If Martin Luther were writing his catechism for today's urban youth, he might have included in his explanation of the Lord's Prayer, "I'd rather bust a prayer than bust a cap." Taking a page from Luther and other church reformers who rendered the Bible into everyday language, ELCA congregations are using hip-hop to empower their youth to lead worship and reach out to their community.
In Atlanta, Minneapolis and Chicago, hip-hop worship services are regularly drawing young people and their families into ELCA congregations to experience God in new ways. Some equate hip-hop with trashy language, gang violence and over-the-top materialism. Yet hip-hop was developed as a way of expressing the truth about "life in the ghetto," including hopelessness, violence and income disparity, according to hip-hop artist David Scherer.
David admits that church people are often skeptical of using hip-hop or rap music to communicate God's truth, especially if they are in rural and suburban settings. "In the city, they know the power of hip-hop. In other places, you have to win them over," he said.
Proponents for holy hip-hop, among them performer and workshop leader Kelly "Glow" Williams of Atlanta, cite Paul's example as inspiration. In Acts 17, Paul tapped into existing Greek culture and testified to God's love. In his sermon to the Athenians, Paul argued that God embedded a desire for God in all people "so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him."
Holy hip-hop (also known as Gospel hop, hip-hop worship, or Christian rap) uses urban beats, rapid-fire poetry, dance and visual arts to express the message of God's love in a way that might have made Apostle Paul proud.
Take Shekinah Chapel, an ELCA mission start in Riverdale, Ill., that hosts a quarterly holy hip-hop service. On a typical Friday night, the MC (master of ceremonies) welcomes youth ages 8-18 from congregations across the south side of Chicago, calling them to their feet from the first song. He's backed by five bandmembers who keep pushing the beat forward.
Yehiel Curry, leader of Shekinah Chapel, said, "Our children have been raised on BET and MTV, and they're looking for that energy. If there's any critique that I've heard (from that age group), it's that church is boring."
Youth and family participation
Kathryn Love, an ELCA pastor who directs prayer and renewal for the ELCA, agrees. "Sometimes the church misses the point. There's a group that's currently not being reached by traditional worship services, and we have to be inclusive in the ways we do worship. One of the ways that energizes young people the most is hip-hop."
Kathryn adds that, by hosting hip-hop services, congregations give youth a reason to invite others to their congregation. "The young people begin to do the work of evangelizing others, extending invitations to friends and getting them to participate in a worship service with them."
Not only do the hip-hop services attract young people, they also draw parents and younger siblings. "It becomes a family event," said Kathryn.
The family atmosphere is evident at Shekinah Chapel's service. Adults and youth alike are dancing and clapping, singing and swaying to the beat and cheering on a half-dozen different youth groups who perform sweeping liturgical dance, high-energy mime and heartfelt songs.
David Scherer, a.k.a. Agape, is a hip-hop artist from Minneapolis who grew up with one foot in the Lutheran church and one foot on the basketball courts of north Minneapolis.
As a white, middle-class student at a predominantly African-American high school, David noticed a "real disconnect" between the lives of classmates of color and classmates of European descent. "I was told early on that God could use me" to connect with young African-Americans, he said.
"I want to be like a bridge," said David, who has been doing hip-hop outreach full-time for the past eight years. David performed in Denver recently, igniting more than a hundred Lutheran college students and graduates at the Lutheran Student Movement gathering.
Jacob Morrison of Bellingham, Wash., was one student who jumped onstage to dance with Agape during the concert. Jacob, 22, said that the experience "definitely reaches me on a different level." Jacob also said that he's "really glad to see people with Agape's skills and ability sending that message out."
David's performances are laced not with profanity, but with Bible references. His message is an urgent, passionate and convincing call to share God's love, mercy and justice.
In one song, "Do Justice," David delivers an invitation over an insistent beat: "So creep with me as I crawl through the church, on a search to find people that's puttin' love first." He concludes, "I've been trying to learn what you want from me... Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly."
David worked with six Minneapolis youth leaders to take the traditional elements of a worship service and translate them into the power and cadence of hip-hop culture. The result? Since 2001, Joint Urban Ministries in Praise services have been part of the Twin Cities' urban youth scene.
"Part of this ministry is empowering urban youth -- opening their eyes and helping them discover they have a voice," said David.
"The Hip-Hop Church: Connecting with the Movement Shaping Our Culture," Efrem Smith and Phil Jackson (IVP Books, 2006).
More on Christianity and pop culture can be found in Rob Bell's "Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith" (Zondervan, 2006).