Bring 'em Out

Evangelizing and Pastoring the Hip Hop Generation

Ralph Watkins | May 1, 2007

Photo by Mwangi Batheca

Bring ‘Em Out: Evangelizing and Pastoring the Hip Hop Generation

The church is called to evangelize the hip hop generation, but the call doesn’t stop there. The church is also called to disciple and pastor the hip hop generation. They are our children, and we can’t detail this work to the children. Hip hop churches that are made up of all young people aren’t healthy families, because healthy families need inter- and cross-generational relationships. The family of God that isn’t diverse in age, class, and gender is an unhealthy family. Some suggest that churches who don’t feel called to minister to the hip hop generation should partner with other churches that do. But such a partnership abdicates their responsibility to the hip hop generation; African American congregations are called by God to take care of their young. The hip hop generation is waiting on the church to extend the olive branch and invite them back to the church. Here is your chance to improve on what you are doing or to begin your outreach to a generation that is waiting on us.

When it comes to evangelizing the hip hop generation, we know that they are anti-institutions and opposed to institutionalized religion. They see themselves as spiritual but not religious. This is an interesting dIrene Chotomy, but George Barna and Robin Sylvan are among those who have been in touch with this population and who have all consistently found this spiritual identity of opposition-to-being-religious. [[George Barna, Evangelism That Works: How to Reach Changing Generations with the Unchanging Gospel (Ventura, Calif.: Regal, 1995); Robin Sylvan, Traces of the Spirit: The Religious Dimensions of Popular Music (New York: New York University Press, 2002).]] This means that the hip hop generation is looking for spiritual encounters that get them in touch with their feelings, encounters with the holy that are relevant, encounters that are applicable to their circumstances and aren’t shrouded in religious language. Much of the language the church uses is a jargon deeply rooted in church culture. Hip hop wants “plain speak” that is direct, honest, and understandable.

Preaching to Save Hip Hop

As preachers and teachers seek to be more relevant and be heard by hip hop, a few hints can inform this shift in sermon preparation. According to Kool Mo Dee in There’s a God on the Mic: The True 50 Greatest MCs, there are some essential components shared by the great emcees or rappers. [[Kool Mo Dee, There’s a God on the Mic: The True 50 Greatest MCs (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2003), i.]] Ten of the key areas Kool Mo Dee has identified are relevant for preaching to the ears of hip hoppers.

  1. Originality: Preachers must bring a fresh and creative slant on the text. Hip hop wants to say, “I never thought about it that way before. I heard this preached before but not put like that.” For preachers to achieve this goal, they will have to take exegesis of the text very seriously.
  2. Concepts: Preachers must be able to paint pictures that are multidimensional and present coherent sermons and teaching series that develop an idea from start to finish. Sermon series need to be seen like a compact disc in development and style, one CD consisting of tracks that connect and compliment each other.
  3. Versatility: Preachers need to be free to experiment with new ways to present the Word, to vary the style and approach they use. This pushes preachers to consider changing or updating their style instead of developing and resting their careers on one style. Hip hop embraces change.
  4. Substance: One’s preaching must have social relevance. Hip hop wants preachers to answer the “so what?” question. Hip hop wants to see connections as the preacher samples and remixes Scripture with social commentary.
  5. Flow: Flow is about syncopation and cadence. Preachers with a versatile flow based on the sermon will be heard easier by hip hop. Preachers need to feel free to teach, preach, and teach/preach. Hip hop wants the preacher to “bring it,” as the old skool would say.
  6. Flavor: Flavor refers to the preacher’s uniqueness in contrast to other preachers. Preachers must bring energy and some sense of fun to their preaching. Hip hop is looking for preachers who have a signature style that engages them, holds them, and brings them close to the preacher and the Word by the power of the preacher’s flavor. Remember that hip hoppers like high energy.
  7. Vocal presence: The voice of the preacher is something else hip hop wants. The preacher should embrace his or her unique vocal qualities. The vocal qualities need to be developed and recognizable. The best of emcees are so recognizable that by the time they finish a sentence or a bar on a track the audience knows just who it is.
  8. Live performance: Hip hop is looking for a performance. The church may find this suspect, but the best of African American preaching has always been performance. In an entertainment culture, preachers who want to reach hip hop must confront the reality that they are looking for and expecting a great live performance.
  9. Poetic value: The use of story, metaphor, and simile is also important for hip hop. Preachers who use stories in their preaching to amplify the stories in the Bible and their relevance/application for today’s life will resonate with the hip hop ear. They are looking for the tricks and power of the metaphor or the story within the story as a hook to keep them in tune and in touch with the preached and lived word.
  10. Lyrics: Whether you are a manuscript preacher, no-notes preacher, or freestyle preacher, the hip hop generation is looking for well-developed, well-crafted sermons that flow like lyrics. The preacher who wants to know more about the structure of lyrics should study song structure or the structure of rap lyrics. The power of the lyrics or structure of the sermon is key to hip hoppers; it is how their ears have been trained to hear.

The preacher who wants to reach the hip hop generation and hold them will need to at least consider those ten ideas in sermon preparation and Bible study teaching.

Radical, Relevant, and Reflective of Church:

The Church Hip Hop Is Looking For
Churches that will be effective in evangelizing the hip hop generation will be churches that are somewhat radical while at the same time not being too radical. This means that the church’s being radical and relevant must be held in tension with the church’s bearing some resemblance to the old church. Hip hoppers want their cake, and they believe they can eat it too. They want the ministry to be cutting-edge by trying new and relevant things that look nonreligious but have a spiritual appeal. These events can be concerts, coffee hours, luncheons, parties, or practical seminars that are life affirming (not revivals or with God big in the headline); the events have to be designed in a clever way that appeals but doesn’t offend. By “clever” we are not implying sneaky or deceptive; we are suggesting that much thought needs to go into planning the event to look like and be something that will touch hip hoppers where they live. They don’t want another religious service. They have said no to organized church and yes to events that are more spiritual where they can connect in community.

While the church is doing all of this, we also have to remember that hip hop is not asking the church to be the club. They still want some of those things that resemble the old church. Each church has to walk this fine line of being cutting-edge while being old school. This is a tough walk, but each church must be led by God and its pastor as to how God is calling it to negotiate this balance.

Whatever event a church puts on with and for hip hop must be done with excellence and with hip hop intimately involved in the planning and implementation. Hip hoppers demand high quality ministry that is built with them, not for them. This in part explains why they are attracted to mega-ministries with professional staff. They want the best while also searching for small, intimate communities. This means that smaller churches can also meet them where they need to be met. Churches who want to reach hip hop have to be as professional as they can-we are talking about polished ministry. It is better for a church to do one thing well that reaches hip hop than ten things poorly.

The quality of the initial experience hip hoppers have with your church will have a lasting impact. Churches shouldn’t rush to meet and greet hip hop. Churches need to be prayerful and intentional. Start with what you have. Invite hip hop to the planning table and empower them to build with your church leaders. When we started the Young Adult Ministry at First African Methodist Church in Los Angeles, where I serve on staff, the first thing we did was ask the young adults to sit down with us to plan the ministry with us. This didn’t mean that we abdicated our role as leaders, but we engaged in a ministry of mutual submission. As much as I think I know about hip hop, I can always learn. After all, I am a member of the bridge generation; I am not a member of the hip hop generation. I am not going to try and think for them, but I will think with them. Even as you read this book, remember I am sharing what I have learned, but this isn’t the end of the story. It is important for each church to get the rest of the story from the hip hoppers in and around the community.

Rough But Caring: Raw, Real, and Relational
Hip hop is raw, real, and edgy, but its adherents are looking for love. Congregations that aren’t loving will not do well with hip hoppers. They have to feel that the congregation-not just the pastor-wants them there and that the congregation is willing to integrate, appropriately, parts of hip hop culture into the life of the church. A soft heart is what they are looking for, but they are not afraid of being confronted with the truth in a real and raw fashion. They want it straight-no chasers-but this must be done in love, not in a way that is demeaning, dogmatic, and “superior.” This calls for a delicate balance, but it is one the church must strive to achieve. This means that the church must rethink not so much what it says but how it says what it says. An honest approach, based on love and sensitivity to the audience, using the language they use, and realizing that hip hop is on a spiritual journey, will go a long way toward reaching the hip hop generation.

The key to the communication with hip hop is honesty and transparency. Hip hop will not tolerate folk who aren’t “real.” By this I mean they embrace struggle, paradox, and tension. Church has a tendency to present things simply or simplistically in dualities of right and wrong. The church has a hard time walking in or dealing with the gray areas. Church culture has a tendency to pretend that those in the church have it all together, especially in our middle-class and upper-class churches. In reality, all in the church are not free from sin, but there is this great Sunday-morning cover up. When churches do talk about sin, it is often limited to sex, smoking, chewing, or drinking-with media culture appearing as the enemy of the church. Sin, the temptation to sin, and falling into sin is a complex topic; it is deeper than many churches are willing to go. Hip hop wants the church to deal honestly with the complexities of sin and the times we all fall into sin. Hip hop does not want the church to sweep all the dirt under the rug. Pull the rug up, uncover the dirt, and help them deal with the complexities and paradoxes that hip hoppers face each and every day. Hip hop isn’t afraid to deal with the messiness of trying to live right. This generation understands that many times this reveals an appearance of contradiction, but they are willing to work through this. Their music embraces the appearance of the contradictions, and the church can learn a lot from hip hop in this regard.

Keeping the World Out or Letting It In:

Teaching through the Culture
The complexities that hip hop embraces as it relates to sin, holiness, and right living are found in the culture. The greatest teaching about the way hip hop handles these complexities can be found by listening to the average compact disc if you follow it from the first track to the last. There is a flow in the construction of most CDs that can guide the church in both hearing and talking back to hip hop. I’ve learned to deal with the complexities of hip hop culture by listening, to have success with young adults not by condemning their culture but by embracing their culture. I have found that teaching through the culture gets me where I need to be as it relates to rough, honest caring and growing in my ability to understand their complex minds. The culture educates me and informs me as to what is on their minds. Hip hop culture also lets me know what is at the root of their spiritual quest and what things they want me to walk through as we search together for answers. To get to the point I am describing calls us in the church to respect hip hop culture and realize that the culture has something to teach the church.

Teaching through the culture means using the culture as the church’s friend rather than the enemy. The church has to remember that this generation defines itself by a culture it has embraced: hip hop. While parts of hip hop culture are unhealthy, other parts of the culture are affirming and life-sustaining. The church can use the culture as a window for dialogue and relationship building while learning from the culture. I am in no way putting the church above hip hop. I am not trying to argue for a hierarchy as much as I am trying to suggest a point of mutual respect and engagement that can inform the church’s evangelistic appeal to hip hop. I am not saying that the church should manipulate the culture to trick people into making faith commitments. I firmly believe that hip hop culture has something to offer the church: The church can learn a lot about honesty, truthfulness, and being real from hip hop. I don’t want to be misunderstood here. What I am saying is that as the church listens and learns from the culture, these learning and listening moments can be transformed into teaching moments.

Let me offer an example of how I teach through hip hop culture as I understand how hip hop culture sees the church, using my encounter with the recent release from Ice Cube. Ice Cube’s latest compact disc, Laugh Now, Cry Later, has a cut titled “Go to Church.” The chorus of the song has the line, “If you a scared mother—-, go to church.” [[Ice Cube, “Go to Church,” Laugh Now, Cry Later, CD (Lynch Mob Records, 2006).]] The implication is that only weak or scared brothers go to church. The song raises the issue of what a man is or what it means to be tough and street. If one is street or tough, one doesn’t go to church; people handle their business; they do whatever needs to be done to squash battles or beefs with another brother. What I do in my teaching is deal faithfully with this construct of how to resolve disagreements that exist in the inner city. I don’t condemn the way to deal with disagreements that Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg present, but I engage it.

What I have done as a DJ and Bible study teacher is to use the radio play list as my teaching and learning tool. I consciously listen to what the radio is playing, and I look for themes in the top five songs. I then go to iTunes or some other source like Wal-Mart or a record store and buy the music. To break down the lyrics, I go to and print the lyrics. I study the song for understanding, not in order to critique. After understanding the song and giving the artist and the art the benefit of the doubt, I allow my teaching to faithfully engage the art, the artist, and his or her work as I put them in dialogue with the Bible. In no way do I belittle or unfairly judge the artist, but I treat them, their work, and their position with the utmost respect. In many instances I don’t just deal with the radio song, but I deal with the breadth and scope of the artist’s work and his or her own biography. I like to come to the table at study knowing a great deal about the artist and his or her life and work. I may engage the entire album the artist has just released and let it enter into dialogue with the Bible.

The beauty of this approach is that it brings instant relevance and engagement. But more importantly, we are teaching our people how to make their faith inform and engage their daily lives. The principles of fairness are so important when doing this. Bible teachers must take an even-handed approach in teaching through the culture by realizing that many of those who are sitting under your tutelage listen to the culture for direction, affirmation, and religious instruction. To blast the work and put it down does us and them no good. To faithfully engage the work and respect it and find some good or redeeming qualities in it is what will advance your work with the hip hop generation.

Reaching Them Where They Are:

Being in Tune and on the Internet
The culture tells us where the hip hop generation is. As you listen to the music, read Vibe magazine, The Source magazine, XXL magazine, and tune in to the culture, this will give the church a sociogenerational tracking system to tell you exactly where they are, what they are dealing with, and how to speak to them. The themes are repetitive; the cycle of life that young people are experiencing is in itself predictable. Yet to understand hip hop you can’t stop at printed material; you must go to the virtual world of the Internet in which they live.

Hip hop uses the Internet and the virtual world in a complex way to develop community. The construction of their community is linked to the way they share information about each other and the worlds they live in. The explosion of Facebook and MySpace are just two examples. Churches that hope to effectively evangelize the hip hop generation must think about how to strategically use the Internet-that is, to use the Internet the way the hip hop generation uses it. For hip hop, the Internet is not just about e-mail and visiting web pages; the Internet is about community. It is about being in a space and developing space for communication, relationship building, identity development, values clarification, and a host of other functions. Churches have to catch up with the way hip hop is using the Internet, because this will inform churches on how they can effectively use technology to reach out and touch hip hop. While churches are knocking on doors and street witnessing they could be blogging or podcasting.

The church can learn a lot from the club flyer culture that is hip hop. If you go to any local college campus, club event, or concert, you will get bombarded with club flyers. Club flyers are bold 4 x 6-inch cards printed on glossy cardstock and handed out by people who are unashamedly promoting their events. When you stand in line to go into an event or you’re leaving an event, people promoting similar events are handing out flyers. When I have been at these events, concerts, college campuses, or club events, I haven’t seen churches promoting their events.

At First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, a major project of our Young Adult Ministry has been to work with a firm to design our website and ministry flyer to look just like a club flyer. We then go to concerts, clubs, and college campuses and hand out our flyers. The response we get is interesting, because the flyer is so well done that the first thing the recipient does is admire the flyer. Thinking that it is a club flyer, a person takes it, and then with surprise says, “Oh, this is a church.” The look of amazement is worth all we spent in making the flyer. Normally one of two things happen next: people say thank you or ask questions about what we are doing. They are excited that we are there, not confronting them or street witnessing but only handing out flyers like everyone else in the crowd. We also give away CDs and DVDs of our ministry so they can see and hear what we are teaching and what we are doing.

When we go into the streets to hand out our club flyers, we fit in. We dress hip hop, we talk hip hop, we walk hip hop, and we have all the paraphernalia in terms of flyers and CDs that accompany such an event. People are surprised to see us there when they realize we are from a church. The response is overwhelmingly positive, because where many of the hip hop feel like the church has dissed them, we are reaching out to them. They want the church to reach out to them, welcome them, and show them how the church is integrating hip hop culture into the church. That is why our dress, walk, and talk is so important. We are showing them how First AME Church is becoming hip hop and demonstrating that you can be hip hop and holy. When they see how this is being done, they feel affirmed and are much more likely to visit our website, subscribe to our podcast or videocast, or come to one of our bridge events.

While doing street ministry, if a person pursues conversation with us, we don’t invite him or her to worship first. They know church goes on Sunday morning; we aren’t doing anything revolutionary by pointing them to Sunday morning. As a matter of fact, we don’t invite them to anything that is happening on Sunday morning. The event we want to invite them to may or may not be overtly religious, but it will be something happening relatively soon. We want to give ways to respond to our connection that doesn’t lock them in to Sunday. We are trying to get them to give First AME Church and God a second look in the context of Christianity. We may invite them to our Tuesday night Journey Experience, which is a type of Bible study that includes performance, spoken word, and rap. We may invite them to our First AME Church FAME and Faith lecture series, our young adult party nights, a dinner, or other event we have planned with hip hop for hip hop. The key here is making the invitation in a non-threatening, non-confrontational way. We leave it open. There is no pressure. If we apply any pressure, it is for them to visit the website. What we have found is that people respond. Once some momentum begins to build around your events and hip hop embraces them, they will spread the word.


  • Ralph states at the beginning of this article, “Hip hop churches that are made up of all young people aren’t healthy families, because healthy families need inter- and cross-generational relationships. The family of God that isn’t diverse in age, class, and gender is an unhealthy family.” How do you respond to this? How would you analyze your own church’s response and reach across generations, and who do you need to engage in conversation about that?
  • One of the key suggestions Ralph makes is to become a learner of culture, recognizing that you are coming from a different cultural perspective when you speak across generations, whether the audience is hip hop or not. To what extent do you see your ministry as a cross-cultural learning experience? What about the other volunteers or staff, or your church’s other pastoral staff and lay leaders? Begin to map out a strategy for communicating this shift in thinking to other ministry leaders, and perhaps forward this article to them to start the conversation.

Dr. Ralph Watkins, who leads Fuller’s African American Church Studies Program as Assistant Dean of the School of Theology, is committed to helping churches and leaders prayerfully respond to the hip hop culture that permeates much of America today. What follows is an excerpt from Ralph’s recent book, The Gospel Remix: Reaching the Hip Hop Generation. As we’re hearing at CYFM, more and more youth workers in American suburbs and small towns are realizing that hip hop culture isn’t contained to urban cities anymore. Wherever you serve kids, we hope that this portion of The Gospel Remix helps you respond to hip hop as well as other cultural threads that weave their way through your kids’ lives.

The following material is reprinted by permission of Judson Press, excerpted from Chapter 5 of The Gospel Remix: Reaching the Hip Hop Generation by Ralph C. Watkins (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, [2007]), [pages 61-78]. 1-800-4-JUDSON.

Ralph Watkins

Ralph C. Watkins, DMin, PhD, is the Assistant Dean, African American Church Studies Program in Fuller’s School of Theology, and an Associate Professor of Society, Religion and Africana Studies. A pastor, author, and musician, Ralph is known for his work in connecting churches with the hip-hop generation. Watkins is an active teaching scholar with over 250 publications and conference presentations to his credit. A syndicated columnist, his column “Black in the City” is published in over 30 newspapers throughout the U.S. His most recent book is The Gospel Remix: Reaching the Hip Hop Generation. Watkins holds a Doctor of Ministry from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and a PhD in sociology from the University of Pittsburgh.

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