Pastor Ken Muldrow looks out through his dark sunglasses from the DJ booth in the back of the sanctuary. He sees the rows of red chairs, the bowed heads of the congregation and the open dance floor. And he can see his oldest son, KJ, who is struggling to give the opening prayer. Bent over the clear Lucite lectern at the front of the room, KJ twists with anticipation as he awaits the word of God. He rests his head on the podium's cool surface, his shoulders hunched underneath his purple Minnesota Vikings jersey. He is still waiting silently when his father's voice comes through the speakers next to him, "Praise Jesus. And bless everyone who has come here today to this hip-hop ministry. Amen."
KJ steps off the pulpit and his father slides up the fader, releasing a heavy Southern funk beat that cascades through the small sanctuary. To an outsider, the moment seems unbearably tense, yet it's normal for the father and son. This ministry is young, and there will always be growing pains when parents ask their children to take on more responsibility. KJ and his father know that.
Two months ago The General Assembly of the First Born Inc., on Moses White Boulevard in West Tampa, traded its normal Sunday service for a hip-hop ministry. The new service uses some of the old staples - the opening blessing, the sermon, the altar call. But the lead pastor sits in the back now, playing CDs. A rapper's set can stand in for the sermon. And the church's teenagers, like KJ, have begun to help shape the message. Run by a leadership team made up of the church's pastors and their kids, the hip-hop ministry is General Assembly's attempt to make the gospel relevant. The predominantly African-American congregation still meets throughout the week for traditional worship. But now Sundays are for the kids - and for their parents.
General Assembly isn't the first church to use hip-hop to reach young people - it's not even the first one in Tampa. Crossover Community Church, just west of the Lowry Park Zoo, draws hundreds to its services each week. Believed by many to be the world's model hip-hop church, Crossover is booming - largely because of its young lead pastor, Tommy Kyllonen. Known in the world of Christian hip-hop as Urban D, Kyllonen has released five rap albums and travels around the country speaking at conferences; he's an emerging expert on bringing the Word to the hip-hop generation.
These two churches - General Assembly and Crossover - are different in too many ways to count. Kyllonen has a record contract and a degree in urban ministry, and his church, when the lights dim and someone raps on stage, can look more like a nightclub than a sanctuary. He is slick and successful, his message clear and compelling.
General Assembly, just six services into its hip-hop ministry, has questions to answer. Money is tight. Attendance is growing, but slowly. The young folks are just beginning to grasp what it means to be a leader, and their parents, too old to be a part of the hip-hop generation, can't authentically reach the unchurched masses on their own.
But these churches have something in common, too. A faith that is simply unshakable. They both believe this is what they are meant to do.
Gospel hip-hop, or holy hip-hop, is by most accounts a genre in its infancy. As Christian rock continues to gather attention by bringing suburban white kids into the church, the Word has also made inroads into mainstream rap, highlighted by Kanye West's Grammy-winning single "Jesus Walks." But while West may have gotten His name onto the airwaves, the song - which includes profanity and a line about not wanting to convert atheists - is hardly rooted in scripture.
The idea of hip-hop being holy at all is counterintuitive to most; it's supposed to be about bitches and bling, not loaves and fishes.
Thus much of holy hip-hop is caught in what amounts to genre purgatory. It's too preachy, too spiritual and too clean for those who listen to secular hip-hop; yet it's too hard, too dangerous, and too raw for the traditional church. Its missionaries - and there are many - are left to promote their message at conferences and festivals around the country, such as last month's Holy Hip-Hop Awards and Summit in Atlanta.
Over 150 acts performed during the weekend, and countless more strolled through the small arena, hawking their CDs and showing their stuff in freestyle "get-togethers" (it's a convergence, remember, not a competition). Contacts were made, Sunday morning gigs were booked, and the movement's pioneers, including Kyllonen, taught ministry seminars on hip-hop's potential to attract that coveted 18-24-year-old market.