You’re a preacher and you know you need to address a difficult issue of public concern. But some things are holding you back. Maybe you don’t feel informed enough about certain issues. Maybe you don’t feel you received enough training in seminary for how to preach a prophetic sermon. Maybe you’re afraid of the push-back from members of your congregation if you tackle topics that seem too “political.” Or maybe you just need a shot of homiletical chutzpah. Click below for an annotated list of 11 books that will help you find your prophetic preaching voice in The Purple Zone:
Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide is available from Rowman & Littlefield at https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781538119891/Preaching-in-the-Purple-Zone-Ministry-in-the-Red-Blue-Divide#
Click below for the book's study questions for your small group or for your personal use.
1. The author explains her location within The Purple Zone, and how she has come to be there. How about you? Where do you locate yourself within the red-blue divide? Or do you consider yourself a different “color” altogether? How did you come to where you are? What has shaped your beliefs and convictions?
2. How would you describe The Purple Zone within your own congregation? Does it skew more red or blue? How do folks navigate their political differences in your church? Do you wish your congregation talked more about contemporary issues or less? Or do you think there is a good balance?
3. The author uses the image of “white blood cells” in the Body of Christ to describe the process for helping to create a healthier church. In your opinion, what are some of the ways in which divisiveness in our culture is threatening the health of our churches?
Chapter One – Preaching about Controversial Issues: Tracing the Contours of the Purple Zone
1. For pastors: share your answers to these questions at the beginning of the chapter. What gives you pause when you consider taking a prophetic stance on a contemporary issue in a sermon? Do you worry about being “too political”? Do you have concerns about angering parishioners who disagree with your prophetic critique? Do you worry that preaching a sermon about a public issue could cause discord and division in your congregation? Or does your congregation actually welcome your sermons that engage contemporary issues?
2. For laity: share your answers to these questions at the beginning of the chapter. How do you feel about your preacher addressing a “political” issue in their sermon? Are you in a congregation that has been wracked by controversy in the past and hope that your pastor does not open Pandora’s box again? Do you worry about being “preached at” and made to feel guilty for your political position if it differs from your pastor’s? Or do you look forward to the sermons where your pastor gives you biblical and theological guidance for thinking about contemporary topics?
3. What surprised you from the data the author shared about the survey she conducted, “Preaching About Controversial Issues”? What confirmed what you already suspected?
4. The author spends some time explaining what the term “justice” means. In your community, where do you most see the need for justice? What is the justice issue that most concerns you or is a passion for you?
Chapter Two - Beyond “Political”: Reframing Our Understanding of Politics and Preaching
1. At the beginning of this chapter, the author lists several reasons why people say they don’t want their preachers to be “too political.” Which of the categories – emotional, relational, principled, or some combination of these three – most closely describe your discomfort with preaching that addresses contemporary issues? What experiences with sermons that tackle social concerns (whether you’re a preacher or parishioner) have troubled you in the past, and why?
2. The author draws on H. Richard Niebuhr’s five categories to describe where Christians find themselves in relation to Christ and Culture: Christ against Culture; Christ of Culture; Christ above Culture; Christ and Culture in Paradox; and Christ as Transformer of Culture. Which of these categories would you say best describes your personal orientation? Which describes the orientation of most folks in your congregation? Share your reasons for these answers.
3. This chapter stresses the need for preachers and congregants to cultivate trust with each other. How do you see trust being cultivated in your church? What do you think could help to enhance the level of trust even more?
4. The author argues that Jesus engaged politics – without being partisan. She lists several examples of Jesus engaging in dialogue with others. Can you think of other examples? Which stories of Jesus’ conversations with people are most powerful for you, and why?
Chapter Three – Homiletical Foundations for Purple Zone Preaching
1. This chapter discusses “prophetic preaching.” If you are a preacher, would you say that the prophetic aspect of preaching is something you emphasize? If so, describe the ways in which you believe your preaching to be prophetic. If not, what aspects of preaching do you tend to favor more?
2. The author amends a famous quote by Karl Barth in this way: “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both in dialogue with your community. Interpret newspapers from your Bible and share the task of discernment with the whole people of God.” Try this with a small group. Pick up a local newspaper and pick three or four stories to interpret from using a biblical lens. What biblical texts come to mind as you read the story? Where do you see God at work? Where do you wish you could see God at work? What could be a church’s response to the issue you’re reading about?
3. For preachers: this chapter gives a brief overview of the development of preaching leading up to conversational preaching. In what school of homiletical thought were you trained? What homiletical approaches do you tend to favor today?
Chapter Four – Five Paths of Prophetic Preaching in the Purple Zone
1. The author describes the five different approaches to prophetic preaching as rooting, flowering, pollinating, leafing, and fruiting. Try this exercise in a group. Take a recent sermon you have preached (or heard preached) and analyze it using this schematic. Which path(s) do you see most strongly in this sermon? What are other paths the sermon could have followed?
2. This chapter contains the Six Steps for Using the Dialogical Lens (1. Point out the dialogical aspects of the passage. 2. Determine what’s at stake. 3. Identify the values. 4. Explain how God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit is active. 5. Recognize what the dialogue is teaching us. 6. Suggest possible next steps.)
Try this exercise. Choose a biblical passage that will be read in church in an upcoming Sunday. (If you are a lectionary preacher, choose from one of the pericopes.) Use the Six Steps to analyze the passage. What stands out for you by using the dialogue lens for reading this biblical text? If you are a preacher, how might you use these insights in your sermon?
Chapter Five – Preparing for the Sermon-Dialogue-Sermon Process
1. Visit the National Issues Forum Institute website (www.nifi.org) and peruse the issue guides. What are three that you personally would be interested in addressing? What are three that you think your congregation could or should address?
2. The author recommends choosing a hot, warm, or cool topic based on the congregation’s level of divisiveness. Looking at the issue guides, which one would be a cool topic for your church? A warm topic? A hot topic? Do you think your congregation is ready for a hot topic, or would it be better to start with a cool or warm one?
3. This chapter contains questions for helping determine your congregation’s “theology of conflict.” Pick one or two of the questions and discuss them with the leadership of your congregation. Then discuss what you learned from discussing the question.
Chapter Six – Preaching Sermon 1: Prophetic Invitation to Dialogue
1. This chapter describes the process of preaching the first sermon in the sermon-dialogue-sermon process, the Prophetic Invitation to Dialogue. For preachers: what topic have you chosen to address? How have you struggled with this issue? What’s at stake for you? Why do you think it’s important for the congregation to address?
2. For preachers: write a draft of your sermon and discuss it with a colleague. How are you using the dialogical lens for interpreting the scripture for your sermon? Which of the five paths of prophetic preaching are you emphasizing, and why?
3. For preachers and parishioners: take time after the service to debrief the sermon. In what ways did you hear the invitation to the “potluck of ideas”? What insights about the scripture passage did you hear? Share why you are looking forward to having your congregation discuss the issue in the deliberative dialogue. Or share what concerns you have about the dialogue.
Chapter Seven – Deliberative Dialogue in the Purple Zone
1. This chapter opens with the question: what frustrates you about politics? Share your answers to that question in your group.
2. After reading about deliberative dialogue, what intrigues about this form of civil discourse? In what ways do you think it might be helpful in your own congregation? What do you think might be barriers to having a healthy deliberative dialogue in your church?
3. In thinking about the topic chosen for this dialogue, name five people who you think should receive personal invitations to participate? What individuals can you invite to help create a diverse group? Are there individuals beyond the congregation you could invite? Who are some teens or young adults you could invite?
Chapter Eight – Preaching Sermon 2: Communal Prophetic Proclamation
1. This chapter lists 14 questions to help you reflect on the deliberative dialogue in your congregation. Take some time to write down your answers to these questions and then discuss them with others who were there, or with a mentor, or with a colleague.
2. For preachers: write a draft of your Communal Prophetic Proclamation sermon and discuss it with a colleague. How are you using the dialogical lens for interpreting the scripture for your sermon? Which of the five paths of prophetic preaching are you emphasizing, and why?
3. For preachers and parishioners: take time after the service to debrief the sermon. In what ways did the sermon capture the spirit of the deliberative dialogue? What insights about the scripture passage did you hear? Share how this sermon helped to frame the topic in the way the preacher talked about the Bible passage and about God, Jesus and/or the Holy Spirit.
4. Which of the “next steps” from the deliberative dialogue excites you the most for this congregation, and why?
Chapters Nine and Ten – Case Studies from the Purple Zone, Part One: Immigration; Part Two: Four Journeys into the Purple Zone
1. The author explains that a third of the students and pastors she has trained in the Purple Zone picked the topic of immigration to address with their congregations. In what ways has immigration affected your own life, work, community and/or congregation?
2. Of the four case studies in Chapter Nine (Struggling in the Wilderness, Telling Their Stories, Light through a Mosaic of Stained Glass, Bridging and Shepherding in a Bilingual Context), which one resonated more strongly for you and why? Did any of these stories remind you of aspects of your own congregation? If so, in what way?
3. This chapter contains four case studies – health care, end of life, climate change, and hunger. Which one resonated more strongly for you and why? Did any of these stories remind you of aspects of your own congregation? If so, in what way?
4. At the end of each chapter, some of the students share the take-aways and insights that were important for them. From the case studies in these chapters, what are your take-aways and insights? And what questions came up for you as you read these stories?
Chapter Eleven – Building Bridges in the Purple Zone: Where do We Go from Here?
1. Recalling the 2016 election, the author writes: “Women, people of color, immigrants and their children, people of differing sexual orientations, people with disabilities, those who rely on health care from the Affordable Care Act, and Muslims were among those desperately worried about their safety and health as the new administration was coming into power.” In what ways have you been concerned about your safety or health? Or about the safety or health of those in your community?
2. The author lists five keys to preaching and dialoguing about “hot topics”: 1) articulating boundaries for civil behavior along with reminders of our trust and respect among those in our churches; 2) encouraging the sharing of stories to humanize the difficult issues with which we are grappling; 3) listening deeply and reflectively; 4) moving beyond negative generalizations and stereotypes about the side with which we disagree; 5) seeing how God is working – even within the complexity of our most difficult issues – to bring about new life and renewed hope. Which of these five do you think is most important in your congregation at this point in time, and why? Which of these are the most difficult for you (if you’re the preacher), or your congregation?
3. This chapter is about bridge-building and discusses the reality of when attempts to build bridges fail. When was a time that you attempted to bridge a political divide, but it did not go as well as you had hoped? What were the factors involved in the difficulty? How did you heal or help the congregation heal and rebuild?
4. The chapter also contains two case studies where bridge-building yielded positive results. When was a time that you attempted to bridge a political divide and it went better than you had hoped? What were the factors involved in the success of your efforts? How might you carry that success forward?
5. The book concludes with several questions that the author hopes to research in the future. What questions have come up for you while reading the book? Email your questions to Leah at firstname.lastname@example.org.