Churches use hip-hop in effort to reach teenagers
QUINCY, MASS. – House lights pulse to a hip-hop beat while the crowd whoops and screams at a stage sprayed with rainbow-colored lights.
The word of God spills out into the church in an electrifying, staccato stream.
“J Christ poppin’, never stoppin’, life of God is always rockin’,” rap three members of Altar Nation, a religious rap ministry that performs weekly at the Bethel Church of the Nazarene’s “Teen Extreme” services, drawing a crowd that rivals Sunday’s attendance.
“We move the crowd and get them hyped,” said rapper Kinsin Theodoris, 16.
“We’re taking the culture of today and putting it out through God rock,” he added.
While rap’s unholy trinity of profanity, sex and bling seems an unlikely candidate for religious outreach, the medium has gotten a new message in churches over the past few years.
“It’s like you’re opening the eyes of a blind person,” said Robert Connolly — a.k.a. Reza-Rec — who leads the youth ministry at Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Brockton, Mass. “The kids don’t realize that God made everything,” including rap, “and they’re used to seeing it used out of context. They don’t realize it can be used in the right form, which is praising.”
“Three H,” or Holy Hip-Hop, music helps Bethel’s teenage congregation negotiate two worlds that don’t quite match up with their lifestyles or their beliefs.
In mainstream rap, “they’re always talking about building up cash,” Theodoris said. “For you to get big, to get to the top, you got to do it at the expense of others.”
“Or shoot your mama,” fellow rapper Gerald Nelson chimed in.
But at the same time, the members of Altar Nation said a traditional church service, with choirs singing prim hymns, wasn’t exactly the place for them either.
Theodoris said he would fake an illness, and always felt like he just didn’t belong.
Now, the young men are in their element when they are bouncing around the altar, rapping about eternal life, nonstop gospel and the right path.
David Midwood, president of Vision New England, a group of 7,000 churches, said the seemingly unlikely marriage of God’s word with Top 40 backbeats is not a surprise.
Christian rap is simply an extension of the black preaching style, and shares a legacy with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he said.
“If you follow ‘I Have A Dream,’ you can almost hear that sense of rhythm and timing. … There’s such a crossover between rap and Christian communication,” he said.
At Midwood’s church in Lawrence, the youth ministry uses rap that transcends language barriers, slipping between English and Spanish over a booming beat to help youth culture meld with religion.
Behind every pocket of religious rap in the state — which most rappers can count on one hand — is a story of a life transformed by music.
The half-dozen rappers of Altar Nation that hang around after a recent sermon are fresh-faced and energetic, vaulting over seats, dancing robotically to their friends’ songs.
But their lives in one of Quincy’s disadvantaged neighborhoods have changed, too.
“I used to swear every other word,” Fidah Salem said, echoed by other members of the group, who said they used to be into “cursing and all that.”
But gospel rappers firmly believe that their message will reach beyond their urban environments.
Verbal Witness has performed in Randolph, Newton and Hamilton. “Teen Extreme” draws teens from Braintree.
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