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Does Traditional Church Even Apply Anymore? Why A Tent-Maker’s Ministry Makes Evangelical Sense

Can churches and church members interact with non-churched people on a regular basis outside the walls of the church? What does that look like? What can it look like? For entrepreneur and pastor Diallo Smith and his wife Jameel, reaching ordinary people in their everyday lives requires taking risks for faith: “Faith requires risk, and risk requires faith,” Diallo says in an article on entrepreneurial ministry written by Susan L. Oppat for Faith & Leadership, an online offering of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School. For the Smiths, the risk has included opening a business in downtown Detroit, one of the most economically devastated cities in the United States. That is to say, the Smiths are tent-maker evangelists. For Diallo, that’s not a problem but a crucial element in his vision. “We’ve learned that the most effective way for us to bear witness to Christ is to be … more aware of people’s everyday lives,” he says. “If you’re [a pastor] in a church building all day, you can get disconnected from how people live.” The Smiths operate a table tennis social club on the ground floor of a downtown landmark. Working every day in the middle of the city, running a business in a tough economic climate, and interacting with the wide diversity of Detroit’s population, Rev. Smith is never far from “what’s going on in people’s lives.”

Running a business provides a second benefit, according to the Smiths. Because they operate a for-profit business, their basic needs are taken care of, removing any pressure to build their church or run financial stewardship drives. Because their business also pays for the space where the church meets, the Smiths can afford to experiment and to take the long view. That’s important, Diallo says, because the traditional notion of church as something one does on Sunday does not apply to young people. “The fruit is not as low-hanging as it used to be. It’s not a safe assumption you can get them in the door.” However, that doesn’t mean people are not interested in the teachings of Jesus, he says, just that they are alienated by the trappings of traditional church. What’s needed, he believes, is a new model — one in which believers simply model Jesus in their everyday lives. “Christ engaged people in his culture,” Smith says. He “tried to build relationships and bring the gospel and the truth to them. This is like that first church.”

The third benefit of running a business tied conceptually to an evangelical mission is this: The social club allows the Smiths and their employees and volunteers to interact with customers according to their Christian values. Smith says their approach is “Christ incognito.” The goal, he says, “is not to seduce people into the business, to then seduce them into a church. It is to groom and excavate the divine possibilities in their everyday lives.” Rev. Smith never evangelizes customers, in fact few of his for-profit customers even know there is a church service held in the same space on Sundays. Awakenings Church member Jamie Hendrix says, “There are churches that are focused on how big they can get, but you never see them outside of Sunday mornings.” However, this church, she says, encourages people to “utilize what’s in you,” not “for the glorification of Awakenings, but of God.” By “walk[ing] in your purpose,” she says, you can touch the lives of people who might never attend any church.”

This article focuses on applying bivocational, entrepreneurial ministry principles in an urban setting. You might also want to read our feature article, “Caring for the Rural Church,” which focuses on entrepreneurial, bivocational ministry in rural settings

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