DJing and the art of pastoral care

A Different spin on the role of the pastor, Part 2

Kimberly Williams Image Kimberly Williams | Feb 27, 2012

What do the Hip Hop DJ and the youth pastor have in common? The first time I sat down with DJ Hapa, the Executive Director of the LA Scratch Academy (a school for aspiring DJs), I told him that I thought pastors and DJs have a lot in common. I had no idea how he would respond.

He paused and then said, “That’s really interesting. That’s probably one of the most interesting parallels that I’ve ever heard when it comes to DJing, but it rings true, definitely.” [[DJ Hapa interview at the LA Scratch Academy in Los Angeles, CA on December 5, 2008.]] As we continued to talk, I could feel so much energy building in our conversations as we compared our very different worlds and explored what we could learn from one another.

Though their content and their context are very different, this two part series is exploring what the pastor can learn from the art of DJing. [[The DJ is not the disc jockey of the 1970s who played tracks of music. “Rather, he or she is a creative artist who takes segments from songs and arrangements and mixes them together to create new music.” [Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, 2005, p.25.]] Part one of the series focused on how DJs study their content. This article will explore the way a DJ communicates to an audience.

While in seminary, I studied intercultural studies and focused my degree on learning more about hip hop culture, specifically hip hop DJs. I was surprised to discover what I could learn, and even more surprised to see fingerprints of the Holy Spirit in the interactions and movements of this community. The DJs taught me how to listen, and they taught me how to communicate more effectively.


Sugar and Medicine
At one point in my conversations with DJ Hapa I told him I thought there’s one way the pastor-DJ analogy breaks down. The pastor has an obligation to present the whole text to the congregation, not just the parts that they want to hear. Hapa argued that the DJ has a similar responsibility; he explained that DJs introduce the audience to new music that they have never heard before. In those instances, the DJ has no idea how the crowd will respond.

When I asked him how he did this he smiled and referenced a song from the movie Mary Poppins saying, “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” He said, “You know you gotta give them the medicine, they need the medicine, but you kinda have to hide it in the sugar.” [[Hapa, 2008.]] The skill is in knowing the right ratio of sugar to medicine for the crowd that you are speaking to in that moment. He said you could work the same club every Saturday night and you still have to do your homework in order to figure out the right combination of sugar and medicine.

As he shared, I couldn’t help but think of how the youth pastor has a similar challenge of balancing truth and grace. To offer one without the other does not do justice to the gospel message. I also thought of how different congregations and youth groups need to hear messages of truth or of grace in varying proportions at different times. Like the DJ, the pastor needs to do his or her homework to know just the right combination of “sugar and medicine” for their community.

Reading the Crowd
The way that a pastor or a DJ discerns what material to offer is by reading the crowd. After DJs learn the technical skills of working a set of turntables, they focus on noticing the small details of discerning the movements and responses of the crowd. The DJ can’t just create a playlist beforehand and press “Play,” otherwise they could easily be replaced with an iPod. Before a gig, DJs do their homework. They create a plan, but they also know that there will be many adjustments to that plan throughout the night. A different crowd may show up, a DJ before you might have just played some of your best stuff, or you might go on late and discover that people are tired. There are a lot of things that the DJ has to pay attention to when they decide in the moment what music to share.

The DJ has to feel the crowd and take them on a journey. A good DJ knows when to pick up the pace, when to slow it down, when to provoke people, when to introduce them to something new, or remind them of something from their past. Good theologians need these same skills of awareness and discernment.

Youth pastors need to pay attention and be willing to change their plan in order to reach the audience before them. Donald Smith, in Creating Understanding: A Handbook for Christian Communication Across Cultural Landscapes, explains how important it is to remain aware while you are presenting. Smith writes, “The most important thing is simply to pay attention. Instead of half-listening while your mind is pursuing other thoughts, focus on the words, trying to identify the purpose of the message and discerning the context from which the message comes.” [[Donald K. Smith, Creating Understanding: A Handbook for Christian Communication across Cultural Landscapes, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1992, p.72.]] Hearing the words you are saying, and paying attention to the young people you’re talking to, allows you to be open to the nudge of the Holy Spirit in the moment.

Something Old, Something New
Most musicians do the work of composition. According to DJ Hapa, DJs are the only musicians who focus on decomposition and recomposition. [[Interview with DJ Hapa and Kimberly Williams by Spencer Burke. DJ Hapa Remixing the Role of Pastor., 2009.]] DJs are masters in the art of remixing, or altering songs by changing the musical components, adding to, or taking out parts of a song.

Often a DJ will take a piece of music apart and then put it back together again in a new way, sometimes putting things next to each other that have never been put together before. To do this well, they need to be very familiar with the original content and meaning of the songs so that they can shape the sound to suit their audience. Remixing allows artists to add their own personality and perspective to an original piece of art, and to reframe the piece for a different context.

For the youth pastor, there is a biblical precedence for the “remix” in the Bible. In the Old Testament, Genesis through Kings was written for a specific audience. This was the account of the people of God to which the ancient Israelites referred in order to understand their relationship with God. It starts with the beginning of the world and it follows the story of the people of God until the exile. After 1st and 2nd Kings comes 1st and 2nd Chronicles, which basically retells the story of Genesis through Kings except this time for a post-exile audience. It’s the same story, but different aspects of the story are highlighted. For example, the temple has been rebuilt so there is more emphasis on worship in the temple and why that is important.

Or another case of remixing in the Bible is the four gospel accounts in the New Testament. Each author tells the same story of Jesus’ life but emphasizes different characteristics as they write for different audiences. Matthew writes to a Jewish audience trying to convince them that Jesus was the promised Messiah. Mark writes to the Romans, often explaining Jewish words and customs, and he portrays Jesus as the servant of God. Luke writes to the Greeks and emphasizes that Jesus was a man. John emphasizes Jesus’ divinity and writes to a Gentile/Christian audience. The gospel authors take into account their audiences in how they tell the story.

In this way youth pastors have a certain amount of freedom to tell the story of the Bible with an emphasis on what will resonate with students in their context. The remix has to be based off of the original and, done well, must hold the integrity of the story. In this way the gospel comes alive in new ways in every community while remaining grounded in the same truths.


By putting the role of the DJ and the role of the youth pastor next to each other, we can learn from one another. DJs teach us a style of communication that is informed, fluid, and improvised. They know their content and context so well that they can make informed decisions about what to play in any given moment. As pastors caring for a specific group of young people, may we be challenged to share the truth and the grace of the gospel message, pay close attention to the messages we’re communicating, and work hard in order to contextualize the story of the people of God for our audience.

Action Points

  • When preparing a talk, are you more focused on sharing what you have studied or discerning what your audience needs to hear at that time? If the former, are there specific ways you might include more listening into your teaching?
  • Pull together a diagnosis task force. Take some time to explain the “sugar/medicine” concept to a few members of your youth group. Ask them to help you brainstorm examples of “sugar” (what would be encouraging to hear) and examples of “medicine” (what would be challenging to hear) for your group. The next time you give a talk, ask your task force to take notes about what they heard as “sugar” and what they heard as “medicine” in your message.
  • Look up examples in the Bible of the same story being retold in multiple places. What are similarities in the stories? What are differences? How did the Biblical authors speak specifically to the audience in front of them?

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Kimberly Williams Image
Kimberly Williams

Kimberly Williams is the Executive Director of the Good Shepherd Volunteers, a Catholic volunteer program that supports recent college graduates to live in community, explore their faith, learn about simple living, and serve in social service agencies domestically and internationally. She has been involved with urban ministry for over twenty years in Newark, NJ, Oakland, CA, Los Angeles, CA, and Washington, DC. She has worked in the fields of addiction, homelessness, education, and volunteer support. Kimberly holds two masters degrees from Fuller Seminary. The concentration of her Masters of Theology degree was self-care for urban workers and her Masters in Intercultural Studies degree explored the connections between pastors and hip hop DJs. She is passionate about building bridges between communities, insightful conversations, puns, and good chocolate.

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