Finding Courage to Preach in "The Purple Zone" (A Guest Post)

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By the Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade

Professor of Preaching and Worship, Lexington Theological Seminary

As a professor of preaching and worship, I’ve consistently encouraged pastors to put their best prophetic foot forward when it comes to addressing controversial justice issues in the pulpit. 

But here’s the truth many clergy have shared with me: they are afraid to preach about issues of public concern. 

They know their sermons should in some way address things like racism, homophobia, climate change, sexism, economic issues, or hatred of foreigners, for example.  But fear holds them back, keeps them quiet, and muzzles their prophetic voice. 

How can you preach when you are afraid?

Why are clergy scared to preach about issues of public concern?

That’s one of the questions I asked in a survey I conducted of over 1200 clergy—one of the largest surveys on preaching and sermon content ever conducted in the United States. 

As part of my research into how preachers are approaching their sermons during this divisive time in our nation’s history, I designed and sent out a 60-question online survey directed to mainline Protestant clergy serving congregations in the United States. 

The survey “Preaching about Controversial Issues” ran from January—February 2017 and explored a range of topics, including why preachers avoid controversial topics in their sermons.

Pastors listed many reasons holding them back from preaching about justice issues, some of which are based on biblical, theological, or personal principles.  

But for more than half of the pastors surveyed, the reasons for not addressing issues of public concern boiled down to four main fears:

  • Fear about hurting or dividing their congregation

  • Fear about risking their ability to effectively minister in their church

  • Fear about receiving negative push-back for being “too political”

  • Fear about loss – loss of members, money, and their own jobs

“I feel like a coward.”

Take, for example, events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 when the Ku Klux Klan, Nazis, and white nationalists descended on the city, injuring counterprotesters and killing Heather Heyer. 

I urged clergy to take a public stand on the issues of white privilege, racial hatred, anti-Semitism displayed in Charlottesville.   

But a pastoral colleague shared with me the realities of his church context:

“I sit in the middle of a town that time forgot. I’m a ‘blue dot’ in a ‘red’ church. My job depends on my ability to preach and teach the congregation in a way they can accept, and any controversial topics could negatively affect my position. I need my job. But I feel like a coward because I’m not able to be as prophetic as I want. The previous attempts by another minister were met with so much backlash that I’m scared to even ‘go there’ with them.”

This pastor is not alone in his fear about preaching about controversial justice issues.  He’s also not alone in searching for ways to effectively minister in the midst of the red-blue divide within his congregation.  

The challenge is fraught with risks, but also offers opportunities for proclaiming the gospel and building community in profound and contextual ways.  

That’s why I’m teaming up with Lisa Cressman and Backstory Preaching to offer a two-part seminar called “Preaching Across the Divide” On Oct. 29 and Nov. 5—just in time for the midterm elections.

Preaching Across the Divide

Informed by insights from my survey of over 1,200 clergy entitled “Preaching about Controversial Justice Issues,” I’ll help you think strategically about your sermons in the midst of this fractured time.  

In my forthcoming book Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide (Rowman & Littlfield, 2019), I offer a new way to approach preaching in this politically divisive climate using a “dialogical lens” for interpreting scripture, and a nonpartisan method for crafting sermons addressing issues of public concern.

With the lectionary texts for November 4th and 11th in view (the Sundays before and after the midterms), you’ll learn models for proclaiming the gospel in the midst of a contentious political climate—without being divisive or partisan.  Preachers will envision new ways to engage the public sphere with both prudence and imagination.  

What you’ll learn and receive:

  1. A worksheet for reading the Bible through a “dialogical lens.”

  2. A five-point sermon form to make the case for addressing issues of public concern in a nonpartisan, gospel-centered way.

  3. Sermon helps for November 4th and 11th.

  4. Tips for preaching in a pastorally prophetic way.

This seminar will equip you with practical insights and strategies you can use to reach listeners with the Good News, regardless of their party affiliation.

If you’re sensing the rising tension in your church and wondering how to navigate the next few weeks (and years), this seminar is for you.  

I look forward to meeting you in The Purple Zone!