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3 Rules for Preaching in Purple Churches in Political Season

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It’s the summer of 2019, which means we’re a few short months away from the “silly season” of politics as a U.S. presidential election draws nigh.

Pastors of mixed-politics congregations, “purple churches” if you will, may wonder how to hold a diverse congregation together as the political discourse grows ever more toxic.

As pastor of a purple church, I’ve developed three rules to guide my preaching practice; perhaps you’ll find them helpful if you pastor a purple church too.

Rule number one: Prime the pump.

One of the ways I’m preparing my congregation for the silly season is to prime the pump.

Before the crux of the craziness is upon us, it is prudent now to occasionally speak in generalities about political realities.

For example, you might consider naming the fact that Jesus was political and offer examples from Scripture.

Remind your people that being faithful to the gospel may occasionally require you to tackle political issues while simultaneously assuring them you will never be publicly partisan.

Explain the value of the Johnson Amendment, which protects America’s pulpits from being sold to the highest bidder.

Ease anxiety in the pews by promising your congregation you will never sell their pulpit to a political party or candidate.

I tried this and my usually non-clappy congregation applauded this point in the middle of a sermon!

Rule number two: Tell it slant.

In a poem by Emily Dickenson, she urges readers to “Tell all the truth but tell it slant … The Truth must dazzle gradually.”

Dickenson’s wisdom has helped me on a number of occasions when I have felt compelled to brush up against a potentially polarizing issue.

Instead of naming a current political reality head on, I may try to find historical parallels to use as sermon illustrations.

One of my preaching professors, when discussing vulnerability in preaching, said to never preach an open wound lest you use the preaching moment for personal catharsis.

This is good advice I’ve taken to heart. In a purple church, it may be wise to avoid open national wounds most of the time, opting instead for naming comparable scars from history.

Every preacher must strike a balance between pastoral preaching and prophetic preaching.

In a purple church, the wise preacher will lean heavily into pastoral preaching, earning the right to occasionally broach a tougher topic.

A good rule of thumb is this: pastoral always, prophetic sometimes, partisan never.

Rule number three: Take them higher.

I already have my opening sermon illustration planned for July 19, 2020 – the Sunday after the Democratic party settles on their nominee.

Here’s the illustration: With a “Trump 2020” sign in one hand and the Democrat’s sign in my other hand, I’m going to look at each sign briefly in silence.

Then I’m going to walk to a side door of the sanctuary and dramatically throw both signs outside, close the door, lock it and brush my hands together as if shaking off the dirt.

“Not in this space,” I’ll say. “Not in this hour. You can give the other 167 hours of your week to partisanship if you choose, but let’s agree to make this one hour each week holy, set apart, for a higher way.”

The great temptation in preaching in a purple church is to preach to the center; that’s not what I’m talking about.

Aspire to preach not to the center, but to the higher way of faith that calls us out beyond dualism, especially present in America’s two-party system.

If preachers have the attention of our people for just a few minutes one day per week, we must point them to think beyond the default that devolves into win/lose dualism.

I’m not suggesting we be or appear apolitical, rather that we be transpolitical and call people to a higher ideal than any political party can offer.

As preachers in purple churches, we must be students of third-way thinking that we might lead our people in this higher way.

In the words of Ken Wilber, “transcend and include.” Let us preach not to the center, but to the Christ that meets us beyond our zero-sum politics.

Honorable mention: Ignore the bullies.

This rule didn’t make the cut for my top three rules for preaching in a purple church, but it’s worth a mention: Don’t let people on social media tell you how to preach to your congregation.

On more than one occasion, people I follow and even respect on social media have suggested, “If you’re not preaching thus-and-so, you’re not being faithful.” Let me call malarkey on this.

Those folks, as much as I may appreciate their work, don’t know my context. They don’t know your context.

Oftentimes, these individuals write or preach to a politically homogenous people; they can tackle politically divisive issues head on with little repercussion.

I’m happy for them. That’s not my situation, and if you’re reading this far into this article, it’s likely not your situation either.

Don’t be bullied into preaching more than your people can handle. Jesus knew this; that’s why he often used parables. If it’s good enough for Jesus …

So, dear purple-church preacher, prime the pump, tell it slant and take them higher. And don’t be bullied by people who have never stepped foot in your church.

Love your people whether they’re red, blue or somewhere in between. And when the silly-season dust settles and the national anxiety is focused elsewhere, you’ll have earned their trust.

Once you have their trust, they might just allow you to nudge them into a higher way of living and being.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on Pinnacle’s blog. It is used with permission.

Rhonda Abbott Blevins

Rhonda Abbott Blevins is an associate with Pinnacle Leadership Associates and serves as pastor of Chapel by the Sea, an interdenominational congregation in Clearwater Beach, Florida. She has a master of divinity from Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas and a doctor of ministry from Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia. She lives with her husband Terry and sons Jake and Rhys.