Five Reasons Preachers Should Listen to Hip Hop
N his book The Artist’s Way of Preaching, Charles Denison says, “Most people do not read poetry, but the preacher should!” I wholeheartedly agree. But I will go a step further, I think preachers should listen to poetry too.
I don’t mean that all who teach God’s Word should get a 116 tattoo or become a hip hop groupie. Nor do I mean that if you don’t like rap that you are wrong. You’re just missing out (in my humble but accurate opinion). What I do mean is that I think this particular style of music has some unique benefits for preaching. Here are five:
A good Christian hip hop artist will work really hard to take a known truth and make it feel as though it’s being seen for the first time. Artists like Trip Lee produce potent metaphors for biblical truths.
To give just one example, Trip’s song “I’m Not a Robot,” is a powerful illustration of how the Spirit sets us free from the bondage of sin. Check out his lyrics, “I am not your robot, I am not a clone. You are not my puppeteer and I am not a drone. Got a new master and I follow Him alone. I want a good life ’till I’m gone.”
As Denison says in The Artist’s Way of Preaching listening to poets allows us to learn their trade of “using words to create image.” Download a Trip Lee album and study the way he uses word pictures to convey spiritual realities. It will help you be more creative in helping people imagine the truth you are talking about.
The more important the truths we share the more they deserve to be said in a beautiful way. Why would you display an expensive painting in a cheap frame? Preaching shouldn’t be merely about helping our audience know something, but helping them feel something, helping them see something.
2. Concise and Compelling Sound Bytes:
As the saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of innovation.” Rap music illustrates this point. A rap song has sixteen bars in each verse. This genre imposed limitation forces the hip hop artist to say things in a concise and memorable way. When you have limited time you should weight every word.
Sometimes preachers use light sentences and feathery paragraphs because they know they can take about as long as they want. It’s a shame that some preachers even joke about going long as if it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if the words are weighted and if going long is necessary to better understand and apply the text.
It’s wrong if going long is just because someone hasn’t spent enough time crafting their sermon. I have no doubt I’ve been guilty of this more than once. I think preachers can benefit from seeing how much content can be loaded into a four minute song. I know I have.
Listen to a KB album and see how much truth he is able to share in one sixteen. Regarding persecution, he gets all this into just a few lines, “What are they gonna do, what murder us? What murder does is send a surge of us to go put churches up. Ain’t no hurtin’ us!” Hip hop artists like KB can show meandering preachers, and we’ve all been there, how to get and stay on point.
John MacArthur might be the most sampled preacher in all of Christian hip hop. In addition to having stellar biblical content, he has a rhythm in his preaching that flows well with a rap beat. I certainly don’t want to reduce great preaching to cadence, but I do think this is an area where many preachers can benefit from hearing sermonic rhythm from artists like Shai Linne or the Ambassador.
Consider these lines from Shai Line, “Praise God the Father, the Immortal Creator; For your glory you made us, You’re the Sovereign Orchestrator; All that you decree will most surely come to happen; You’re awesome as can be and Your glory none can fathom; Nothing could ever stain you, the heavens can’t contain you; We thank you for sending your Son to explain you.” Developing a tempo in your preaching might take a lot of wordsmithing and a whole lot of thought and practice. But preaching is worth it, right?!
4. Translating Theology:
Listen to Flame’s albums Our World Fallen and Our World Redeemed and you will see what it looks like to park the biblical worldview at a specific address. Flame takes deep concepts and puts them in a narrative format custom made for a target audience.
If we aren’t careful, our theological propositions can be aimed at the sky. Christian hip hop provides examples of truth spoken in context: both a biblical context and a cultural one. For example, Flame expresses the truth explained by the Apostle Paul in Acts 17 regarding God’s sovereign placement of the nations with modern application in his song Where God Placed You:
“He placed me right here. Do you think about your place on the map? Some born in the suburbs, some in the trap. He placed you right there. Consider your race, your city and state. Your third world or US of A. He placed me right here. Consider your race. By God’s design, you were placed in time and space. He placed you right there. Before the day of your birth. God decided where He wanted you to stay on this earth.”
Artists like Flame can help us be more thorough in explaining ancient truths with an eye towards modern application.
I think it could be easy to preach theological truths as if our audience lived in the Garden of Eden. We can make following Jesus look like a simple formula that is easily perfected. Christian hip hop gives an example of “theology in sneakers,” the gospel in real life. Listen to Json’s album No Filter for a view of Christian life from the trenches of the lived experience. Christian rap can help us think deeply about the way our message might sound on the other side of the lectern.
Everyone has a different preaching style and I’m not saying there is one right way. But reading poetry, or better, since our’s is a spoken trade, listening to poetry, can positively affect one’s preaching. So, listen to some solid gospel-centered hip hop. Your soul and your preaching will be better for it.
(Originally published in December, 2016)