Hip-hop embraced as an evangelistic tool

November 10, 2011

It's hard to get young people into the pews on a Sunday morning, but
several seminaries think they have found a way to grab the next
generation: hip-hop.

"If we're going to take young people
seriously, we have no choice," said Alton B. Pollard III, dean of the
Howard University School of Divinity. "When we talk about what's
happening in the lives of young people, that's a subterranean culture
that some of us just don't know how to get with."

Howard's recent
annual convocation featured the rocking beat of Christian hip-hop
artists Da' T.R.U.T.H. and Sean Simmonds, and professors are using the
spoken word—poetry performed as social commentary—to examine the New
Testament.

At Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville,
Tennessee, several professors analyze hip-hop music in their classes as
they study protest music. At Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois, the
2005 book The Hip-Hop Church is used in courses on youth ministry.

"In
order to be relevant, in order to do youth ministry, you can't do
ministry without engaging hip-hop," said Maisha Handy, who has taught a
course on hip-hop and Christian education for two years at Atlanta's
Interdenominational Theological Center.

Howard's Pollard concedes
that seminaries "have come a little late to the dance," but says it's
better to embrace hip-hop rather than be intimidated by it. And though
some churchpeople might cringe at the genre's misogynistic, violent and
drug-related undertones, churches had a similar reaction to jazz and the
blues.

"Some artists do definitely exhibit egregious behavior and
that behavior should never be condoned," said Joshua Wright, a
sociologist at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, speaking at a
hip-hop panel at Howard. "But this does not make all hip-hop artists
devil worshipers."

Wright pointed to Christian hip-hop
artists—self-described "misfits" who are caught between two worlds—as an
example of how hip-hop can be harnessed for good.

Michael Eric
Dyson, a Georgetown University scholar who teaches a class on hip-hop
superstar Jay-Z, said religious critics of hip-hop need to look at their
own leaders.

"As much as you want to dog a rapper and steamroll
his or her lyrics, steamroll some sermons, too, of the bishops and the
imams and the rabbis," said Dyson, who was headed to a concert featuring
Jay-Z and Kanye West. Dyson spoke there in an open collar, and
advocates say dressing down is just one way some churches can indicate
an openness to hip-hop culture.

"Maybe we need some fitted caps on
Sunday," said Willie J. Thompson Jr., an assistant pastor of a
Presbyterian congregation in Springdale, Maryland, who helped coordinate
Howard's Christian hip-hop concert. "Maybe we need to dress down. Maybe
we need to change some of the things that we've become accustomed to."

Hip-hop
artists say part of the problem is that churches are too traditional,
too rigid. "I am young, gifted, eccentric and artistic, but I am not
religious," said Oraia, a white female spoken-word artist who appeared
onstage at Howard between black male artists. "I don't worship
tradition."

Kayeen Thomas, a first-year student at Washington's
Wesley Theological Sem­inary and a hip-hop performer, said the church
has much to learn from hip-hop's Christian and not-so-Christian aspects.
One tends to focus on the suffering of Jesus; the other on the
suffering of the streets.

"The last time I performed, I did a
Chris­tian rap song, and I did a song about Troy Davis," Thomas said,
referring to the recently executed Georgia inmate who became a rallying
cry for alleged racial disparities in capital punishment.

Thomas,
who comes from the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, hopes
eventually to lead conferences on hip-hop as a tool for evangelism. "It
does have the ability to be used not only to bring souls to Christ but
also to change lives, to inspire people to do better," he said. "For you
to ignore a medium that has a potential to be so powerful is a huge,
huge mistake on the part of the church."  —RNS