a bit monkish.
I received an email today from a brand new, still in the plastic-wrap seminary graduate and new pastor who I've known for several years in the local church and as a seminary student. As she enters full-time pastoral ministry, she's contacting seasoned pastors and asking them to give her just one piece of advice.
Here is my response to her:
I wish I had your wisdom when I first entered ministry. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was too embarrassed to ask anybody for help. Maybe it was a ‘male ego’ thing. More likely it was just simple human pride at work.
You ask for one piece of counsel, so I’ll only give you one. It’s about watching your language.
I encourage you to lose all aspects of Seminary Speak. You know what that is. It’s the language of a seminary community that seemed so important to us at the time. It’s the language of a subculture that exists practically nowhere outside of theological higher education.
Remember all those years ago when you learned to find prime numbers in math class? They were numbers that were only divisible by 1. We have to find the prime ‘words’ in ministry. For example, instead of using the word ‘soteriology’ in a sermon, talk about ‘salvation.’ Instead of eschatology, talk about ‘end times.’ Instead of demonstrating to congregations all of your inductive Bible work and examples of ‘inclusio,” just show them the verbal ‘book ends.’
There’s a time and place for Seminary Speak, but a Sunday morning sermon is not one of them. Generally, the people-in-the-pews don’t care about these deep, complex words. They just want to know how to live faithfully for Christ when they go to work on Monday mornings or when raising their kids.
Our task as pastors is to take profound, complex theological truths and be able to explain them to an 8th grader. Actually, 8th-10th graders are my sermon targets on Sunday mornings. If I can keep their attention and explicate Scripture so they can understand it, there’s a good chance most folks in the congregation will be able to follow along, as well.
I’m certainly not wanting pastors to dumb-down the Gospel! You know me well enough to know that I cringe at such thoughts. We must be able to simplify the message of Christ so people can understand it, but without watering it down like adding water to ketchup so there’s no flavor and it just runs all over and makes a mess.
I’ve discovered it’s easy for people who don’t know very much to sound like they know a lot. It’s much more difficult, however, for people who know a lot to sound like they don’t know very much. Although I have two doctorates, the last thing I want to do in the local church is preach and teach like I have two doctorates!
Sometimes pastors want to impress people by using words they think will impress people. I’ve discovered over the years that what ministers to people is a pastor’s ability to speak to them in ways they can understand. Remember - we’re not in ministry to impress anybody. We’re in ministry to connect people with Jesus. If that means we humiliate ourselves in the process, then praise God. If that means people aren’t impressed with our seminary diplomas, then Hallelujah. That just makes Jesus look all the better.
So there you go: lose the Seminary Speak. You’ll be amazed at how approachable people will find you and how effective you’ll be at communicating the beauty of God’s truth. People need Jesus today. It’s our responsibility to share the truth of Jesus in ways people can understand.
Deep peace in Christ,
I'm a follower of Christ serving as an Associate Professor of Spiritual Formation at Asbury Theological Seminary.