With the understanding that it may be a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” type of thing, I’m less concerned about our culture’s slide into moral relativism than I am about the slide of many mainline evangelical churches into the sacrilegious. Every Sunday this slide seems to become steeper and faster as a variety of churches attempt to reinvent the definition of “Church.” Repackaging the gospel in ways that they believe will be more palatable for unbelievers, many congregations have traded their birthright as joint heirs with Christ for a pot of pop porridge.
This past Sunday, for example, and sadly, Buckhead Church in Atlanta opened their worship service with the praise band performing a rendition of “Purple Rain.”
[Editor’s Note: Video of the performance was removed due to a change in the privacy settings.]
The intentional ambiguity of Prince’s sexuality was complemented perfectly by his intricate, steamy, and gyrating music. Like its genius creator, the song “Purple Rain” is drenched in its own ambiguousness but without undermining any overt odes to the god called sex. To use a song that NME once referred to as “an unholy triptych” in the worship service on the Lord’s Day is beyond the pale, no matter how much that church desires to be a relevant place where people who don’t go to church feel comfortable. That marketing-driven desire being allowed to reshape ecclesiology is the real sickness; the use of an inappropriate song is the symptom.
That symptom, however, shouldn’t be ignored. On its Facebook page, Buckhead Church defended the inclusion of “Purple Rain” in the worship service with the statement, “From time to time, we open with a secular song as folks are coming into service just for fun and to be a bridge for our unchurched friends who are giving church a try for the very first time.” In a phone conversation with a Buckhead Church staff member who didn’t want to speak on the record, I was assured that secular music is generally only used as an introduction, and that worship songs and the preaching of the gospel are always present in the services at Buckhead Church.
Except there is no such thing as nothing; everything communicates something. The sultry “Purple Rain” as the introduction to the worship service is not a neutral statement. Using a profane song as a bridge for the unchurched ignores the reality that, as God told us, the message of the cross is considered foolish by the unchurched. The gospel isn’t a bitter medicine that can be swallowed easier if enough pop culture sugar is sprinkled on top. Telling people that they are sinners before God who need to repent of their sins and bow their knees in faith before the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is not going to be well-received by anyone apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. Employing a cover band to play sexually charged pop songs isn’t going to appeal to anyone except those who are looking for self-affirming, squishy religiosity. Appealing to the lukewarm unveils the actual sickness.
Claiming to be a church for people who don’t go to church is nonsensical. The claim betrays a lack of understanding of what, or rather who the Church is. In his letter to the church at Ephesus, the Apostle Paul explains that “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:26). Earlier in the letter, Paul states that “He (God the Father) has put all things under His (Jesus’) feet and has made him head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:22-23). The New Testament teaches, specifically in 1 Corinthians 12:27, that Christians, the Church, “are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” In other words, looking directly at the Bible’s definition of “church,” how can a church be made up of people who aren’t a part of it already? Any tagline that steers into the concept of a church for people who don’t go to church is a contradiction of terms.
The sentiment behind the fallacious statement is often driven by the desire to be relevant or, quoting the website of Buckhead Church in Atlanta, a place where people can “safely bring their friends who [do] not go to church.” Except the Church isn’t called to be relevant; it’s not called to cater to the desired self-affirmation of sinners. The Church is called to be exactly what the Church is – the people of God. And the mission of God’s people as the Church is to worship God and to preach the gospel for the edification of the saints and the salvation of lost souls, all for the glory of God. Everything the Church does should serve that paradigm. In other words, worship isn’t a part of Church; worship is what the Church does in all things, specifically when it gathers corporately.
Ushering people into the worship of a holy God with the self-worshiping sultriness of Prince’s “Purple Rain” should be obviously contradictory. The desire to provide a bridge into a church that serves as a safe space for people who don’t usually go to church has caused Buckhead Church of Atlanta to gut the power of the gospel and to drag a holy God into the muck and mire of the most sensuous expressions found in contemporary culture. Why should unbelievers come to church to hear Prince? That’s what a world called Vanity Fair has to offer. Furthermore, if that’s the hook that’s used to get people in the door, that’s the hook that’s going to have to continue to be employed to keep them in the pews.
The primary mission of the Church to unbelievers is not to provide affirmation for them; it’s to preach the gospel for the salvation of their souls. That’s going to offend an unholy people who are constantly rebuilding the Tower of Babel. Unbelievers need to be confronted with the ugliness of their sin in light of the holiness of God. They need to tremble before the throne of God. As the writer of Hebrews so vividly puts it in Hebrews 10:31, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” The unsaved do not need to feel safe because they are not safe; they are living under the wrath of a just and righteous God.
The desire to redefine church for the sake of those who may be turned off by the demand that they surrender their rights before the cross isn’t new. Definitions of church that undermine the reality that Christians are strangers in a strange land and will suffer the derision of unbelievers have existed since the first century. The attempt to soften the claims of Christianity by appealing to pop culture was mastered years ago by men like Charles Finney. The regurgitation of old marketing schemes, however, while not surprising, should not remain unchallenged. To truly love God and our neighbors, Christians need to be resolved in our commitment to share an undiluted Gospel, no matter how unpalatable the truth of God’s word is to those living in rebellion against their Creator. Altering the definition of church in order to better comport with current social constructs is not worshipping a holy and righteous God.
Using the music of Prince in church, even if only as an introduction to the worship service, blurs the lines of distinction between the Church and the world. I pray that the leadership of Buckhead Church of Atlanta will seek ways to reclaim their distinctiveness from the world for the sanctification of their membership, the spread of the gospel, and the glory of God. Opening the worship of our Holy God with “Purple Rain” accomplishes nothing that God expects from His people when they are gathered corporately to praise and learn about Him.