Friday, January 13, 2017

Preaching in the Purple Zone: Homiletics in the Red/Blue Divide

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship
Lexington Theological Seminary, Lexington, KY

Just before the 2012 presidential election in the United States, CNN posted to its website an article by John Blake entitled, “Do you believe in a red state Jesus or a blue state Jesus”?[1]  Though the question assumes a false dichotomy, the author’s observation of the election four years ago was just as applicable in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election:  “Here's a presidential election prediction you can bet on. Right after the winner is announced, somebody somewhere in America will fall on their knees and pray, ‘Thank you Jesus.’ And somebody somewhere else will moan, ‘Help us Jesus.’ But what Jesus will they be praying to: a red state Jesus or a blue state Jesus?” 
Blake went on to explain that both faith and elections are about choices, and that those choices are informed by how one views Jesus.  It may be tempting to assume that liberals “see Jesus as a champion of the poor who would support raising taxes on the wealthy, while some conservatives think Jesus would be more concerned with opposing abortion and same-sex marriage,” Blake observed, but the reality is that just as Jesus cannot so easily be coopted into a political position, Christians, too, may be more nuanced in their beliefs.  “Perhaps most Christians follow not one Jesus, but many – including a bit of a red state Jesus and a bit of a blue state Jesus,” the author surmises.  The article’s online quiz, however, gives only two choices for each of the 10 questions aimed to help voters see where they fall on the red state-blue state Jesus scale.  Nevertheless, the fact that many voters (and hence parishioners) often categorize themselves according these ideological lines raises the question of how preachers might approach the homiletic task of addressing controversial justice issues in such a fractured and deeply divided socio-political culture, especially given the contentiousness of the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath.
As you probably already know, the divides themselves are illusions.  None of us lives in a truly “red” or “blue” state.  Those colors run together in our families, our houses of worship, our schools, our places of employment, and even within our own hearts and minds.  Our job as preachers, then, is to find a way to courageously step into the “Purple Zone” – where the colors red and blue combine into various shades of purple – to listen with hospitality, engage with integrity and prayer, and learn with intellectual rigor in order to speak a Word that addresses the Powers, casts out demons, and proclaims the crucified and risen Christ. 
Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, in her excellent book Prophetic Preaching: A Pastoral Approach (Louisville, KY, Westminster John Knox, 2004), suggests a myriad of reasons why pastors resist preaching about justice issues and offers practical suggestions and strategies for ways to be both pastoral and prophetic in their preaching.  My project is building on that work.  I designed a questionnaire to ascertain if, why, and how theologically-trained ordained preachers in Mainline Protestant traditions choose to address controversial issues in their sermons, and have collected over 1000 responses.  As I analyze the data, I'll be sharing my findings.  Sign up to follow this blog for updates.
 The long-term goal of this project is to develop a book that:  1) provides data that helps us survey the landscape of preaching about controversial issues during this deeply divided time in our nation’s history; 2) establishes both scriptural and theological rationale and authorization for addressing contentious issues; and 3) offers insights from my own experience as well as scholars and other practitioners about best practices for addressing “hot topics” in sermons. 
Finally, this project will build on the concept of conversational preaching as developed by Lucy Atkinson Rose, and within the book Under the Oak Tree edited by Ronald J. Allen, John S. McClure and O. Wesley Allen.  I will make the case that using a process known as “deliberative dialogue” in tandem with conversational preaching can be an effective way to address controversial issues in our churches.  Deliberative dialogue is a process developed by researcher Scott London and used by organizations such as the National Issues Forum which involves face-to-face interactions of small groups of diverse individuals exchanging and weighing ideas and opinions about a particular issue. I will be testing my hypothesis that conversational preaching - together with deliberative dialogue within a congregation - is an effective and potentially powerful venue for entering the Purple Zone and emerging with new insights and healthier relationships not only within the church, but for civic and public discourse in our communities and our country.

To learn more, visit Leah's new website: to get the latest updates on the results of her survey and its implications for churches, preachers and the intersection of Christianity and politics.

Leah Schade is the author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky, and an ordained minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

[1] Blake, John, “Do you believe in a red state Jesus or a blue state Jesus?” CNN, Nov. 2, 2012,


  1. The survey requires the respondent to provide some information which by necessity is pure speculation. Likewise why should the respondent's zip code and congregation name be requested. Isn't it enough to provide a description of the congregation's site and ministry? MP

    1. First, thank you for taking the survey. Second, a correction. The survey does NOT ask for the congregation's name. Zip code and name of town are requested in order to correlate data according to geography. Third, only one question asks preachers to speculate - and that is the question estimating what percentage of their congregants are conservative, moderate or liberal. The reason for this question is to gather information on a preacher's willingness to approach controversial issues given political orientations of her or his congregants. Yes, the preacher is being asked to make their best guess. But even a best guess provides important information about what a preacher believes they are facing when dealing with challenging justice issues.

      Thanks again for being willing to engage on this important topic!


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