The urban church in America is faced with many challenges but at the top of the list is the challenge to be authentic. Without authenticity there is no trust and without trust there is no effectiveness. It is apparent one is not granted trust just because one wears a badge or is serving in public office. On the contrary, it usually means that one will have to work exceedingly hard in establishing a level of trust. It is not hard for us to understand this reasoning when we examine historically how people in urban America have been treated. It was echoed by former President Ronald Reagan when he shared his nine most terrifying words to hear, “I’m from the government and I am here to help.” In 2006, we witnessed and experienced the beginnings of a national recession which sent major shock waves throughout urban America. Foreclosure and bankruptcy gave rise to an increase in demand for assistance. Many people were looking for some type of “bail-out” and many were outraged because many had fallen trap to predatory lenders which promised them help. To make things worse, not only did the housing market bubble burst but so did people’s dreams as our government provided the banks of the predatory lenders “bail-out” funds. Throw in the horrors of war and terrorism it is understandable why one would need to prove to be trustworthy. In the midst of our changing culture and poverty there is a vital need for the church to bridge the gap and establish trust between the church and the unchurched. In order for the urban church to be missional it must understand the culture, namely hip-hop.
The definition of hip-hop is more than a musical genre because hip hop has become the main voice of the people living in urban America. Because of its historical roots, hip-hop cannot be limited to just one generation. Therefore, when defining hip-hop one must take into consideration the overall culture of urban America. Some equate NYC as a modern day Corinth which was known for its wide-spread sinfulness. However, I would not leave out other major cities with this equation. I would extend this “Corinthian” description to all urban America. For this reason, the church cannot stand idle waiting for converts to enter in. The church must be missional! We can expect challenges as we seek to build bridges out of the church walls and into the culture. One challenge is the perspective of hip-hop being evil. We must be real and admit not all of hip-hop is evil. But we cannot unequivocally say all hip-hop is good. Trying to decide if hip-hop is good or bad is not the main point. Such judgment would only feed conflict and set us on a collision course with the ones we are called to love and disciple. Smith and Jackson state, “The collision position on the church and hip-hop works only if you see the church as good and hip-hop as evil rap music, the church as godly and hip-hop as worldly” (Smith and Jackson 2005, 24). The collision position is harmful and does not reflect the ministry of Jesus. We must accept hip-hop is here and it is here to stay because it is a culture. Therefore, the culture of hip-hop is the larger concern for which the church must wrestle if she is to be effective. Smith and Jackson state the following: “The main point is that hip-hop is a culture and within the culture there are philosophers. If the church wants to engage hip-hop culture, not just be provoked in spirit by its idolatrous negative side, it must build bridges with the culture so that theologians, church members and hip-hop philosophers might reason together” (52). Urban pastors must seek out lead ways to be relational and missional. One method is to help their neighborhoods by investing time, labor, and yes, tears. Handouts alone are ineffective. A handout or bailout is a like a bandage to a seriously infectious wound. Healing of urban America will come about only by the church becoming incarnational. Hip-hip needs Jesus in the neighborhood not inside a building known as the institutional church. Lupton states, “When a church has made a commitment to partner with a community to more past betterment, beyond handouts, and toward sustainable development, volunteer involvement takes on increased meaning” (Lupton 2011, 184).
When ministering to an urban people one must become urban and embrace a coexistence mentality. We live together, we can express our feelings together, and we can worship God together! Smith and Jackson state, “The coexistence position sees hip-hop not just as music but as a culture, a milieu in which we are the living and growing up” (Smith and Jackson 2005, 25). One of the first things we need to do in order to be effective in urban ministry is learn the culture. Lupton says, “Be an interested, supportive neighbor for at least six months before attempting to initiate any new activity” (Lupton 2011, 160). Secondly, we need to engage in order to penetrate the culture with the gospel. This means we have to do more that learn about hip-hop we must embrace hip-hop as our culture. If not, we will not be viewed as authentic. Hip-hop has been a tool of the enemy but hip-hop is not our enemy! Smith and Jackson state, “Our enemy has used hip-hop for evil, but we can ‘spiritually hijack’ it for evangelism, discipleship, justice, and missions” (Smith and Jackson 2005, 35). This can only be accomplished through earnest prayer stemming from a compassionate heart that empathizes with the hip-hop culture. Smith and Jackson state, “True hip-hop is not just about being heard; it’s about being felt” (Smith and Jackson 2005, 113). Let us not forget hip-hop has deep spiritual roots in liberation theology. Long before the enemy began using hip-hop for evil God was using it in its embryonic stage to provide hope in Him. The Exodus motif gave hope for African Americans during the time of slavery. The Negro spirituals not only gave the slaves hope it provided a way to release emotion and to communicate through embedded “shout’ messages. As Smith and Jackson confirm, “Like the Negro spirituals, hip-hop is concerned with liberation from bondage” (Smith and Jackson 2005, 95-97). Jesus came to set the captives free! The culture of urban America can be liberated from sin By grace through faith” in the sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. And as redeemed people engage the urban culture, even hip-hop can truly glorify God.
Lupton, Robert D. Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It), (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers), 2011.
Regan, Ronald. YouTube: The Nine Most Terrifying Words, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xhYJS80MgYA (Accessed April 26, 2014).
Smith, Efrem and Phil Jackson, The Hip-Hop Church: Connecting With the Movement Shaping Our Culture, (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press) 2005.