Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Strange Fire? Hip Hop Gospel

I was intrigued with a recent story in the Charleston Post and Courier entitled "Hip Hop Gospel." The article covers recent moves in some churches to include "hip hop gospel" selections in their services in an effort to reach young people. The article even opens with one vignette where high schoolers who sing in a church's traditional choir have added to their routines a dance move called "the motorcycle" popularized by an Atlanta rapper.

The question is, "Is this appropriate and God-glorifying for public gatherings of the church?" As far as listening pleasure and personal consumption are concerned, I'm a big fan of Timothy Brindle, Shai Linne, and some others. Outreach is one thing, but should this be included in the services of the church, the public gathering of Christians?

The arguments for this trend are all the same: "We've got to reach out to youth with a style they understand." "The church needs to be brought into this century." "Paul became all things to all people." "It's really about the message."

What is often missing in those refrains is the fact that very often the method and the message are more synonymous than one might first recognize. The desire to reach people is worthy and good -- it's the great commission. But the "hip hop gospel" method (and many others) assumes that we must reach them by entertaining them. Consequently, the world is filled with churches that expend inordinate time, money, and talent in creating an "exciting" and "entertaining" experience for weekly attenders whose knowlege of God remains shallow and man-centered.

Postman is still prophetic... we're amusing ourselves to death. Only now, we're being lead by the secular tastes of our children rather than leading our children by doing the God-centered work of Deut. 6:1-9. Does anyone think it absurd that pubescent posing, posturing, and play define how we worship the supreme Lord of the universe? Doesn't anyone remember that offering strange fire has deadly consequences? Inevitably, whenever there is this kind of mingling of God's people with the world, it is the church that is corrupted (Haggai 2:11-14).

What we need is to worship the Lord in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). And to do that, we must have our worship regulated by the Word of God. What we sing, pray, and preach must be governed by the Scriptures. We should do those things warranted in the Bible and refuse to do those things prohibited in the Bible. After all, our task is not to be "attractive" but to be faithful (I Cor. 4:2).

The lamentable reality is that the gospel of Jesus Christ come in the flesh, crucified for sinners, buried and raised three days later, requiring repentance from sin and faith in the Son, to the glory of the Father has been missing in much of "gospel" music for quite a long time. Appending "hip hop" only makes it clearer that another gospel is at work. One proponent of adding hip hop gospel to church practice said: "People my age and younger are hooked on R&B and rap. We want to incorporate that, the beats, the rhythms, but we want to keep the (gospel) message." Christians are to be "hooked on" Jesus, despising the world. And certainly we should be suspicious when the article writer has to insert "gospel" in parenthesis to make it clear just what message is being referred to. My sneaking suspicion is that the interviewee wouldn't be able to define the gospel with any precision. And we don't want our children to be unable to recognize Jesus because they've associated the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Lamb who was slain with baggy jeans and tee-shirt sporting, tattooed, do-rag wearing rappers.

A final thought:
It would be better to lose a generation of young people and remain faithful to God, than to be attractive by adopting worldly forms and elements in worship and obscure the only soul-saving, life-giving, new-heart-creating, eternal-destiny-changing, repentance-and-faith-demanding, God-glorifying gospel of Jesus Christ.

Three Book Recommendations for Thinking About Worship:
Philip Graham Ryken, Derek W.H. Thomas, and J. Ligon Duncan III (Eds.), Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship (P&R)

D.A. Carson (ed.), Worship by the Book (Zondervan) - see especially Carson's introductory essay, which alone is worth the price of the book.

David Peterson, Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship (IVP)

18 comments:

Jeremy Floyd said...

thabiti, thanks for your words here. they are strong, clear and convicting. you say in your last paragraph what many people are not willing to say. it would be better to lose a whole generation by remaining faithful than to be unfaithful! nobody says that! yet you do and your point is heard here! i dont understand why people will read those words and accuse you of not desiring to reach young people. it is strange what is classified as being 'evangelistic.'

FellowElder said...

Thanks brother. Pray that faithfulness would characterize all the ministers of God. And pray that we can be both faithful and fruitful at reaching souls for Christ. Grace and peace.

Anonymous said...

Thabiti,
Please keep the challenging and gospel centered thoughts coming.
TaNeesha

Anonymous said...

"... we don't want our children to be unable to recognize Jesus because they've associated the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Lamb who was slain with baggy jeans and tee-shirt sporting, tattooed, do-rag wearing rappers."

Just a quick question, is it better to have them associate the Lion of Judah, The Lamb who was slain to the all long haired, blue-eyed Jesus of the Renaissance Artwork?

I agree with your points and I think you stated them well. There must be distinction between the world and the church. But I feel that the difference is reflected in more than just the music and style of dress. It is about the walk. Let's continue to stress the message of a regenerated heart, and transformed mind and will that has surrended to God in Christ Jesus

djdesignz said...

Great insight... I believe that reform is necessary for the Christian Music Industry. It has opted for success rather than the Glory of God. I also highly recommend another book titled; Music & Ministry (A Biblical Counterpoint) by Calvin M. Johansson

FellowElder said...

Dear "Anonymous"

I would not want people associating Jesus with EITHER a "baggy jeans and tee-shirt sporting, tattooed, do-rag wearing rappers" or, as you put it, "the all long haired, blue-eyed Jesus of the Renaissance Artwork." I want them to stand in awe of the Lion and the Lamb. I want them to be amazed at "the admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies in Jesus Christ." I want them to behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and to fall at His feet as though dead (Rev. 1:17) and cry out "I am unclean" (Is. 6:5)! I want people enthralled with the majesty and beauty of the holiness of God and to give themselves up to Him with praise and love.

The great problem is that our hearts, as Spurgeon put it, are idol factories. We manufacture idols with nearly every thought of God or image of God we conceive of that isn't derived from Scripture. Charles Hodge is helpful here: "idolatry consists not only in the worship of false gods, but also in the worship of the true God by images."

Calvin: "A true image of God is not to be found in all the world; and hence... His glory is defiled, and His truth corrupted by the lie, whenever He is set before our eyes in a visible form.... Therefore, to devise any image of God is itself impious; because by this corruption His majesty is adulterated, and He is figured to be other than He is."

J.I. Packer: "Whatever we may think of religious art from a cultural standpoint, we should not look to pictures of God to show us his glory and move us to worship; for his glory is precisely what such pictures can never show us. And this is why God added to the second commandment a reference to himself as "jealous" to avenge himself on those who disobey him: for God's "jealousy" in the Bible is his zeal to maintain his own glory, which is jeopardized when images are used in worship."

I'm with you "Anonymous"! It's not about superficial differences in style, but about the message and the power of that message to save and change. And all of that, is for the glory of God alone! May it ever be so!

Rev.J. Theodore Helms said...

Brother Thabiti, I recently published four posts on this topic on my blog due to the fact that the "hiphop" church came near our town for a one night stand. Our local paper covered the event and featured some very revealing quotes from the little movements founders and supporters. It is incredible what some pass off as the gospel and how many will believe it. The founder of the hiphopMass says plainly that the inspiration of the church was Tupac Shakur, not Jesus Christ or the Word of God. The church was founded in order to give "thugs" a place to worship. They declare that the culture holds the church accountable and that the church is accountable to the hiphop culture. I thought that was Someone elses job? They confuse culture with church, making them one in the same. When the rapper who came to our area "preached" on that Sunday morning in an Episcopal church, the title of his sermon was "Holla at the Boy, and He will hear you." Calling God "boy" conveys an extremely low view of the holy. If anyone called this particular preacher "boy," there would be hell to pay, with charges of racism on top of that. It's okay to call God "boy?"

These people may be reaching thugs and young people, but for what purpose?

Rev.J. Theodore Helms said...

Brother Thabiti, there is something missing in this discussion about the hiphop church that the readers need to understand. This little movement,started by the Episcopal Church in New York City, is founded on the inspiration of Tupac Shakur and not Jesus Christ or the Word of God. The Charlotte Observer had an informative article on hiphop when the "church" held one of their "hiphopEmass" events at a church near here. "Poppa T" saw the movie based on Shakur's life and was inspired to start this movement. He declares it a place of worship for "thugs." While they were here a nationally known rapper preached a sermon on that Sunday morning entitled "Holla at the Boy, and He will answer you." I would guess it is all right for a thug to call God "boy," but it is taboo to call a thug boy. Along with this disrespect for holy God, they also have put Scripture into the language one hears on Jerry Springer or Maury Povitch, Ps.23, "He's all that?!!" Instead of "The LORD is my shepherd," they think it is all right to substitute "He's all that?"

This might get the attention of the thug, but it will not get his soul.

JTH said...

Brother Thabiti, there is something missing in this discussion of the hiphop "church" that your readers need to understand. This movement is based, not on the Word of God or on the Lord Jesus Christ or on the gospel of Jesus Christ, but on the inspiration that its founder, "Poppa T," received when he saw the movie based on the story of Tupac Shakur ("Resurrection"). Poppa T and his followers have declared Shakur to be the new "champion" of the young people. The hiphop church and the travelling "hiphopEmass" tour are declared to be a "place of worship for the thug."

While the "Emass" was being conducted in a town near where I live our local paper did a very informative article on the event. A nationally known rapper, Curtis Blow, preached the sermon at the Sunday morning service entitled, "Holla at the Boy and He will answer you." While it is apparently okay to call God "Boy," if one called the rapper boy there would be an instantaneous charge of racism. This is more than a little irreverence on the part of the movement, it is pushing an extremely low view of holy God.

Their re-writing of Scripture is equally as bad. Ps.23 in the hiphop language begins, "He's all that." "He's all that?" Rather than "The Lord," He's all that? This is the way many people talk to each other on the street about someone they find physically atrractive, and to say that God is "all that" makes Him no different than the thug, or somebody's girl friend.

This movement is small (in more ways than one) and it will probably pass away all on its own. But if they are "reaching people" as so many love to say these days, we have to ask them "for what?" This movement may get their attention while missing their souls.

FellowElder said...

Bro. Helms,
Thanks for the brief history on this effort. Wow. I'm a little shocked that anyone would attribute a "Christian" movement to Tupac Shakur. And "Holla at the Boy" is indicative of precisely what I think is wrong with this movement. There is no understanding of the majestic transcendence of God, only a crude and familiar man-centered idea of immanence.

And not surprisingly, it redefines the mission of the church, centering it on a nebulous and shifting view of "culture" rather than edifying the saints and advancing the gospel.

How has this effort in your area affected churches?

JTH said...

Brother Thabiti, as far as I can tell when the movement's "hiphopEmass" was over, it was forgotten about. That is why I refer to this mess as a "little" movement. It is so absolutely ridiculous that it seems to have been simply allowed to pass out of memory. At least, that is what I hope. There is enough heresy out there as it is.

BlackCalvinist said...

Sadly, stuff like that discourages people from listening to sound brothers like Tim Brindle, Shai, CHRISTcentric, Redeemed Thought, or Cross Movement when they come to town because people may think that it's going to be just more of the same....

postmodernegro said...

I have a love/hate relationship with hip-hop. I love hip-hop because of its organic potential. It was birthed in the hearts of inner city black youth...looking for a voice in a culture that was, and still is, dominated by the aesthetic and art of white culture.

I also love it because it stands in the stream of black innovation in the arts. It is in the same stream of negro spirituals that told an 'alternative' story...it practices a hermeneutic of suspicion of the dominant story of both America and Western Christendom. There is more to the love here.

I hate it because it is mostly a capitulatoin to crass materialism, white American individualism, and violence. I do not think this is inherent to hip-hop itself...it is that hip-hop, like many other genres of music are simply expressions of the larger culture. Hip-hop as entertainment is not good...especially if that is the way it is seen in church...simply as a draw. I do not like the use of hip-hop as simply a way to draw youth. If hip-hop is to be used by Christians I think it important to draw the themes of hip-hop that resonate with the gospel...especially its resistant voice towards the powers...and its tendency to be countercultural. This aspect of hip-hop is definitly palatable with the gospel. As Christians we are called to wrestle with the Powers that be. Hip-hop provides a common language to do so among youth today.

In short, it all depends on the narrative or Story that directs hip-hop. Will it be the story of consumerism, greed, violence, and mysogyny? or will it be life, community, counter-cultural resistance to sinful forces in the world, and a fresh expression of God's kingdom?

Hip-hop does not have to be mutually exclusive from 'biblical worship'...unless you equate biblical worship with more Euro-forms of worship...to which I can only say...why do white folks have to make the rules on this matter?

FellowElder said...

Postmodernegro wrote:
"Hip-hop does not have to be mutually exclusive from 'biblical worship'...unless you equate biblical worship with more Euro-forms of worship...to which I can only say...why do white folks have to make the rules on this matter?"

In point of fact, I don't think either black folks or white folks write rules... God does. That's really the point of the post--not so much an evaluation or critique of hip hop per se (by the way, I think your evaluation of hip hop is far too positive. Any message of "life, community, counter-cultural resistance to sinful forces in the world, and a fresh expression of God's kingdom" in hip hop is extremely rare). Our worship should be defined by God himself. He is writing a metanarrative that includes all nations. Our local narratives only make sense where they are consistent with His over-arching story and work. Let us be sure that the elements and forms of our services are as consistent and informed as possible by God's word.

postmodernegro said...

fellowelder,

thanks for responding to my post...actually...thanks for posting it. You did not have to. I appreciate you taking the time to engage this issue with me.

As far as me being too positive regarding hip-hop I hope you read my brief critique of it as well. That was not positive. I actually agree with you regarding hip-hop as entertainment and as bait-n-switch for some churches. To this I agree. But there is a side to hip-hop that you have not captured. There are elements to it that definitely fit within God's story of redemption.

If hip-hop does not fit within this narrative I am interested in your thoughts in other genres as well? Do you think alternative rock, country music, polka, etc. to be out of tune with the gospel? Of course hip-hop is much more than a genre of music..it is a cultural sensibility. A sensibility that was birthed from heart of the urban poor.

As far as the positive stuff...I have listened to artist that captured the good stuff I mentioned earlier.

Plus...many of us grew up listening to hip-hop...not "What A Might Fortress is Our God"...which was a pub song before Luther got a hold to it...nor did we listen to "Precious Lord Take my Hand"...which was a blues song revised by Dorsey. All good songs to be sure..but strangely enough these songs came from within the context of their day to give praise and glory to God...why not hip-hop? If God can use Old German pub songs and Delta Blues songs to give Him glory...sure God can use hip-hop. Indeed God has...

postmodernegro said...

"In point of fact, I don't think either black folks or white folks write rules... God does."

Another point of fact. White folks wrote the rules for 500 years in the West. Hip-hop, strangely enough, would not have emerged had no white folks wrote rules.

The issue is not whether or not white or black folks wrote rules...the issue is whether or not we are following God's rules. God's rules challenge and hopefully revise white and black folks rules.

But one of the interesting things about Western Christendom is that when we were told that God had wrote certain rules...it was really white people. It is in this sense that I made this comment.

thanks again for responding.

FellowElder said...

Postmodernegro,
I think hip hop fits in the narrative of God's redemptive work precisely in the same way that other cultural productions (jazz -- of which I am an enthusiast; rock, pop, reggae, etc) fit into the narrative. They are demonstrations, generally speaking, of the depravity of man. Most art forms can be called upon as exhibit A of our depravity, our sinfulness, and our need for a Savior. Hip hop is one local expression of a universal problem--our alienation from Almighty God and the beauty of His holiness. Romans 1 comes to mind. We prefer the depraved and the company of others who rejoice in it as well (Rom 1:31-32). That's what I largely see in most cultural productions. Even so-called "high culture" exhibits a fair amount of grotesque, beauty-twisting sinfulness. So, hip hop isn't my favority whippin' post; it happens to have caught my eye through the article I referenced in the original post.

So, who are some of the artists you think brings glory to God in this medium? I mentioned my appreciation for Shai Linne, Timothy Brindle, Curtis Allen, et al. Other folks I should be listening to?

On the "rules writing" thing, I'm after a corporate gathering regulated by the Word of God and increasingly less so by cultural preferences. To be sure, culture and preference always enter in, but that's usually the point where we're most likely to be unbiblical and blind to the unbiblical nature of our practice. I think culture should play a role, but it's the culture that God creates for His redeemed people that should be operative, a cultural preferenced shaped by the norms of His commandments.

Holiness is itself a culture; it's the entire attitude, habits, and ways of being created by God and lived out by His people. That's what I want to see in the public gathering as best as I am able to escape my own preferences and govern my expressions by as faithful an understanding of God's desires in worship as possible.

Anonymous said...

Postmodernegro, fact correction

There is no evidence that Dorsey's Precious Lord was ever a blues tune. The song was born out of the sorrow of loosing his wife while he was at a Gospel Music Ministry Convention. Be careful not to misrepresent God's people. That is the real issue with Hip-Hop and Urban Gospel. It has the potential to misrepresent God's message. Gospel is the Good News.

First, Blues was born out of a religious tradtion and Thomas Dorsey and other early Gospel singers were born out of both. While R&B was born out of a religious tradition Hip-Hop was not. This is the critical difference. If you trace the history of Black music in this country you will find that Hip-Hop marks the begining of the Church moving out of mainstream music.

Prior to Hip-Hop. All of our most successful Soul artist started their music in the church...Areatha Franklin was even taught by a man that should be considered the GodFather of Gospel, Rev. James Cleveland.

Hip-Hop did not have the same tradition. That does not mean that there is anything wrong with the genre. It is social comentary...and that is good.

As for the Gospel and the direction of particularly the Black church. We need to read our bibles and remember the stories of the disciples as they were building the church after Jesus' resurrection. There were many who were healing people and performing magic tricks in the name of Jesus. They were not called by God and in fact did not really believe. The spirits that tormented one whom they healed thusly left the tormented soul and inhabited the one who performed these acts. The biblical disciples/missionaries (Paul and John and others) who were taught by the Holy Spirit were constantly having to admonish and retrain the church because they lost focus.

Perhaps this music should just not be called Gospel....is it Gospel....what is Gospel...perhaps that is the real debate.

Is there validity biblically for us bringing our idols of hip-hop culture into the Body of Christ. We are the Body of Christ. Each one of us. Hip-Hop is a culture...a material culture. That is what we must examine. When the rich man wanted to follow Jesus, Jesus told the rich man who was a relatively good man (remember he believed in God, it was not indicated that he was a completely lost soul) sell your things and the man left and was sad. He could not let go of his material ways...perhaps his bling...perhaps all the things that were more for him GOD than Jesus. That is not a word against wealth but rather the coveting of our material ways.

We to examine the deep issues not the surface ones.

Early Gospel musicians and psalmist understood something that we miss. That we must spread the word of repentence (a turn around...a turn...a new person). Do we still look the same when God changes us. Something must change when the Holy Spirit comes. Are we really Christ messengers if we don't trust that the word can come without a beat or a gimmic. Did Christ come speaking like a Roman...or a Greek...Jesus and his disciples may have very well preached to the gentiles in the non Jewish language...but they did not take on their gods nor they ask them to keep their gods with them into and through their conversions.

We need to look critically.

To God Be the Glory