Bringing Hip-Hop to Church

Bringing Hip-Hop to ChurchHip-Hop is here to stay. Pastor Efrem Smith not only understands this, he embraces it. And he believes other leaders in his position also must learn to embrace it if the church is going to do its job in urban communities.

Smith is the senior pastor of The Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis and coauthor, with Phil Jackson, of The Hip-Hop Church: Connecting with the Movement Shaping Our Culture. It’s been said that jazz and hip-hop are cut from the same improvisational cloth, so it seems fitting to have UrbanFaith’s resident Jazz Theologian, Robert Gelinas, interview hip-hop pastor Efrem Smith.

JAZZ THEOLOGIAN: Let’s just cut to the chase — why should the church care about hip-hop culture?

Efrem SmithEFREM SMITH: Because the church is called to care about God’s heart for the poor and marginalized, and that’s the state of affairs in most of our urban communities. If the church really wants to have a relevant and transforming urban youth ministry, it must care about hip-hop culture.

Sadly, many urban churches are in crisis because, by rejecting hip-hop culture, they are rejecting young people themselves. The civil rights movement gave us a picture of youth intimately and passionately involved in the church and advancing the kingdom values of justice and reconciliation. Unfortunately today, many urban churches struggle with equipping youth through innovative discipleship, to lead movements which transform their surrounding communities.

You often talk about a hip-hop theology. What do you mean by that?

Hip-hop was birthed in urban America among mostly African-American and Latino youth. And so, hip-hop theology is the intersection of a relevant liberation and reconciliation theology for the emerging urban generation. To a degree, it’s a contextualized postmodern theology that still believes in the necessity of new birth and the authority of Scripture.

Hip-Hop Theology is based on a biblical foundation of Acts 17. It is about engaging hip-hop culture for kingdom purposes. Instead of demonizing the culture, it’s about using hip-hop’s original elements (the deejay, the break dancer, graffiti art, and the emcee) and its original positive principles (peace, unity, love, community, and having fun) to present the good news of the Gospel. Hip-hop theology is also about believing that God calls Christians to love and to be in authentic relationship with the marginalized.

In your book, you write: “Sometimes my hip-hop life and my church life have intersected one another, other times they’ve seemed like two totally different worlds, and sometimes they’ve seemed like bitter enemies.” How do you walk this tightrope between two loves?

The Hip-Hop ChurchThe balance for me here is to understand the two loves that are within me. Christ, obviously, is my first love. As I live in an intimate relationship with Him, as well as find my identity in Him, I understand my role to love the church but also challenge aspects of what the church has become in the United States. Because I love the church through the overflow of my relationship with Christ, I have to deal with the racial segregation of the church as well as the church’s rejection of hip-hop culture.

In terms of hip-hop culture, I must have a love for it from the perspective of understanding culture. Culture is good and bad, lovely and destructive, healing and hurtful. I love hip-hop culture as God loves the world. How do I die to self daily that I won’t become so “churchy” that I lose my credibility to reach those within the culture I grew up in?

You believe that “the church ought to be engaging hip-hop culture but should be seeking to create Holy Hip-Hop culture as well.” How do you do that with your congregation?

Every third Sunday of the month, we have a corporate experience of worship we call “Hip-Hop Sunday.” The purpose of this experience of worship is to use the elements of hip-hop culture to present aspects of the kingdom of God, so that lives–especially of those living in hip-hop culture–might be transformed. We have holy hip-hop artists perform with our praise and worship team using their gifts of rap and dance. We also have a graffiti artist paint on canvas what we consider today’s urban stained-glass windows. We encourage people to dress very casual, because we want to be a place that is inviting to those in hip-hop culture.

We’ve seen a number of people come to Christ through this experience of worship, but there have also been times when we’ve taken criticism from some traditional churches for doing this. I really believe Hip Hop Sunday has aided in us becoming a truly intergenerational and multicultural church.

You say that this is not about music or entertainment but about a generation of young people. Ultimately, what is at stake?

We really have to work to help people understand that we are not doing this for the cool factor, but truly in order to advance God’s kingdom among urban, un-churched youth and young adults. You really have to be prayed up and strategic in your use of hip-hop ministry models. These models must be connected to your vision, mission, and core values. At the end of the day, hip-hop has to be more than a Sunday worship experience; it has to be a part of a larger congregational vision of evangelism, discipleship, and missions.

About the author, Robert Gelinas

Robert Gelinas is the lead pastor at Colorado Community Church in Denver and UrbanFaith.com's resident Jazz Theologian. He blogs at JazzTheologian.com. His latest book is Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith.
  1. The embracing of the Hip Hop & Jazz expressions are neccessary in our churchs for kingdom building. Saint’s seem to not understand that refusing to embrace these expression’s cause unneeded division’s in our church’s. It’s almost as if we are questioning Jesus for sitting at the table with the tax collector’s! We don’t know their hearts only Christ. And by looking down on this expression we leave millions of souls lost and confused.

  2. As a regular attender at Sanctuary, I can confirm, Pastor Efrem is right on.
    A great church and a rare congregation.

  3. I personally thank God for Christian rap.When Jesus called me out of darkness I was deep in rap thats all i knew,but now I can enjoy rap in a way that builds me up.Parents might want to think about getting up on holy hip hop and encourage their christian kids to stop listening to those other messengers out there whose message is pimping pimping pimping murder murder sell drugs. Lord come quick!

  4. I understand that rejecting certain types of communities also means rejecting those associated with it. I am not against hip-hop in the church at all as I use it to reach my youths as well. However as an opinion and question, I feel that there is a limit to some of those holy hip-hop music. Besides the words, what is actually the difference between hip-hop and holy hip-hop if the same image is kept, the same beats, and so on. One difference I see in music today and music of yesterday is that people are focused more on the beat or rythm of the music today compared to the actual lyrics of the song as in yesterdays time. If for example I create a “holy hip-hop” song, with a beat thats reggae like, youths of today in my opinion will dance to the beat and not listen to the lyrics. If they are dancing un-holy to my “holy hip-hop” then what is so holy about it?

    • I can understand where you are coming from saying the beats from secluar hip hop and holy hip hop sound the same. Here’s my take on it…….”IF” GOD has given you the ability (skill) to rap the gospel I’m quite sure HE will develope the creativity within you to bring about a different sound leaving the thought of secluar out when you hear. I dont think alot of gospel rappers are anointed by GOD some are just doing it for show. I am a Gospel rapper, I have been at this little over a year. I make sure I’m focused solely on GOD when writing & selecting my sound. WHEN we focus on the message…….AND that is the main objective…….MESSAGE!!!!!! When we constantly focus on getting the youth attention from a sound, we are not in align with GOD & therefore its all about a show. Feel free to connect me out at http://www.facebook.com/shannonlpresley
      I would love to share some of my music with you!! GOD bless :)

  5. The church has existed in every age of human history. The church has had to deal with distractions in every age of its history. Satan’s ploy has always been, “if i can’t beat ‘em, join em; if i can’t destroy ‘em, pervert ‘em. Remember, the tree has both good and evil. When light becomes darkness…how great is the darkness.

  6. Bob, if you’re implying that hip-hop consists only of darkness and distraction, then you’ve pretty much missed the point altogether.

  7. i am a supporter of christian rap/hip-hop. i belive that in oreder to talk to the children, we must learn to communicate with them on their level. such as this group based in va did. check them out. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XUvwWj3coWY&list=UUpeLYI3Y3JM3kjhIR5l2feg&index=1&feature=plcp

  8. It’s good that someone decided to describe the problem