Efrem Smith uses hip-hop music in church, but it’s not a marketing gimmick. For this pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church, embracing hip-hop culture is an expression of his theology and a means of achieving the goal of his ministry: a church that’s a mosaic of all kinds of people.
March 1, 2011 | Editor's note: Efrem Smith and Curtiss DeYoung taught at the Duke Divinity School Center for Reconciliation's 2011 Summer Institute.
To say that the Rev. Efrem Smith thinks outside the box isn’t entirely accurate. He doesn’t recognize the box in the first place. Not that others haven’t pointed it out to him, or even tried to put him in one from time to time. But he isn’t having any part of it.
It was an outlook he got early in life. Growing up in an integrated neighborhood in Minneapolis in the 1970s, he questioned why people gathered in segregated worship services on Sunday mornings.
“It was weird to me to go to school all week and experience racial diversity, but then on Sunday to be faced with the option of having to choose between black or white,” he said. “This didn’t seem right to me.”
And it still doesn’t, which is why he is focused on building multicultural ministries, a term he uses in the broadest sense, said Curtiss DeYoung, a professor of reconciliation studies at Bethel University in Minnesota, who has known Smith for more than 20 years.
“While most people think of diversity in terms of race, he sees it as a spectrum that includes everything from economic disparity to gender issues,” DeYoung said.
Smith has discovered that music is a great way to bring people together. Over the years, he has used a variety of genres, including jazz and gospel. But these days, he’s best known as the founder of The Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis. Or, as it is commonly called, the Hip-Hop Church.
“When we planted Sanctuary Covenant Church, I wanted it to reach across races and ethnicities. I wanted it to be urban and suburban. And I thought that the hip-hop subculture offered a way to do that,” he said.
Why should churches embrace hip-hop culture?
Hip-hop is a music genre and a culture that came out of New York City in the 1970s. The music is similar to rap music but vastly different in purpose, its fans maintain.
Questions to consider:
- Hip-hop is a natural way for Smith to reach the younger generation, but that approach is not for everyone. How might you authentically engage a youth subculture?
- Smith drew on his college experiences to create a diverse and inclusive community. What experiences have you had in your journey of leadership that you could draw upon to lead your institution to greater faithfulness?
- Smith’s metaphor of “mosaic” offers a compelling picture of what the church should be. What metaphor could you use to help others imagine your institution’s faithful future?
- In his transition from parish-based leadership to regional denominational leadership, Smith has found ways to keep his ministry passions alive. How have you done that? Could you do more?
“A lot of rap is degrading, especially to women,” Smith said. “The original principles of hip-hop are peace, love, community, unity and having fun.”
To non-aficionados, the differences between rap and hip-hop might not be obvious, said Iomos Marad, a hip-hop professional who often performs at church services in Minneapolis. He prefers to be called an emcee rather than a rapper. “A rapper doesn’t care what he talks about,” he explained. “An emcee is somebody who speaks to the condition of the community.”
Smith is not alone in his appreciation of the religious potential of hip-hop. Emmett G. Price III, chairman of the Department of African-American Studies and an associate professor of music at Northeastern University in Boston, marvels at the genre’s impact and reach.
“Hip-hop is one of the most important cultural phenomena in the late 20th and now 21st century,” he said. “The simple fact that it has permeated all four corners of the globe and has attracted the attention and passion of youth, young adults and now middle-aged adults of all races, ethnicities, hues and belief systems reveals only a glimpse of its potential.”
Price said that churches that turn their backs on hip-hop are making it that much harder on themselves to attract and retain younger worshippers.
“The irony of the relationship [between] the church and hip-hop is that in many churches nationwide the missing demographic are young people ages 15 to 45, the very population enamored with hip-hop culture,” he said. “The church should not be afraid of hip-hop culture; it should engage it just as it should engage any and every youth subculture, from emo to grunge to punk to goth to neo-soul and beyond. These are our young people -- all of them.”
Eric Gutierrez, author of “Disciples of the Street: The Promise of a Hip Hop Church,” believes that the potential of hip-hop goes beyond just being a recruiting tool. In the right hands -- or mouths -- it can be a powerful evangelical device.
He compares Christian hip-hop to “what the apostle Paul was doing in his epistles, tailoring his voice to each culture and the environment and issues they faced.”
“The use of hip-hop as an evangelical tool is similar to the guitar masses of the ’60s and Christian rock of the ’80s,” he said. “But there is a vital distinction: Hip-hop is an identity and a culture before it is a musical genre. That is central to why hip-hop is so powerful in outreach.”
He continued: “The use of hip-hop beats and other cultural signifiers in religious services amounts to more than just contemporary praise music. It achieves the level of a genuine church movement.”
The approach has worked at The Sanctuary Covenant Church. It was launched with about two dozen people on Super Bowl Sunday in 2003. The timing wasn’t a coincidence. Smith and his wife, Donecia, invited the people to a late-afternoon gathering in their home with the promise that a Super Bowl party would follow.
Today, the church has a membership of about 260 but draws an average of nearly four times that to its Sunday morning services. The congregation is about 55 percent white, 35 percent black and 10 percent other minorities, mostly Latino and Asian. (In the most recent demographic statistics from the census bureau, those numbers for Minneapolis as a whole were 65, 18 and 17 percent, respectively.)
The congregation also tends to skew toward young adults, with 45 percent of the members between the ages of 19 and 33. Its website proclaims: “We’re probably not your mama’s church experience.” And it goes on to describe a typical service: “It’s loud. It’s casual. It’s high energy.”
Only two of those three labels apply to Smith. His energy appears to be boundless, especially when he leaps -- literally -- to his feet to preach. And casual? He can slide from a profound examination of theological theory into a playful self-deprecatory joke so fast that you can hardly keep up.
But loud, he most definitely is not. If anything, he tends to be more on the soft-spoken side. When it comes to motivating people, he’d rather do it with rational reasoning than by screaming at them.
“My leadership style is one of leading by vision-casting and through inspiration that mainly comes out of my preaching and teaching,” he said.
Embracing reconciliation and the multicultural mosaic in the West
Now he’s taking his vision to a much wider audience. Six months ago Smith left his church in Minneapolis to become superintendent of the Pacific Southwest Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church, a vast area that includes Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada and Utah.
Besides uprooting his family -- including daughters Jaeda, 13, and Mireya, 11 -- and making them move 2,000 miles from their friends, Smith's biggest hurdle in taking the West Coast position was his concern that he’d miss being a pulpit pastor.
“I love preaching, and I knew that would be hard to give up,” he said. “But, as it has turned out, in this job I get to preach about two Sundays a month. In fact, I just preached five Sundays in a row, each in a different church. So that hasn’t been an issue.”