ATLANTA (AP) Heavy bass beats echo through the church as youngsters rush down the sanctuary aisles. Colorful stage lights spin overhead and fans scream, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!”
Yet, when the sextet Dem Unknown WarriorZ appears up front, the music and the audience go quiet. Group leader Bennie “Preacha” Foster asks the crowd of about 2,000 to first “give God the praise.” Then the beat returns even louder than before.
This high-energy act could stand as the headliner at any nightclub. But the group’s chosen stage is the pulpit, bringing a faith-infused version of the hip-hop style called crunk to Atlanta-area churches.
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“We’re fishing,” Foster said after a performance at Divine Faith Ministries in suburban Jonesboro. “The bait youngsters are eating is hip hop. So we take that music, dice it up, we put some Jesus flavor to it and save souls in Jesus’ name. That’s how we do it.”
To its fans, crunk music, with its electronic drums and synthesized brass sound, generates excitement akin to a religious experience. It was popularized by Southern-based producer Lil Jon, known for his trademark shouts and hit singles “Get Low” and “Snap Yo Fingers.”
But the genre is most often associated with R-rated chants.
“We switch up the message with the thumping beat they recognize,” Foster said. “We present ourselves in a hip-hop manner, so youths can have something they can relate to.”
Dem Unknown WarriorZ first came together in 2001 through Foster’s NowFaith International Ministries, taking their name from a fan who called them Christ’s warriors. Now, they perform at least twice a week at worship services and Bible studies.
The other members are Greg Taylor, 24, who studies religion at Georgia State University; Dice Gamble, 31, who is focusing on her solo gospel rap career; Tracy Brown, 33, and Anthony Brown, 45, who are pastors; and Talon Stuart, 32, an entrepreneur.
The unorthodox approach isn’t always a hit.
With distinctive baggy clothing, long shiny chains and Foster’s mouth full of gold teeth, the group members are often mistaken for thugs.
After Taylor posted a performance of their song “Walls Down” on video-share giant YouTube, their single received over 23,500 hits and mostly negative reviews.
“I doubt very seriously that these misguided children are jumping up and down from the joy of the Lord,” one posting read. “I highly suspect it’s the BEAT that’s got them riled up.”
The Rev. Rodney Turner, a Baptist minister in Atlanta, believes bringing crunk into church isn’t right. A pastor for 17 years, he said youngsters can be saved without using worldly tactics.
“Does God need new gimmicks to uplift us? No,” Turner said. “Romans 12:2 says: ‘Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ Really, are young people turning from things such as their bad habits and fornication after the show? That’s what it all comes down to.”
Foster defends the group’s approach, arguing that new strategies are needed to reach the unchurched. As one example of his unconventional outreach, he rents space at noon on Sundays in the nightclub Club Chocolate, where he holds youth meetings.
“We represent harder than any other person,” he said. “We are born-again, sanctified, delivered in Jesus’ name. Some people have a problem with the way we represent. It’s time for some … Christians to stand up and represent in the industry and the media.”
Christians have always debated how far they should go in adapting popular culture for evangelical work. Many church leaders worry that mixing the Gospel with the latest musical trend waters down the message. And they fear that embracing popular ways can corrupt the very people who are using the method to save souls.
But Tracy Brown said his six children have been able to relate better to church because of gospel crunk, and it has given them a positive outlook.
“For me to hear my kids sing the songs and understand, it helps me,” Brown said. “Rather than talking about shooting someone or drugs, I know for my children I want to hear them say something positive.”
Diamond Gatlin, 17, who attended the event at Divine Faith Ministries, said she likes the beat of gospel crunk and the style makes her more interested in worship. “I can get the message a whole lot better because it has an urban feel to it,” Gatlin said.
Yvette Stubber, 46, who attended the event at Divine Faith Ministries, where she’s been a member since 1995, said Christians need to wake up to the needs of a new generation and that gospel crunk sends a welcoming signal to young people.
“We’re trying to bring to the kids that we recognize them, and get them into church,” Stubber said. “What better way to do this for them?”