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Preaching in the Purple Zone

| Posted: October 18, 2023

Preaching in the Purple Zone by Leah Schade is both an analysis and an application of her research on the willingness of mainline clergy to preach and engage their congregations in controversial contemporary issues. The “purple zone” is a metaphor for the place between extremes of red and blue politics, a space for people who hold widely differing opinions on a variety of issues to coexist. Schade’s premise is that mainline churches, often already purple zones in worship, can move coexistence to a cooperative community. Rather than haranguing those on “the wrong side” from the pulpit or avoiding all controversial topics, the preacher chooses an issue and invites the congregation to explore it together. The church expands “the purple zone” beyond worship to a gathering space where extremes can meet to hold respectful discussions on issues of public concern rooted in Holy Scripture and the love of Jesus Christ.

Schade presents a model, sermon-dialogue-sermon (pp. 73ff), for addressing justice issues such as climate change, immigration, health care, and hunger. In the first of two sermons, Prophetic Invitation to Dialogue, the preacher names the issue and roots it in holy scripture. Following the sermon, the preacher invites the congregation to gather for Deliberative Dialogue. In a moderated process, small groups consider three ways of addressing the issue. Giving each of three options equal time helps
reduce the either/or division already in the room and results—one prays—not only in a greater understanding of complexities involved and recognition of shared values even among those who profoundly disagree, but also in a plan for moving forward to address the issue together. The second sermon, Communal Prophetic Proclamation, describes the dialogue, including uncomfortable moments, and invites the congregation to share in addressing the issue further. Both sermons reflect Schade’s own process—Rooting, Flowering, Pollinating, Leafing, Flowering (pp. 59ff).

With charts, tips, and detailed references, Schade guides preachers to prepare sermons on political issues. She presents sermon excerpts from seminarians and long-term pastors, two groups divided congregations are likely to trust (or tolerate) to address controversial topics. She offers trust-building advice and notes areas for further analysis, including implications of her research for clergy of color. To facilitate deliberative dialogue, Schade endorses Issue Guides from the National Issues Forum Institute (NIFI), formerly in partnership with the Kettering Foundation. Each guide provides comprehensive, non-partisan information about an issue with a format for small-group discussion, and recently, introductory videos and PowerPoint slides.

As a long-time pastor in a purple-zone congregation, I appreciate the model Schade presents and the care required to use it. I do, however, disagree with Schade’s assertion that lectionary preachers may need to resort to eisegesis to root controversial topics in Holy Scripture. Ordained and preaching since 1984, I have yet to find a justice issue that does not connect with Sunday readings. Indeed, a Communal Proclamation sermon Schade includes among eight case studies “happened to fall” (p. 172) on Christ the King Sunday. Schade’s book is thorough, thought-provoking, and useful.

Review by the Rev. Tamsen E. Whistler is the Rector of Trinity Episcopal
Church, St. Charles MO
Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide. Leah D. Schade. Lanham, MD, Rowman & Littlefield: 2019. 243 pp. $30.00