This past November 2020, I preached one of my quarterly current events sermons right before the election. Earlier in the year, as I was planning the preaching schedule, it seemed wise to have a current events sermon the Sunday prior to what was shaping up to be a major political event. Of course, any presidential election is always a major political event. Every election year the political parties and candidates say that this election is the most consequential in American history, making the claim that we had better vote for them because the other party and candidate is destroying America. Whether you roll your eyes at bold predictions like that or whether you believe them, we have heard those sentiments every four years our entire lives, and America is still here. Presidents come, presidents go. One party has a majority, then the other, and actual change in our country only happens very incrementally. As a result we can become jaded about our government system. Despite all that, the 2020 election had a different tone, an intensity, a bitter rhetoric, flowing from the ever-deepening divide in our nation.
I knew I had to preach about the election. We were all thinking about it. But what should I preach to that situation? I knew I wasn’t going to preach a sermon telling people who to vote for. So my wife, Michelle, and I talked about it, and she suggested that I preach on the “one another” statements in the New Testament. The context of those “one another” statements is the church. People in the church should treat one another with kindness, even if they disagree with each other’s political views. In other words, my goal for the sermon was decidedly non-political. I was intentionally not telling anyone how to vote, and I was not trying to apply biblical principles to politics. I believe that biblical theology has a lot to say about politics and voting, but that was not what I was going for with that sermon. Instead my goal was to let biblical teaching guide our church family’s interaction with one another and with others in our community. We knew that some in our church family would be voting toward the red side, some toward the blue side, some for third parties, and some wouldn’t vote at all. The point of the sermon was that we should love one another no matter how we vote. We should express kindness and graciousness in our relationships, knowing that we disagree about politics and social issues. On the one hand, it was a fairly safe sermon. “Be kind, love one another.” That’s Church 101. On the other hand, in the intensity of our political climate, there is almost no safe sermon, as I was soon to discover.
Later that week I received two emails from people that had heard the sermon. One email was from a family essentially saying we are too progressive, and they never came back. The other email was from another family saying we are too conservative, and they also never came back.
We reached out to both families, responding to their concerns, expressing that rather than focus on conservative or progressive ideology, we believe it is better by far to be part of a church family where we can disagree graciously and still love one another. In both cases, each of those families chose not to engage with us any further.
Is there a biblical rationale that could have led each of those families to stay? I thought so. And that’s what I want to talk about in this week’s Current Events posts.
We are a culture that is so divided on so many issues. Does that mean the church has to divide too? Churches splitting is a big part of our nation’s history. Some splits happen for justifiable reasons, some don’t. The practice of splitting continues to this day. The Mennonite church broke apart a few years ago. The United Methodist Church is headed for a split.
We Christians don’t seem to do very well at agreeing to disagree and remaining in fellowship. Instead we draw battle lines, and we go to war. How does that mesh with what Jesus taught his disciples in John 17:11 on the night of the Last Supper, just before he was arrested in the Garden? Then he prayed to God his Father that his disciples and those who would become his followers in the years to come, would be “one as we are one.” Just as the Trinity is a Tri-Unity, three persons, Father, Son and Spirit, but totally unified, Jesus wanted his disciples to practice unity.
What that means is that there can be different denominations, but they can work together in unity. I see this happening on a local level in our ministerium. I see it happening within my own denomination, as there are some conservative pastors and churches and there are some progressive pastors and churches. No doubt we disagree with one another, and sometimes get really frustrated with one another, but we can still practice unity. Following Jesus’ principle of oneness should also be very evident in a local church family. We can be one as God is one.
Therefore, Faith Church has intentionally tried to be a “purple” church, meaning that it is place for red (conservative) and blue (progressive), as we believe a church family’s primary focus should be on God and the mission of his Kingdom. A church family is comprised of many individuals who each have their own political beliefs, and that means we can disagree with each other about many of those beliefs. But we don’t stop there! Together we make it very clear that our passion and our allegiance is not to a political ideology or to a nation, but our allegiance is to Christ our King, to the Spirit who lives within each of us, and who enlivens us. We hold strongly to that idea, and then we choose the actions of loving and respecting one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
What that has meant for Faith Church is that the people who strongly believe church should be red think we’re too blue, and the people who strongly believe church should be blue think we’re too red. That leaves a group of people who believe that church should be purple, no matter which side they personally lean toward.
This is not just a Faith Church issue. Similar sentiments are reflected in many churches nationwide. In the last 30 years we have seen what some social scientist researchers are calling a sorting. Thirty years ago was no different from today in that there were people who believed in red or conservative political ideology, and there were people who believed in blue or progressive ideology. What is different is that 30 years ago the two sides were more enmeshed, willing to interact with others. They were part of a large middle, comprised of people who might lean one way or the other, but had moderate views that overlapped significantly. Yes, there were people on the extremes, on the poles, but those on the extremes were a relatively small group. As the years went by, however, more and more people in our country started drifting, in their ideology, to the poles. Those at the extreme right and those at the extreme left saw their numbers swell, while the moderate middle slowly shrank. Now 30 years later, we see this clearly on the news every day. Things in politics have become more extreme. That “middle listening” space within politics, within the media, and within the average person is barely discernible.
From the perspective of the poles, everyone else, including those in the middle, seem so distant, so different, and most damaging and divisive of all, they seem wrong. If you are standing at the poles, you can hear a sermon about being kind to one another, loving one another, and you can think “I need to leave that place!”
Across the country, then, churches are becoming less and less purple, and more and more blue or red. If we are to practice what Jesus taught, we need to be a purple church. What that means in a polarized culture is that people will see us as wrong. We’re too blue for the reds, and we’re too red for the blues. But we press on because the church is not blue or red, because the church is not a political party. The church is not American. The church of Jesus is global. The church is focused on the mission of the Kingdom of God, it thus it cannot not fit into any political party. That’s why I’m calling the church purple.
Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where I live, is an interesting example. The County is majority red, and the city is majority blue. Many suburban/rural and urban communities across our nation follow a similar pattern. Simple math tells us that if a church wants to attract people, they should either become a whole lot more red or a whole lot more blue depending on where they are located. My church is located in a suburban/rural area, so if we want to reach people, we should be a red church.
But what does the teaching of Jesus and the other New Testament writers tell us? Be Kingdom minded! Be purple! How does the New Testament describe a purple church?
In the next post, we’ll learn what one New Testament writer had to say.