By Johnnie Godwin
Contributing Columnist, Baptist and Reflector
When I was about to graduate from seminary, I was drinking coffee with a new friend named Leroy Benefield. He was a missionary to the Philippines but on stateside for a year. Besides coffee, we shared a missions class.
At age 27, I had been in school all my life, so I was excited about graduating from seminary and getting on with God’s program for me. Leroy put down his coffee cup and said, “Johnnie, it’ll take you about five years to get over seminary.” Get over it? I didn’t want to get over it! But I learned.
“Argot” refers to a kind of secret language that various professions tend to use. For preachers and other church types, we may unknowingly slide into a “stained-glass language.” We need to get over that and learn to share the gospel in “people-talk.” That was what agricultural missionary Leroy Benefield was trying to help me with. He knew I was using words folks in the church and beyond likely wouldn’t be using. They wouldn’t be reading my jargon in the newspaper or the Reader’s Digest. Over about five more years of pastoring, I learned to preach and write in people-talk instead of religious talk or stained-glass language.
A couple of things helped me get over seminary, so to speak. In the church I pastored, folks were still referring to God as God, not Yahweh. In other words, the folks I preached to and lived among used “people-talk,” not “theology-talk.” I’m referring both to style of talk and content of talk. When a preacher starts to write, he’s likely to start sounding “musty.” You know: “We must do this. …” and that. The preacher quits hunting and starts “seeking” everything. Nothing wrong with “must” and “seek,” but the vocabulary is kind of like shifting from overalls to a Sunday suit. That’s style.
Biblical truths clothed in theological terms deal with content. As a young preacher graduating from seminary, I was steeped in eschatology, millennialism, and other grand words of theology that usually require explanation for use. The ability to explain grand concepts of God’s Word in everyday English is one value seminary teaches.
For good understanding, churches and pastors would do well to use a variety of Bible translations — but settle on one for regular pulpit fare. Personally, after seminary, I preached out of the King James version. I had grown up on it, and it gave me more reason to explain the meanings of words and things. I hate to think of where we would be without the classic King James version. Still, every generation needs to put the faith of our fathers in the language of our children. God’s Word doesn’t change, but the English language does. And language changes often call for us to need new understandings and clarifications of the KJV or older versions. A good standard version of the Bible really helps when we use it right alongside the KJV. Standard versions are usually sponsored by Bible societies or Bible publishers who match a team of skilled and committed Christians to put God’s unchanging Word into our ever-changing English (or whatever other language is used). For example, the word “let” could mean permit or prevent in 1611. See Romans 1:13 for “prevent” as a KJV translation. Contemporary versions usually clear up meanings of archaic words.
Learning about the gospel and grace
Whether it’s in the workplace or church, people are not born knowing and understanding God’s grace and their personal sin.
Jesus began His preaching ministry by saying that the kingdom of God was at hand and people were to repent and believe the gospel (Mark 1:14-17). Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.
The New Testament unfolds God’s “Salvation Symphony,” which requires personal repentance of sin and trust in Christ as Lord and Savior. These words surrounding eternal life are not “stained glass”; rather, they are God’s vocabulary for choosing life. God’s Word provides the context, definition, and explanations essential for life. God chooses us, and His Spirit uses us to testify and explain clearly our sin and His salvation.
Learning to market the news
At age 7, our family was poor. I needed money and hunted until I found the only job available for one so young: namely, selling newspapers. I didn’t deliver newspapers; I sold them one by one for a nickel each. I got to keep half. Besides my Christian home vocabulary, I learned the language of the streets, the pool halls, the beer joints, and the argot of all the places where I tried to market my newspapers. I soon learned the vocabulary I used wasn’t nearly as important as my being present with the news that others wanted and needed. I was disciplined and faithful to the job. Then I became No. 1 in selling newspapers in Midland, Texas over the last two of five years. My best day ever was when we had the worst sandstorm. All the other boys went to the house. I had a quarter in my pocket, and that let me buy a pair of plastic goggles in a variety store. Then I went out and found I was the only newspaper boy out there. I had it all to myself. I was there with the news; and people bought it from me. Whatever your vocabulary or your knowledge, if you’ve received the gospel and make it known, others will receive Jesus as Lord and Savior too! B&R