22 May 2007

Over the last year, our church has had a cycle of guest preachers. Sometimes this has been refreshing, at other times frustrating. One of our frequent guest preachers is a minister at another local congregation, and he seems to speak only in hyperbole. At first, this made me cringe – I desire a certain level of conscientious nuance in religious speech (a rigorous criterion that I myself rarely meet – maybe I should loosen up a bit!). However, my friend Kadie framed this for me in a different way as we were sitting together in church this Sunday. Kadie wouldn’t have said it this way, but her perspective was a God-sent, “Get over yourself.”

Kadie explained that our speaker’s exaggerated speech made her ask herself what she believed about his statement. For example, when the preacher explained that the most important question for a seeker shouldn’t be, “How can I get to heaven,” but “How can I be a part of this group of people (i.e. the church),” it was clearly an overstatement. Two poles are established, neither of which is rich enough to describe what it means to follow Christ. (But the first one is a primary fixation of Western Christianity.) The speaker was trying to emphasize the importance of community for spiritual formation over against the interests of the individual, so he overstated the case for it. This hyperbolic statement is not meant to be swallowed without question; it’s meant to make the hearers ask themselves and one another, “What do we believe about this?”

Kadie’s reflections have got me thinking too. While I feel a little antsy when a speaker overstates the case, it occurs to me that his preaching does what it sets out to do. That is, it is meant to evoke dialogue and reflection. This is speech that does not claim the final word, however over-confident such claims seem on the surface. The speaker doesn’t do all the thinking for the congregation, but delivers purposely provoking thoughts and gives the community the responsibility to critically sort it out.

So, “hyperbolic” is still not my favorite style of preaching. But because my friend Kadie shared her insight into the function of that style, I appreciate it much more. Her comments were redemptive and convicting for me – once again, I see God beckoning me back into the midst of the church instead of looking on, arms folded, in a critical manner. And suddenly, I feel as if I'm straightening up after spending hours slouched down - a feeling of release and reorientation, of freedom. Praise be to you, O God.

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