Where Did All These Rappers-Turned-Pastors Come From?

by Tony Shepherd May 21, 2015

If you haven't noticed, there's an anomaly on the local church radar.  It’s cropping up from every corner of the states, and even globally.  It’s hard to hide, and it seems to be coming out of nowhere.  I’m talking about the recent trend (and I use that word in the best sense) of Christian hip-hop artists moving into pastoral and even missionary roles in the local church.  The most notable brothers to date that illustrate this move from the arts to pastoral ministry are Trip Lee and Shai Linne.  Both of these are godly men who I’ve had the privilege of knowing for a long time, having worked with them as a producer of several of their projects. It’s great to see them growing as men, as husbands, fathers, and in the various ministries that the Lord has given to them. 

But there are many others besides Trip and Shai.  There’s an entire community of men who have been in and around the critical mass of Christian hip-hop, laboring for the sake of the name of Christ in hard places and without much public visibility.  And many of those men have entered into pastoral ministry or missions.  But where is that all coming from?  What’s fueling this specific kind of participation in the local church?  How did these artsy types get behind pulpits anyway?  I think the church as a whole will be edified by understanding where this is all coming from.  I think that gaining clarity would help us all better steward this unique season of extraordinary grace. 

Christian hip-hop has a history

I’ll admit from the beginning, my hope here isn’t to get into Christian hip-hop history comprehensively.  For that, I leave to others.  My only concern here is to give us a context to frame our perspective.  Christian hip-hop isn't new.  Its roots almost coincide with the rise of mainstream hip-hop and rap in American culture.  I started listening in the mid 90’s, and already there was a lot of diversity in Christian hip-hop. 

But the diversity wasn’t limited simply to style.  There was a diversity of theological and philosophical convictions.  The early years, especially, were full of debates (that I think were helpful) that helped sharpen what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and with what message we’re bringing.  While unified as brothers in Christ, artists, groups, and even labels functioned like magnets as they attracted likeminded fans who resonated with a certain theological and philosophical emphasis.  Out of  that magnetic pull emerged certain voices that latched on to the richness of the Gospel. 

It seemed like God was using this magnetic pull to rally people around His Gospel in unsuspecting ways.  Hip-hop was being used to magnify the worth of Christ and make much of the glory of God.  It was leveraged to articulate the kinds of things you only read in Puritan writers from hundreds of years ago.  The character of God was being expounded over beats.  The nature of the atonement was being fleshed out in detail.  The technical aspects of justification were being unpacked at length.  And it was leading to doxology.  People weren’t mainly impressed with the artistry as much as they were being fed by the substance and provoked to joy.  By God’s grace, people were beholding glories!  It’s from within this context that God was awakening souls, giving new burdens, and stirring up His people to see Christ put on display in greater ways. 

But this is where the major disconnect began.  This burden was not being stirred up from the churches that many of us attended, but from the distant arena of Christian hip-hop.  Now, this is no fault of the music.  God was using it in a mighty way.  But many of us didn’t have local churches that resonated with the same high view of Christ and equal passion for His name in the world.  So rather than the burden finding satisfaction in and through local churches, the burden got heavier and in some cases, frustrating.   Many of us wondered why our favorite artists articulated a view of God so much bigger than our pastors.  Many of us were using podcasts as a way to connect with pastors that preached the same glorious truths.  But still, many of us were functionally church orphans.  And no movement, even Gospel-centered movements, can expect to be sustained apart from the local church.

The local church giving birth to local churches

So we had the gospel.  We had the passion.  We had the burden.  But we needed the context.  We needed to see the beauty of the Gospel come alive in a local church.  We needed to experience what the living word does to a people together under God’s authority in the local church.  So God used a passion for His glory to move brothers into new relationships with healthy local churches that resonated with the same truth that we loved. 

I myself experienced this when I moved our family out to Nashville, TN to join Immanuel Church.  My time there under Ray Ortlund was one of the most spiritually healthy seasons of my spiritual life.  There, I saw the beauty of Christ in the regular preaching of the Gospel.  There, I saw the wonder of the God as the Gospel shaped us as a church and sanctified us through the one anothers.  For three years, my soul, and my wife’s soul was cared for as we prepared for the role I now play at Hampton Roads Fellowship.  That was the missing link for me. 

And other churches have played major roles in shepherding the hearts of many of these Christian hip-hop orphans towards pastoral ministry, also.  Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington DC is another healthy church that has served as a Gospel rich environment for brothers like Trip Lee, Shai Linne, John O, Braille, and others.  There, many of these brothers have seen the beauty of the local church as they set their eyes towards answering the call to various areas of service in the local church.

And there are other churches that have done the same.  The main point here is that we couldn’t take our burdens, skip the local church and then go out on mission.  That’s dangerous, and we know it.  That’s an unhealthy pattern.  And it’s disobedient to God’s call on our lives as Christians.  We can’t answer a call to pastoral ministry by ignoring a call to basic Christianity, which includes our love for and submission to a local church.  In God’s grace, He gave many of us the gift of the local church before we marched out to build anything.

In the final analysis, it’s been God’s Gospel working in our hearts to draw us to Himself.  It’s been God’s gospel working in our hearts to draw us to His people.  And it’s been God’s gospel working in our churches to launch us out into the world for the sake of His name.  It’s not a Christian hip-hop movement that any of us are interested in.  It’s not a hip-hop branded church that we want to see.  It’s not a cool place to do church that any of us want.  We are seeking, by God’s grace, to display His character through the people of God for the glory of God.  May the Lord grant grace to that end, and may we stay humble before the Sovereign Lord of the harvest.