The Nielsen company is most widely known as the company that measures television ratings, but it also wields its considerable research apparatus in the realm of popular music. Recently, its annual mid-year report made headlines around the blogosphere after it revealed that for the first time, more people listened to the combined genres of R&B and hip-hop than any other musical form, dethroning rock’s position at the top.
This shouldn’t be a huge surprise to anyone who’s been paying much attention, because hip-hop music and culture has been steadily moving closer and closer toward the center of American culture for decades now. Nineties rap icons Dr. Dre and Jay-Z have become multimedia moguls with their own product lines and exclusive platforms, and the house band for NBC’s flagship late-night TV show is legendary Philly hip-hop band The Roots, whose leading men Amir “Questlove” Thompson and Tarik “Black Thought” Trotter helped produce the biggest smash hit Broadway recording in decades.
Reluctant to Adapt
Hip-hop has long been a mainstream form of musical expression.
And since evangelical churches are known for adopting trends and idolizing the notion of relevance, it seems telling that, outside of a few counter examples, very few churches are intentionally embracing hip-hop as a form of worship music.
There are a variety of reasons for this. Chief among them is a centering of whiteness and white cultural norms. Even for people who do not hold any active racial animus in their conscious thoughts (and who would therefore resist the term racist as a self-descriptor), there are still both conscious and subconscious ways that the tastes, priorities and experiences of people of color are marginalized or overlooked in favor of a “mainstream” aesthetic that is often white and middle class. Therefore, most white megachurches have worship bands that sound more like U2 than they do Lecrae, even though in 2017 people tend to listen more to the latter than the former.
But white privilege doesn’t explain the reluctance that many Black churches and church leaders demonstrate in their interactions with hip-hop culture. While gospel music has undoubtedly been heavily influenced by hip-hop music and culture (through trailblazing artists like Kirk Franklin and Tye Tribbett), there are still plenty of Black congregations where the attitude communicated by both leaders and laity is that it’s not holy if it doesn’t have a choir or a Hammond B-3 organ. Though the cultural signifiers are different, there’s still a sense of cultural superiority and a reluctance to get outside of it.
Missing the Point
In my conversations with White pastors and worship leaders, there’s also an expressed sense of apprehension about engaging with hip-hop for fear of doing it wrong; those who do it poorly are rightly accused of disrespecting the artform, and those who do it too well open themselves to accusations of cultural appropriation. Often I hear from pastors who feel like it’s fine for a church to embrace hip-hop, but only if hip-hop is an authentic cultural value of their congregation. When I hear that, I feel like what they’re telling me is, “Sure, you should do hip-hop, because you’re Black and you grew up with it. But my church doesn’t have many Black people.”
This also misses the point somewhat, because what that Nielsen report tells us is that hip-hop music (and the culture surrounding it) is no longer just the domain of a minority subculture. It is a huge part of mainstream popular culture, and as it relates to contemporary music, it is the dominant culture. When Beyonce drops an album, it’s news. After 2016’s Lemonade, even middle-aged white comedians were conversant enough to make jokes about “Becky with the good hair.”
At this point, it seems like most churches end up in one of four quadrants. When it comes to hip-hop, they either:
- Ignore it
- Denounce it
- Tentatively embrace it
- Go all out in support of it
It’s been my experience that most churches take option No. 1, while some more reactionary churches end up in option No. 2 (mostly out of fear and ignorance). And the few churches I know of that take option No. 4 do so because they’re in multicultural urban contexts (like colleges, military bases or athlete fellowships) where hip-hop is lingua franca.
I think the best move is No. 3—a tentative embrace.
Alternatives and Solutions
Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that every church needs to start incorporating trap beats, turntables and air horns into their worship services. It’s still important to maintain a sense of reverence and holiness.
However, what I think is true is that any pastor or church leader who is concerned about reaching people under 40 needs to have at least a basic grasp of certain aspects of hip-hop culture, and—more importantly—recognize that these artifacts are a major part of just how things are today. It could involve allowing the worship leader to experiment with using hip-hop beats as part of the instrumentation.
It might involve inviting local or regional (or, if you have the budget, national) hip-hop artists. It might be learning to incorporate certain hip-hop terms, slogans or mannerisms. (In one overwhelmingly white church, as a guest worship leader I led a call-and-response portion of a song where, instead of saying “amen,” the crowd was encouraged to chant “yes, yes, y’all.”)
Is this risky? Sure. Will there be times when it looks like God’s people are trying too hard to be cool? Probably. Will you make mistakes and offend people along the way? Almost certainly.
But the alternatives are also risky.
A lot of time what I hear from people in their protests of hip-hop is criticism of the rampant misogyny and consumerism, so they feel like their only option is to denounce it. But we also have a ton of consumerism and misogyny in the White House; that doesn’t mean we have to oppose the concept of the Executive Branch. The truth is, pastors should be able to help their people understand and reject the sinful elements in any culture, but you can only really do that well if you can also highlight the honorable elements. If pastors and other church leaders consistently fail in that process, they inadvertently deliver the message that they are out of touch and their judgment is not to be trusted.
And whether they fail consistently, or they just never even try in the first place, the net effect is the same—young people are driven away from the church. Spoiler alert: Jesus had something to say about people who cause others to stumble, and it’s not good.
So this opportunity represents a clear way forward in engaging generations to come with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Let’s hope that God raises up a generation of leaders who are up to the challenge.