over from the OT. Instead what we find are numerous instances of churches gathering funds to help churches in other countries or cities going through famine or experiencing poverty. Funds most of the time were funneled to help believers in need. It is quite eye-opening.
So what does this have to do with bivocational church planting?
Paul the apostle … the sent one … has been our example for centuries whether for missionary ventures, pioneer church planting, and the like. He’s even our model for bivocational ministry. In fact, the term we have used in the past “tent making” to describe bivocational ministry comes from Paul’s occupation as one who, well, made tents for a living. But yesterday morning as I’ve been working through 1 Corinthians Paul writes something else that caught me by surprise. I was almost shocked and alarmed. It also put a different spin on the whole conversation about bivocational church planting. Paul writes,
To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure. (1 Cor. 4:11-12)
While we cannot nor should build a whole theology out of a passage extracted from one of Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth we can at least make some observations of what he is writing. Yes, we know Paul was bivocational. He made tents. We know at times he refused to accept any money from churches and instead worked his trade. Why? So no one would question his motives and that he didn’t want to be a burden to the church. (shhhh, don’t share that passage with church planters, ok?)
What this passage above reveals is that seemingly at times Paul’s business wasn’t that profitable. Was there a downturn in the economy? An over saturation in the market for those also making tents? Did Paul land in a specific city that was experiencing population loss due to economic decline? We don’t know.
But what we do know is this … his business wasn’t affording him high end sneakers, sweet threads, or a life of ministry luxury. He was hungry. Thirsty. At times homeless. He was poorly dressed. That last observation was ironically the most alarming to me. I thought, what church planter is poorly dressed? Have you been to Exponential? Most church planters seem to be style icons.
No, I’m not saying nice threads and style are wrong or anything like that. It just struck me that while we hold up Paul as the patron saint of bivocational church planting we fail to take into account that maybe … possibly … it really wasn’t as glamorous as we think (and I know that you already know that). He worked with his hands, plied his trade, and at times it simply wasn’t enough. He went without. Without food. Without a home. In today’s time and place he’d be on food stamps, maybe a recipient of Section 8 housing, and was the beneficiary of the clothing bin at the local church’s food pantry or shopped at Good will.
Is this what anyone imagines when we (myself included) extol the virtues of bivocational church planting? I think I’ve also furthered the narrative that bivocational church planting will fit seamlessly with church planting, supply all of your needs AND desires, and more. It could. Or it could look and feel like Paul.
Paul’s off-hand comment is a cautionary tale for us involved in church planting. Why are we in it? Career change? New job? A fun, cool, and hip church startup idea? Would we still do it if we experienced at least a fraction of what Paul went through? Hunger. Thirst. Housing scarcity. His low wage job wasn’t enough to cover rent, utilities, and food. Would we still plant? Sacrifice? Or would we simply pack up and find a cush ministry job elsewhere where we can hang out at coffee shops more, blog, and spend more time on social media?
I know, I’m not being super nice right now. But these are the questions I ask myself first. You simply get to see or read this conversation with myself. Maybe what we’re missing is this … a genuine love and brokenness for the people we long to see encounter the gospel. For that I think we’d give up almost everything. Do we love them? Long for them? Cry for them? Depending on how we answer that will gauge our willingness, like Paul, to be “poorly dressed and buffeted.”
Written by Sean Benesh
Director of Intrepid