Breaking news: To view all of our General Assembly news coverage in one spot, click here.

Pastoring a purple church


The steaming mad email arrived Sunday afternoon. The subject line read: “Leaving White Memorial.” The writer, a member whom I had known well, accused me of holding a political town rally, of bringing politics into the church and of having a non-biblical understanding of morality. Sounds like a typical Sunday morning at a southern Presbyterian church in a large state capital, right?

I had invited the governor of North Carolina, who was a Democrat, and a ruling elder and a member in our church for more than 20 years, to speak on (wait for it…) the growing opioid epidemic in North Carolina. No press was present. He spoke during the education hour. The governor was, to be fair, not even political. He shared that he was serving on President Trump’s opioid task force and valued the health of our people over deep political divisions. While I got a few emails of praise, I still got the one noting “Leaving White Memorial.” I have not seen its writer in the 10 weeks since.

Such is the nature of our times and of our ministry in Raleigh. We are a purple church in a purple state whose rural areas are increasingly red and whose urban areas are increasingly blue. We have members in the church who are legislators who supported North Carolina’s controversial HB2 legislation (known as the “Charlotte bathroom bill”) and we have members who are legislators who were among the most outspoken opponents of the law. My son’s large urban high school was founded in 1929 for white students only. In 2017, the student body looks like the United Nations and there are more than 30 native languages spoken by the student body. Everything is changing here.

This purple haze has an effect on everything we do, plan and offer as ministry for members and visitors. We are constantly weighing the scales between the great ends of the church, which are always related, sometimes complementary and on occasion contradictory. How can we be pastoral for those whom our prophetic word will feel like a betrayal? How can we fail to be prophetic in a historical moment where multiple injustices require prophetic preaching?

What would Jesus do?

What example does Jesus give? He is pastoral and prophetic. At times he preaches with apocalyptic fire demanding the justice of the ages. Other times he calls sinners to him and does not choose to prophetically correct their errors, but pastorally offers them forgiveness. If the church is supposed to emulate Jesus, then we must remember that two of the three offices of Jesus were prophet and priest. One is not greater than the other. Both are necessary.

I often think of the Markan version of the “rich ruler” (Mark 10:17-25). Jesus gives the man a heaping helping of prophetic truth: You love money too much; you will miss the kingdom of God; it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of the needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom. But at the same time, Jesus offers him a helping of pastoral grace. It happens at verse 21: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” Only Mark among the synoptic Gospels has this detail. But it is an important detail. It may just reveal something critical about being a purple church.

The art of being purple

Nothing would give me greater joy than to debut in these pages a one-size-fits-all, three-step plan to maintaining prophetic integrity and pastoral sensitivity without losing any members in the balance between the two. But the truth is much murkier than that. The purple church is more art than science. It requires more trust than certainty. It demands backbone of its elders and exceptional pastoral care from its pastors and deacons.

As a leader, I have read every book and every article on being the purple church that I could put my hands on. The challenge we face, and why there is no simple three-part plan to holding the center in an age of rampant and growing polarization, is that every church is its own context. Every congregation (even those remotely similar to ours) will require a unique approach and a prayerfully guided plan.

There are three things I am sure of after observing many churches and after reading about center-leadership and the effects of polarization. First, our members are bringing their polarized points of view with them as they enter our doors. They are dedicated to their ideologies – left or right – and the voice of the church is but one of a multiplicity they are hearing. What they hear is most often the echo chamber of what Washington Post columnist George Will calls “thought silos” where alternate points of view are not considered because they are never heard. When preaching and teaching violates a sacred axiom of said “thought silos,” pastors are sure to hear about it.

Second, I think that much of our teaching about how to preach social righteousness comes from a time when Presbyterian boys and girls got married and had Presbyterians babies: once a Presbyterian, always a Presbyterian. Needless to say, this is not the status quo. Members, like my Sunday emailer, will leave and find a church that affirms their already set assumptions about what social righteousness is: If the preacher is not saying it in a way that I agree with, then I will simply leave and find one who does. In this light we must ask a difficult question: If our goal is to convert hearts and minds to our interpretation of the gospel message, then how much conversion do we think we can achieve if everyone we hope to convert is gone?

Third, the deep divisions are taking an incredible toll on both individuals and churches. Brené Brown, America’s expert on human connection and emotional health, recently published findings that suggest the polarization of our points of view is leading to higher reports of human loneliness. The more divided we become, the more isolated we are. And how many churches have lost members, budgets and influence because memberships have shrunk as groups within them staged mass exoduses? The smaller our churches become, the more isolated we become as Presbyterians. Every time we take a vote or draw a line in the sand (even if we are celebrated for doing the “right thing”), we risk furthering the polarizing narrative of our time. Even if we feel we are on the right side of history, we must ask ourselves if we are furthering the kingdom of God by diminishing our churches and contributing to the human isolation of our time.

Purple in practice

When our congregation considered same-gender marriage, we made the choice to carefully manage the process. Knowing that it could deeply divide our church, and believing that our session possessed the theological skill and pastoral acuity to make a faithful decision for our congregation, we held forums where written questions were submitted to a moderator. We supplied every resource we could find (for or against same-gender marriage) to all members of session and we made the same resources available to the congregation at large. And we invited church members to write to the session, expressing their points of view.

We received almost 200 letters, easily the most feedback we have ever received. The letters quoted Franklin Graham and Matthew Vines. One of them was 11 pages long and provided a tour of the historically understood moral position as a rejection of the action allowing same-gender marriage. The shortest was one sentence: “Same gender marriage, I’m for it.” I still have that one memorized. One letter said that if we approved an expanded understanding of marriage, it would be the final step in our evolution into an out-of-touch liberal church. The writer said he would leave if we approved it, which he did once it was approved. Another letter said that the witness that an old, southern, conservative church like ours would make to the community if we became more inclusive would be an act of love to gay Christians who had been excluded for as long as could be remembered. Truth is, we would have lost members no matter the result of the vote – some would leave if approved, some would leave if rejected.

The letters were purple because we are purple. The vote was not the only action that mattered. We learned that how we reported the news of the result (triumphantly or humbly?) and how we cared for those who would be disappointed by our decision would matter every bit as much as the vote itself. The goals were to make a faithful decision and to hold the church together. In the end, we lost several dozen members. But as they left, we offered them grace and a word that they were welcome to return: a few have, most have not.

Purple processes

It may be said that in the purple church, process is king. In officer training this year, we asked in surveys: “What would you like to see more of at our church?” Two different officers-elect, both of similar generations and who sat near each other during the classes, made two polar opposite requests. One asked for more evangelical preaching – more messages that Jesus alone was the “way, truth and life.” The other asked for more messages from the pulpit that addressed inclusive and progressive theology as a means to increase our commitment to interfaith ministry in a rapidly diversifying city. The message for me? They are both here. They both feel welcomed, called to serve as a church officers and believe their voices will be heard.

I have come to believe that the purple church, dedicated to both the confessional tradition, which underpins our theology (the Confessions as a whole melt down into a deep shade of historical purple), and to holding the center in a polarized time is like a prizefighter. We must play the long game, willing to go the whole 15 rounds. We will take punches. But the call remains the same. Mark 10 is instructive: We can speak our prophetic truth with a commitment to love those upon whom the truth lands with a thumping blow. Jesus always respected his opponents, even when he was withering them by demonstrating the shallowness of their arguments. As the body of Christ, we must be willing to do the same.

People are ready to hear the truth spoken in love. But they are only willing to accept it if the love with which it is expressed is equal to the truth which is conveyed.

Connected in Christ

Recently at a funeral at another church, I saw a man who left in the wake of our marriage vote. I was on edge as our last conversation was full of pain and anger. He looked me in the eye and told me he was very happy at his new church, a church which affirms the moral beliefs he holds dear. His new church is not purple in any way, but defines justice in terms of black-and-white personal morality. They will tell their members which “side” God is on without apology. It is very different than our purple-shaded outpost of the kingdom.

Then this man who had been furious with me did the unexpected. He kissed me on the cheek. It was like the kiss of peace Paul writes about in Romans 16. He reminded me that while he didn’t agree with me, he still loved me. I told him that I still loved him too. While he is no longer a part of our purple church, we were still connected by a faith and a trust in Jesus Christ which, more than anything else we can name, possesses the code for the healing of our polarized times and the renewal of Christ’s church.

Christopher Edmonston is the pastor of White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, North Carolina.