Review: Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide. by Leah D. Schade.


[1] Good morning congregation, let’s talk about women’s reproductive rights! Or maybe gun control? How about immigration?


[2] If a sermon or adult forum on these topics doesn’t elicit some nervousness for you as a pastor or layperson, I bet you can think of several other topics that would be controversial—and likely divisive—in your congregation. Hot button topics that could make some congregants angry and might drive some away. Topics where we each have our own viewpoints that we think are grounded in truth and rooted in love, but which are directly opposed to many of our neighbors’ perspectives.


[3] In Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide, Leah D. Schade argues that we, as congregations and congregational leaders, can have grace-filled conversations about the topics that divide us and divide our broader society. At the least, these conversations can help us carefully consider each other’s viewpoints, and at the best, these conversations may even build truth and empathy in our churches.


[4] In order to have these productive conversations, Schade proposes a sermon-dialogue-sermon model based on mutual respect and in Scriptural permission to engage in our society’s difficult topics, a model that she has taught in workshops, seminary courses, seminars, and individual consultations. This model has a four-part sequence, with sermons bookending a deliberative dialogue: First, a “rooting” sermon or adult forum “about the need for addressing issues of public conversation in the church based on biblical and theological precedent” [p121]. Second, a “Prophetic Invitation to Dialogue sermon” encouraging participation in the upcoming dialogue by justifying the need for conversation on the specific issue. Third, the deliberative dialogue itself, which includes one or multiple sessions of guided conversation on the topic at hand. Finally, the “Communal Prophetic Proclamation,” which is a sermon gathering together the congregation’s experiences and perspectives on the topic and connecting them to Scripture, especially “with an eye toward the biblical precepts of justice and righteousness” [p120]. The method’s centerpiece—the deliberative dialogue—is a conversation with persons leading as recorder, timekeeper, and facilitator. During the dialogue, participants “examine the pros and cons, consequences, and benefits of possible approaches to complex problems” using a detailed discussion guide [p 102]. The method was developed by the Charles F. Kettering Foundation (where Schade is a research associate) and the National Issues Forum Institute. The goal of the deliberative dialogue is to “[find] shared values and, as a result, [look] for common direction, or at least next steps which the group might take together”  [p 102]. Conversely, the goal is not to find complete agreement or for participants to persuade each other to their own views. The process—in both its purpose and method—allows participants to deepen their knowledge of a particular issue, and to learn about their fellow participants’ viewpoints. Since the process helps people “feel heard, engaged, empowered, and inspired to take action,” as they engage respectfully with each other, it “can help to transform a church from a culture of divisiveness or avoidance (fight or flight) to one of healthy engagement with the issues that matter to them and their community” [p 98].


[5] The relational bedrock of this methodology is curiosity and respect for others, especially on the part of those leading the process. A professor of preaching and worship at Lexington Theological Seminary as well as someone who has pastored several ELCA congregations, Schade writes, “What I have learned is that no matter where I locate myself in the political, theological, and cultural constellation, I must meet people where they are, listen to them with respect, and—within the congregation—be their pastor. I must be genuinely interested in them, curious about who they are and how they’ve come to believe what they do, and care for them with the love of Christ so that a relationship of trust is built between us” [p3]. This curiosity and respect allows for the other difficult element in the process: impartiality on the part of the preacher.


[6] In the Prophetic Invitation to Dialogue sermon preceding the dialogue, as well as the following Communal Prophetic Proclamation, Schade advocates that the preacher remain “passionately impartial” [p87] on the topic under consideration. In the first sermon, the preacher “[presses] ‘pause’ on the strident prophetic voice” [p85] in order to invite congregants’ participation regardless of their perspectives, and to highlight the issue’s intricacies in a way that allows for multiple nuanced viewpoints. The Communal Prophetic Proclamation, while in a prophetic mode, similarly centers collaboration and multiplicity, not the preacher’s particular views. “This sermon,” writes Schade, “continues with the premise that the strength of the preacher’s prophetic words increases when it moves beyond their singular voice to include the voices of the people whom the pastor serves with and alongside” [p124]. In order to fully engage this passionate impartiality, the preacher must draw on the curiosity and respect that undergird the method.


[7] Preaching in the Purple Zone was spurred by the 2016 presidential election, as well as responses to Schade’s 2015 book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit. These responses foreground how difficult it is for pastors and congregations to discuss contentious topics, difficulty that leads to silent avoidance instead of fruitful conversation. As a result of the election and response to her book, Schade conducted a survey in early 2017 of over 1,200 mainline clergy, called “Preaching about Controversial Justice Issues.” She designed it to gauge the impact of the election on sermon topics, preachers’ willingness and intent to preach on controversial topics, and the reasons why they do or don’t preach on those topics. The survey also asked about their potential desire for further training, showing respondents’ eagerness for more resources on how to discuss controversial issues in their congregations. The survey informs Preaching in the Purple Zone’s approach, particularly the attention given to justifying the need for preaching and congregational dialogue on difficult topics, and the detailed, pragmatic guide to implementing a sermon-dialogue-sermon process in local church.


[8] The book’s chapters cover the foundation for the sermon-dialogue-sermon model, the model itself and how to lead it, as well as two chapters dedicated to case studies. The foundation for the method is particularly important in developing a shared understanding of terms like “justice” and “political,” as well as laying out the homiletic tradition that informs Schade’s model, one especially influenced by the thinking in Leonora Tubbs Tisdale’s Prophetic Preaching: A Pastoral Approach and John McClure’s The Roundtable PulpitPreaching in the Purple Zone also includes appendices offering a sample newsletter blurb to advertise the upcoming deliberative dialogue, several outlines for running a deliberative dialogue in one to three sessions, and a list of “‘Cheat Sheet’ Questions” for the dialogue.


[9] The book primarily targets pastors, other church leadership, and homileticians. Both its thorough research and its guide to the sermon-dialogue-sermon model make it useful for congregational leaders, but also for training seminary students so that they are more fully prepared for the difficult work of leading purple zone conversations in their future congregations.  Schade has also produced a book discussion guide for lay people (see under “Resources and Links”). This resource could be particularly helpful in congregations that collectively want to learn as much as they can through the process, and support their pastoral leadership in what is a difficult undertaking.


[10] I came to Preaching in the Purple Zone as a long-term church staff member researching how professional Christians can be most fully ourselves in our ministry spaces. I was curious whether this book would shed light on how to prioritize pastoral care and prophetic preaching to congregants across the red-blue divide, while still acknowledging our own perspectives on hot button topics. What I discovered was light and more. I found a plausible means for my colleagues and I to foster empathy and vulnerability among congregants (and ourselves), perhaps even “a way for healing to take place where there has been damage and pain” [p37]. Considering possible implications of her work, Schade wonders if “the sermon-dialogue-sermon method really [makes] a difference in terms of transforming the culture of a church,” and if it could influence “people’s lives beyond the parish” [p197]. To that end, she is currently researching the long-term effects that the sermon-dialogue-sermon method could have in a congregation through a Wabash-funded grant, a project following ten congregations whose clergy and lay leaders have been trained in the method and are carrying out the process in their churches. Through extensive surveys, questionnaires, and interviews, they will be testing how the process affects the congregation’s willingness to engage in civil discourse and social action. While discussing controversial issues is itself an important act for a congregation, equally if not more promising is the possibility of fostering empathetic practices that impact our congregations and broader communities.

Sarah Bereza

Sarah Bereza is the Minister of Music at the First Congregational Church of St. Louis (UCC). She holds a PhD from Duke University and produces a website with resources for church staff, as well as the podcasts Called: At the Intersection of Life and Ministry and Music and the Church.