What's Tony Thinking

Preaching on Tough Issues in Polarized Times


Leah Schade, an ELCA pastor and professor of preaching, interviewed in this linked article, is out with a new book on an important topic. How do preachers preach about, and how do congregations engage, tough issues of the times: e.g. climate change, the opioid crisis, gun violence or race?

Her book is called Preaching in the Purple Zone. Schade proposes a three-step process that involves an introductory sermon on an ethical question, topic, issue or challenge at hand. In this initial sermon the preacher is not taking or advocating a position, but naming the issue, describing it and the related ethical questions. The next step is a congregational dialogue session on the issue, utilizing a clear format and ground rules. The third step is another sermon that reflects the congregational conversation, least moves toward a direction and action in response.

I like the format. It does make a difference if people feel they have been heard and that there is not just one legitimate viewpoint — especially if you don’t happen to share it!

I also like Schade’s proposals in an election year and in the midst of our deeply polarized culture. The church has a chance to model a way that moves between two undesirable poles or extremes. One extreme is that all tough issues and hard topics are simply dodged, avoided, or never raised. The other extreme is that there is only one correct or “Christian” position which is advocated from the pulpit.

Schade bases her idea of the “purple zone” on research done after the 2016 election that suggests there is a mix of political views and culture war positions in most congregations. That may be true. I hope it is.

But I think there are congregations and denominations that have so heavily identified with one political/ cultural perspective or the other that they aren’t purple. They are red or blue. In my own denomination, the United Church of Christ, there has been — even as we have praised diversity and inclusion — a narrowing. Fewer of our congregations are purple. More “progressive” with not a lot of room for other perspectives.

This week one of my devotions was published by the UCC Daily Devotional. In it I advocated less polarization in the current crisis. It elicited this response from one reader:

“The UCC talks a good game but is one of the most “polarizing” institutions I have ever seen. The UCC is only “welcoming” if you share their views. Otherwise the UCC is just as unwelcoming as the churches they claim are unwelcoming and intolerant. Anyone with traditional Christian beliefs will be made to feel quite unwelcome . . .”

Maybe an overstatement? And maybe not?

There are other churches and denominations that are pretty solidly red and identified with the Republican agenda. In fact, we’ve been hearing for some time that the large majority of self-identified “evangelicals” are a key part of the Trump support.

All that said, I’m glad that Schade’s research and experience as a Lutheran pastor suggests many churches lie in “a purple zone.” We need such places. I tend to be skeptical about, and uncomfortable with, churches where there is one “right” position or one “Christian” take on things. When that happens a church tends to morph into a kind of ethical elite, where we are all “the right thinking.”

Yes, there are times when, in Luther’s words, we do have to say, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Such times ought, however, be the exception not the rule — i.m.h.o.

One of the great saints of Plymouth Church, Seattle, Janet Steputis, used to say that she longed for the church, “To be a place where we can think out loud together.” That is, a congregation where we can voice our thoughts without fear of being attacked, shamed or silenced. I always thought that a wonderful hope — one that was in the spirit of Congregationalism. Every now and again, it even happened.

By the way, having mentioned, the UCC Daily Devotional — I have been involved in it since it’s inception, as a founding member of the Still Speaking Writers Group. I stepped off the group, which I chaired for many years, three or four years ago. Now I am giving up writing for the Daily Devotional. My April 29 contribution will be my last (unless the editor reprises some old ones). “To everything there is a season,” and there comes a time to move over and give others a chance.

Many of you have come to this website/ blog through the Daily Devotional. I hope you’ll stick with me, and since I won’t be appearing in the Daily Devotional, share word of this blog with others you know who might be interested.



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