Why Churches are Engaging Hip Hop Culture

Now that the gospel and hip hop have gone global, churches are exploring how to reach hip hop culture with the good news that another world is possible. A feature story exploring hip-hop culture.

“What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word hip hop?”

That was Cat Chen’s ice breaker when she did impromptu video interviews with teens at bus stops in Oakland, California. Their answers flowed. “Music...soul…breakdancing…originality…struggle…graffiti art…a lot of stories in one.”

Next she asked what hip hop means to them. “Hip hop is everything.” “It’s a way of life.” “It’s a way to think about yourself.” Chen, youth director at New Hope Covenant Church in Oakland, made the video while her congregation was exploring ways to use hip hop and spoken word in worship.

“Hip hop is a huge part of culture in our urban neighborhood. It’s like speaking language. Youth speak hip hop. To understand youth, people need to understand the language of hip hop. For youth to understand faith, they need to hear it in the language of hip hop,” she says.

Whether or not youth in your church identify as strongly with hip hop as the ones Chen spoke with, hip hop permeates our culture and hasgone global. New Hope and other churches are using hip hop to bridge generations and cultures.

“Everybody got their own flavor”

Though you may hear hip hop and rap used interchangeably to refer to a musical genre, most often hip hop refers to a whole subculture. Within this culture people develop skills to express originality. They become emcees, deejays, breakdancers, graffiti artists, fashion designers, or street-smart entrepreneurs.

Rap music and hip hop culture rise from the same impulses as songs such as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” “Le Marseillaises” (French national anthem), “Go Down Moses,” “We Shall Overcome,” “Oh, Freedom,” “Blue Diamond Mines,” and “De Colores” (United Farm Workers song). All give voice to the voiceless, encouraging them to stand up together despite or against injustice.

Hip hop began in urban America, mainly among youth of color. Rapper KRS-One (real name Lawrence Parker) says that hip hop connects to humanity because it’s all about what you “can do with your body, without the help of technology.”

Several teens told Chen they love hip hop’s “cool beats.” “It’s good to dance to. You can have your own style with it,” one girl explained. “But, sometimes, when you listen to the lyrics, you think, ‘What am I listening to!?!” another added.

Whether Asian, black, or Latino, whether male or female, most noted that what they listen to often degrades women or glorifies violence and crime. They told Chen:

  • “Old school hip hop is the most powerful music ever. It’s about storytelling, rhyming, having fun.”
  • “Now it’s materialistic and is about guys with money and girls who put out…cars, fashion… drugs and shooting people...mean lyrics and trendy phrases.”
  • “People have to stop thinking about hip hop in a bad way. It’s about dance and talking about life in rap. Everyone deserves their own opinion. Everybody got their own flavor. Have fun with it. It’s a family thing—we’ve forgotten that and should get back on that path.”

Creating space to “give God all you got”

Chen documented that hip hop is huge among youth outside the congregation. Her Young Urban Voices project helped New Hope Covenant talk about worship, faith, and hip hop. Members delved into how diversity often evokes fear, whether fear of the “other” or fear of being disrespected.

This congregation celebrates diversity that many outside their neighborhood fear. In New Hope’s neighborhood, more than 40 percent of people are from another country, a quarter of people live below the poverty line, and no more than half the adults are high school graduates. New Hope worship leader Jeremy Verango wrote the rap “Walk Down the East One Six” to counter “presupposed notions of outsiders lookin’ in…blind to the reality that there just might be something more to this place than what’s seen on the news.”

Verango sees the neighborhood’s taco trucks, excellent Vietnamese pho soup, and cultural diversity as its strength. The congregation has connected Asian, black, Latino, and white people through after school programs, arts projects, basketball teams, community dinners, a preschool, and youth ministry.

New Hope pushes the creativity-in-worship envelope further than many churches do. Its inspirations range from quiet meditative worship stations to songs in Spanish and English and a Southeast-Asian flavored rendition of “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus.” Still, importing hip hop into worship felt like a stretch…until they thoroughly explored the issues.

“We gave church members time and space to think about their deepest longings in worship,” Chen says. At one roundtable event, a young person described worship as “giving it all you got to God.” Chen says that in conversations over time, members came to see that “worship renewal happens when we create spaces to help people give God all we got.” They made room for hip hop’s unique voices.

Holy hip hop?

New Hope hosted hip hop Art Nites to create space and connect with youth, especially those not yet part of a church.

Chen took youth to a hip hop service at NewSong Covenant Churchnear Los Angeles. “The pastor was a past hip hop recording artist in the secular world and had given his life up to Jesus. Some youth on this trip had never been in church before. When they heard the pastor share his life story in the form of hip hop, they felt so connected with his words. For a lot of them, it was the first time that faith stuff, Jesus stuff, felt relevant to their lives.

“I’ve seen youth tell their stories of meeting Jesus through hip hop, whether that’s through music, graffiti art, spoken words, dance, or movement. A lot of the youth I’ve worked with write. Their writings tell about their lives and journey with God, and it’s all expressed through hip hop,” she says.

NewSong members helped lead hip hop Christian songs for Palm Sunday worship at New Hope. During communion, New Hope’s pastors served the bread and wine while a NewSong pastor freestyled and a New Hope member beatboxed.

Now that the congregation understands that there’s no single correct way for Protestants to worship, they’re more open to new expressions. They’ve used hip hop congregational songs, pantomime, skits, spoken-word poetry, breakdancing, and painting during worship.

“Check out our YouTube videos,” Chen urges. “They capture the ways we’ve found that hip hop can bridge communities and people groups.”

Learn More

Watch New Hope Covenant Church videos by worship pastor Russell Yee and youth director Cat Chen. At a recent intergenerational church retreat, New Hope set CCR’s “Bad Moon Rising” to a song about how their church is a “remix on the rise.” They’ve explored worship renewal by partnering with a nearby Mien congregation (Chinese people from Laos).

Cat Chen says that she works with youth like those in Straight Outta East Oakland,a novel by Harry Louis Williams. “That said, the issues and injustices in Oakland are more complex,” she adds.

Connect with Christians at hip hop events sponsored by Urban Arts Outreach, a multi-church fellowship of creatives in Santa Ana, California, or Flavorfest, an annual conference sponsored by Crossover Church in Tampa, Florida.

Gather people of different ages and cultures to discuss a book:

Hear opening verses of John 1, in spoken word style by Fred Lynch. Whilepreaching on Jeremiah, a Crossover pastor talked about “mainstream culture’s tendency to idolize materialism and bad boy reputations.”  Watch a video of spoken word, music, and mime, in which Matt Martinez seeks to bridge hip hop and Christian communities. Watch Holy Hip Hop awards videos.

Tim Keller explains why far more churches and Christians should be dedicated to urban outreach. Thomas Scarborough, a minister in Cape Town, South Africa, tells how in 13 years his congregation changed from 80% English speaking by birth to only 40% English speaking by birth. The book East African Hip Hop: Youth, Culture, and Globalization by Mwenda Ntarangwi documents how youth use hip hop to speak out on HIV/AIDS.

Chris Rice reminds racial reconciliation activists that “grace calls us first to slow down and start with God's gift of lament: to see, name, and feel the brokenness.” Barely half of students graduate from high school in the largest U.S. cities. Lawndale Community Church is in a Chicago neighborhood with a 42 percent poverty rate. Few people or classrooms there have computers. The nearest public computers are a few miles away. The church has been working since 2006 to raise less than a million dollars to transform a vacant firehouse into a community arts center that will help youth reach their potential. These brief videos, especially Responsible, give a taste of what it’s like to grow up where “you never know what to expect, when somebody’s gonna jump you, shoot you, or whatever.”

Nonprofits in Chicago, Massachusetts, and metro DC  and churches and police in Georgia use hip hop to give youth hope and alternatives to violence. The theme of the 2010 Hip Hop Appreciation Week is charity.

Watch Byron Hurt’s PBS documentary Beyond Beats and Rhymes. Use its study guide and lesson modules to lead a discussion on how hip hop represents masculinity. Listen to Cornel West interview Lupe Fiasco on how hip hop offers youth a way to understand their lives.

Swan Grae on YO! Youth Outlook explains why both the street and the church have seen gospel (good news) rap as whack. Is it an urban legend that 70% of those who buy rap music are white? That depends on who’s crunching the numbers, according to this thoughtful commentary on commercialization of rap music.

Use ideas from Reformed Worship stories on adolescence, Christianity and justice, and church work with youth.

Browse related stories on ethnodoxology and including imagination and hope or justice and suffering in worship.

Start a Discussion

Talk about how to engage with hip hop culture.

  • How has hip hop influenced your congregation, youth, or community? What point of opportunity do you see to create a cross section among faith, worship, and hip hop?
  • Who gets included and who gets left out with your congregation’s current range of worship music? In what other ways are people free to bring their true selves to God in your worship services?
  • What aspects of the Roman Empire contributed to the spread of early Christianity? What aspects of contemporary culture contribute to the spreading influence of hip hop?
  • What’s your favorite example of how churches and Christians are creating a life-giving alternative within hip hop culture?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to build trust and authentic relationships with youth in the hip hop culture? 

Comments