Purple Rain Small Groups: Six ideas for creating a stronger small group ministry
By Bart Patton
“Purple Rain” is ranked 144 on the list of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.[i] But I never really got the musical greatness of Prince’s 1984 hit until last week—when I listened to it for two hours at 30,000 feet.
A glitch in my iPhone software enabled the song on solo repeat as my lone option. What a time for my Spotify app to crash. “Purple Rain” was my only track for the flight. So, it was either Prince and the Revolution or the screaming baby behind me.
On my fourth go ‘round—about the time they brought peanuts and ginger ale—I got it. More important, I got its relevance for small groups in youth ministry. Right before boarding the plane, I had been talking on the phone with a youth minister friend struggling with how to revive a flat-lined small groups program. I had very little good advice. I have always felt like small group planning was a real ministry weakness for me. I seem to either over plan—cheating the moment into another sermon time—or structure so little that the group fades into “why are we even here?”. I’m always searching for the right stuff to make small groups great. What if they could be great like “Purple Rain?” The worlds of ministry and pop culture collided somewhere over Missouri, where I discovered some serious nuggets in Prince’s anthem:
Use a simple structure
“Purple Rain” is built on four simple chords. This worried Prince so much that he brought in Jonathan Cain (who wrote “Faithfully” for Journey) to keep from being sued before releasing the single.[ii] Prince tapped into the power of those four standard chords—not something that, in itself, was original.
The relevance for small groups? Keep a simple structure—no more than four parts. You don’t need to reinvent anything. Your structure is your foundation. I just bought a new house. I don’t need my foundation to be fancy—I need it to be reliable. Even as content changes, consistent, memorable program structures build dependability with young people—especially when busy schedules mean less commitment to small group meetings.
Leave plenty of space
I had the chance to explore the full eleven seconds of instrumentation between 1:27 and 1:38, in the middle of a second verse. “Purple Rain” has giant lyrical gaps. They’re satisfying.
What’s this mean for small groups? Don’t be afraid of space. Give youth time to think, to process, to be silent—just to be. Silence isn’t the absence of lyrics, silence is the presence of music. The prevalence of consumer culture in the church causes us to be more concerned with what youth get from our experiences than what they give up. We must create environments where youth can practice the kenosis—self-emptying—model of Christ from Philippians 2.
Mix it up
Prince was a master of melding musical genres to create new soundscapes. Gospel, R&B, Rock, and Classical merge and explode in “Purple Rain.” It’s familiar yet brand new. Your small group should do the same.
Incorporate a variety of examples, metaphors, influences, activities, and stories into your small group experience. This week it may be a prayer walk followed by a provocative movie clip. Next week it may be a Shakespeare sonnet and a sports biography. Learn new things together. This forges community. I would rather see youth divided into small groups by grade learn how to become blended families than placed into groups by pre-existing common interests where cliques are reinforced. In our summer youth program at Perkins, Trek Youth Academy, we have seven days to form strangers into friends—and our work in spiritual formation depends on significant trust developing in the first 48 hours. We mix it up with a long bus ride (a common experience), a location far away (disorientation), pizza (something familiar and delicious), and rock climbing (a new challenge). Everything we do together has spiritual significance.
Build upon spontaneous moments
For the original single and album cut, Prince used a live recording of Purple Rain. He left plenty of mistakes and spontaneous musical moments in the final edit. Why? The genius of “Purple Rain” could only be captured with live energy. It couldn’t be merely produced.
In youth ministry, there is a difference between chaos (no plan) and designed chaos (part of the plan). The first is laziness. I’m suggesting the latter. Designed chaos is disciplined work. Know exactly where you’re taking them, but embrace off-the-cuff, seemingly unrelated bits as potential vehicles to get them there. Otherwise, their natural learning process is interrupted and redirected back to our schedule. You may want to pull your hair out—but those moments of live energy are what you’re ultimately after with youth. Let them happen. Use them. Weave them into the big picture.
Ambiguity is OK
For over thirty years, we’ve been trying to figure out what “Purple Rain” means. Because it’s ambiguous, we still care. We delight in mystery. Yet we’ve removed so much of the mystery from our worship and gatherings. Give them something transcendent. You don’t have to tie up your teaching with ribbons of certainty. It may be the ambiguity that your youth take with them. In fact, I’m pretty sure it is. Take them deeper than Jeopardy-style discussions. Open dialogue with emotional appeals. Ask questions that don’t have one right answer. Please. Ask follow-up questions of their answers. Help them experience tension in their formation. I’ll bet you a vintage Prince vinyl that there are big theological questions they are dying to ask—but wouldn’t dare to if group dialogue feels more like a standardized test than a natural late-night conversation with friends.
“Purple Rain,” is almost nine minutes long, with over four of them devoted to the song’s finale. Thank you! I hate songs with bad radio-fade endings[iii], which leave you frantically cranking up the volume at the end. If you’ve used a simple structure, left plenty of space, mixed it up, embraced spontaneity, built in ambiguity, then you can end big—the way Prince does in “Purple Rain.” It’s epic. Isn’t that what you want from your small group time?
The beginning and middle of your small group time is important—but it’s the ending that has to be memorable. Before each group time, create a simple, closing sentence. Work backward from there. A big, cinematic ending isn’t about the ending at all—it’s about how everything gets tied together in a clear, actionable conclusion. It’s this kind of intentional ending that will draw youth back for what’s next. At times, I’ve felt like I was closing group times like a worker punching a time clock—“That’s our time for tonight.” Instead, imagine small group as your favorite TV show—leave them wondering how they’ll make it until next week’s episode.
Not only could Prince write a great song, maybe the Purple One has all the wisdom we need to transform our small groups from bubblegum pop to Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Bart Patton is the Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry Education at SMU Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. He has served the church as a preacher, teacher, youth minister, worship leader, writer, and pastor in Texas, Arkansas, and New York for 20 years. Get more practical wisdom for youth ministry this January at Perkins School of Youth Ministry.
Learn More about PSYM here! Get more practical wisdom for youth ministry this January at Perkins School of Youth Ministry. Learn More about PSYM here! www.perkinsyouth.com
[i] Rolling Stone. “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” Rollingstone.com. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/the-500-greatest-songs-of-all-time-20110407 (accessed October 24, 2017).
[ii] Graff, Gary. “Why Prince Asked for Journey’s Blessing Before Releasing Purple Rain.” Billboard.com. http://www.billboard.com/articles/news/7348372/prince-purple-rain-journey-faithfully-interviews (accessed October 26, 2017).
[iii] Cole, Tom. “You Ask, We Answer: Why do Some Songs Fade Out At The End?” Npr.org. http://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2010/10/07/130409256/you-ask-we-answer-why-do-some-songs-fade-out-at-the-end (accessed on October 27, 2016).