Book Review: The Hip Hop Church, by Efrem Smith and Phil Jackson
No one can dispute the rapid and worldwide expansion of hip hop culture over the last twenty years. It is a cultural phenomenon largely unanticipated, even frightening to some onlookers. Hip Hop culture exerts tremendous shaping influence on products ranging from apparel to automobiles, from fashion to films, and everything beyond.
Efrem Smith and Phil Jackson in The Hip Hop Church suggest that it is now time that hip hop shape the way we do church if we want to reach urban youth immersed in hip hop culture. The authors wish to "move the African American urban church further along in its heart for unchurched youth and young adults growing up in hip hop" (27). At present, the authors see the local church traveling a course to either collision (where the church pronounces anathema on hip hop and oppose it), compromise (where hip hop overruns the evangelistic effort of the church), or co-existence (where the church develops "a theology for engaging hip hop culture" and "models that use elements of hip hop culture to engage those who have been influenced by it"). The authors write with the hope of furthering the last option, co-existence.
The book is organized into three parts. Part 1 attempts to make the case for why the church should care about hip hop. Several reasons for engaging hip hop culture are given: (1) hip hop remains very influential as a worldwide phenomena; (2) the church largely underestimates the depths of this influence; (3) parents are ill-equipped to engage children immersed in the culture; and (4) many youth fail to grasp how deeply they are influenced by hip hop, so "its impact is often more directive than reflective" (p. 34). The authors move from these reasons for engagement to consider Acts 17 as a model for engaging people in hip hop culture.
Part 2 provides a primer for the hip hop novice. If you know little to nothing about hip hop, you’ll find this a very easy introduction to digest. The authors write with both a familiarity with the genre and an ease that often expresses itself in personal testimony and anecdote. I found myself bobbing my head as they shared some of their own stories about rap and hip hop. The primer itself includes the definition of rap and hip hop (they’re not the same), discussion of blues and spirituals as the seedbed for hip hop art forms, and the post-modern and liberationist underpinnings of hip hop.
Part 3 offers Smith and Jackson’s take on bringing hip hop into the local church. The duo begins by recommending the use of "holy hip hop" as an entry point for churches to consider, and as a cultural expression which churches can help shape. They devote a chapter to exploring the links between traditional black sermonic style and the spoken word styles of emcees. They compare hip hop deejays to church worship leaders, and then they make specific suggestions for bringing hip hop into the church worship service.
I would recommend The Hip Hop Church to anyone wishing to gain a basic understanding of hip hop as a culture and anyone interested in dialoguing with young people about these themes. You’ll find an easy-to-read-and-digest volume suitable as a primer.
While Smith and Jackson do present a readable and friendly case for engaging hip hop culture, as pastor I would have three critiques for their approach and recommendations.
First, the book rests on a rather romantic view of hip hop as a whole. Without further definition, the authors claim that we must "entertain the possibility that certain elements of hip hop culture actually have biblical foundations" (p. 36)—an assertion that requires elucidation. Elsewhere the authors contend that hip hop "began to meet certain core needs of a generation before that generation could articulate the needs they had. Some needs in the lives of the urban African American community, in fact, are being met only by hip hop" (p. 80). The authors also claim that hip hop is relevant and real. They accept the authenticity of hip hop, which is only possible by overlooking or downplaying the crass materialism and fantasy lifestyles that the culture holds out as "the good life" to masses of people who don’t live that life and will probably never come close. It’s difficult to think carefully about appropriating elements of hip hop culture for service to the gospel when discernment seemed lacking.
Second, beyond "reaching youth in hip hop culture," the authors have not developed in the book a clear understanding of what it means to be a youth; nor have they articulated the church’s goal in engaging young people. In places, the book seems to settle for simple inclusion of young people in church programs and some amount of youth control or influence over some church practices. For example, the authors maintain that typical adult-run programs "can keep youth from feeling that they have their own space and platform for expression within the church, coming from their own generational experience" (41). Is the end then merely to provide adolescents or youth with the opportunity for generational expression? Space and expression are surely worthy goods, but only in so far as they serve biblical goals for growth and maturity in Christ. The intergenerational activity in the church always aims at maturity in Christ (Titus 2), not the mere expression of generational desire or experience.
Readers would have been helped by a statement of what healthy adolescence looks like and what, then, adolescents are to become. In this age of perpetual adolescence (adult irresponsibility), engagement with youth must be clear-eyed about who adolescents are and the transition they are making to biblical manhood and womanhood. Hip hop culture—along with the rest of the culture—suffers serious confusions on these points, and leaving this unaddressed is a major limitation of the work.
Third, most critically, the authors start with a desire to hold fast to the gospel of Jesus Christ but lose any clear focus on the cross as the book develops. Phil’s experience with some youth at a camp had a profound impact on him. The youth decided that some forms of music were hindering their walk and so independently agreed to rid themselves of the music. Reflecting on the event, Phil wrote:
The lesson I learned from the Lord on that day was that he changes hearts—I must be faithful to exalt him and teach about him and his ways, and he will do the rest. I learned on that day that I must teach Christ crucified as a lifestyle and not as an addition to anything else. As Christ is lifted up and love for him is cultivated, our appetite to serve and live for him will become unquenchable, and nothing will stand in the way of this hunger. (32)
That was a promising start. But in the end, the recommendations are less gospel-centered and more man-centered than one would hope.
For example, the authors tout a special Friday night service for youth where secular music is played and young people are allowed to slow dance as equivalent to Jesus conversing with the woman at the well in John 4. Jesus was certainly with sinners, but not sinning with them. Not that dancing in itself is sin, but two unmarried people lustfully groping and grinding on one another is. Far too often, strategies that begin with "look how close Jesus was to sinners" end up looking quite unlike Jesus—like youth lustfully slow dancing in a church basement.
In a section on "hip hop theology," the authors criticize "out of touch" pastors and Christians while simultaneously applauding the cultic emphases of members of the Five Percent Nation of Islam—some of whom are prominent hip hop artists. A book recommending major changes in the public worship of Christians must maintain theological discernment and clarity. As the authors moved toward application and recommendation of certain models and methods, regrettably, clarity and discernment were diminished.
The authors are most certainly correct in identifying hip hop as a major cultural force. And they express godly concern for reaching people immersed in this movement, calling the church to find points of contact that advance the gospel. And they do this, in part, by offering a good primer on hip hop for the uninitiated.
But those initiated in both hip hop culture and the church world will find themselves wanting more theological rigor and care when considering strategies for reaching the hip hop generation. Read the book to be more conversant with the young people of your congregations. But I would not recommend it for basic ecclesiological strategy.