Bringing Hip-Hop to ChurchHip-Hop is here to stay. Pastor Efrem Smith not only understands this, he embraces it. And he believes other leaders in his position also must learn to embrace it if the church is going to do its job in urban communities.

Smith is the senior pastor of The Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis and coauthor, with Phil Jackson, of The Hip-Hop Church: Connecting with the Movement Shaping Our Culture. It’s been said that jazz and hip-hop are cut from the same improvisational cloth, so it seems fitting to have UrbanFaith’s resident Jazz Theologian, Robert Gelinas, interview hip-hop pastor Efrem Smith.

JAZZ THEOLOGIAN: Let’s just cut to the chase — why should the church care about hip-hop culture?

EFREM SMITH: Because the church is called to care about God’s heart for the poor and marginalized, and that’s the state of affairs in most of our urban communities. If the church really wants to have a relevant and transforming urban youth ministry, it must care about hip-hop culture.

Sadly, many urban churches are in crisis because, by rejecting hip-hop culture, they are rejecting young people themselves. The civil rights movement gave us a picture of youth intimately and passionately involved in the church and advancing the kingdom values of justice and reconciliation. Unfortunately today, many urban churches struggle with equipping youth through innovative discipleship, to lead movements which transform their surrounding communities.

You often talk about a hip-hop theology. What do you mean by that?

Hip-hop was birthed in urban America among mostly African-American and Latino youth. And so, hip-hop theology is the intersection of a relevant liberation and reconciliation theology for the emerging urban generation. To a degree, it’s a contextualized postmodern theology that still believes in the necessity of new birth and the authority of Scripture.

Hip-Hop Theology is based on a biblical foundation of Acts 17. It is about engaging hip-hop culture for kingdom purposes. Instead of demonizing the culture, it’s about using hip-hop’s original elements (the deejay, the break dancer, graffiti art, and the emcee) and its original positive principles (peace, unity, love, community, and having fun) to present the good news of the Gospel. Hip-hop theology is also about believing that God calls Christians to love and to be in authentic relationship with the marginalized.

In your book, you write: “Sometimes my hip-hop life and my church life have intersected one another, other times they’ve seemed like two totally different worlds, and sometimes they’ve seemed like bitter enemies.” How do you walk this tightrope between two loves?

The balance for me here is to understand the two loves that are within me. Christ, obviously, is my first love. As I live in an intimate relationship with Him, as well as find my identity in Him, I understand my role to love the church but also challenge aspects of what the church has become in the United States. Because I love the church through the overflow of my relationship with Christ, I have to deal with the racial segregation of the church as well as the church’s rejection of hip-hop culture.

In terms of hip-hop culture, I must have a love for it from the perspective of understanding culture. Culture is good and bad, lovely and destructive, healing and hurtful. I love hip-hop culture as God loves the world. How do I die to self daily that I won’t become so “churchy” that I lose my credibility to reach those within the culture I grew up in?

You believe that “the church ought to be engaging hip-hop culture but should be seeking to create Holy Hip-Hop culture as well.” How do you do that with your congregation?

Every third Sunday of the month, we have a corporate experience of worship we call “Hip-Hop Sunday.” The purpose of this experience of worship is to use the elements of hip-hop culture to present aspects of the kingdom of God, so that lives–especially of those living in hip-hop culture–might be transformed. We have holy hip-hop artists perform with our praise and worship team using their gifts of rap and dance. We also have a graffiti artist paint on canvas what we consider today’s urban stained-glass windows. We encourage people to dress very casual, because we want to be a place that is inviting to those in hip-hop culture.

We’ve seen a number of people come to Christ through this experience of worship, but there have also been times when we’ve taken criticism from some traditional churches for doing this. I really believe Hip Hop Sunday has aided in us becoming a truly intergenerational and multicultural church.

You say that this is not about music or entertainment but about a generation of young people. Ultimately, what is at stake?

We really have to work to help people understand that we are not doing this for the cool factor, but truly in order to advance God’s kingdom among urban, un-churched youth and young adults. You really have to be prayed up and strategic in your use of hip-hop ministry models. These models must be connected to your vision, mission, and core values. At the end of the day, hip-hop has to be more than a Sunday worship experience; it has to be a part of a larger congregational vision of evangelism, discipleship, and missions.

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