Bethlehem Baptist pastor John Piper took the podium at a Saturday evening service in downtown Minneapolis last fall and introduced Curtis "Voice" Allen, a hip-hop artist. After warning the largely white congregation that his music would "thump" a bit more than typical Bethlehem fare, Allen launched into a lyrical testimony about the unstoppable power of God's irresistible grace: "I been exposed to bright lights, the doctrines of grace, I'm elected, imputed perfected, becuz of the power of God resurrected and his gift of faith, that when we see his face we're not rejected."
Allen repeated the rap at two subsequent Sunday morning services, enough to ignite a full-scale firestorm within the Christian fundamentalist blogosphere. The internet churned with volatile reactions, one blogger labeling all rap as "rape set to music" while others denounced Piper's entire ministry.
"I felt bad for them," Allen said of his critics. "They were so emphatic and so sure about something that Scripture really doesn't clearly define. There's no verse saying this particular music is good or bad."
But many verses examine human frailty and divine sovereignty, topics Allen tackles from a distinctly Reformed perspective. Even the harshest online attackers had no ill words for the theology of his rap, a departure from the shallowness that has characterized much of Christian hip-hop since its commercial inception in the mid-1990s. Allen is part of a small but growing cadre of artists who lace their stylized rhymes with orthodox Calvinism.
For many white, middle-class Christians, hip-hop represents a culture of drug use, violence, and promiscuity-something parents must fight to expel from their children's iPods, never mind their church services. But attitudes may be changing. For all the condemnations of Allen's presence at Bethlehem Baptist, a chorus of counterbalancing voices has come to his defense.
Supporters cite the fruit of Allen's ministry, his unique conduit for taking biblical teaching into places it might otherwise never tread. He knows well the desperately depraved lifestyle of many urban hip-hop fans, having once roamed the streets of Washington, D.C., packing guns and dropping drug deals. His music narrates departure from that scene and calls others to follow.
Allen's path led him to a pastoral internship at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md., a large, suburban congregation connected to Sovereign Grace Ministries. Covenant Life pastor Joshua Harris encouraged Allen to redeem the musical genre of his past, an idea the former thug initially resisted. Upon his conversion to Christianity, Allen had discarded rap along with his old identity.
His debut album, Progression, maintains such animosity for hip-hop culture even while employing that very musical form. On a track titled "All Rap IS," Allen condemns the lifestyle he once idolized: "All rap is, is the lust of the flesh that is easily seen through drugs and sex. All rap is, is the lust of the eyes, almost any video can help you realize that all rap is, is the boasting of what he has and does from how we live to MTV cribs. I ain't hatin' but to me rap's the glorification of what led Christ to propitiation."
On Allen's latest cut, Crucible, he teams up with fellow Reformed rappers from the group Christcentric for a return to classic East Coast flow. A song titled "Contribution" asks introspective questions about hip-hop's place in the church: "So God do you accept my contribution? Does hip-hop not get props with your son? . . . Lord let me know, is the flow inherently evil?"
Like Allen, the members of Christcentric belong to conservative, Bible-believing churches. Quincy A. Jones, aka Q-D.O.G, is an elder candidate at Hope Bible Church in Columbia, Md., where he lives with his wife and five children. Chege Njoroge, aka Evangel, is a father of two and a small group leader at Gaithersburg Community Church. Will Mendoza, aka Apologist, has one son and serves as an elder at Shady Grove Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Derwood, Md.
Christcentric came into existence in the late 1990s and began rapping Reformed theology several years later as its members grew in doctrinal understanding. They released Reformation in September of 2004, an album emphasizing what are commonly referred to as the five solas-Scripture alone, Christ alone, faith alone, grace alone, and the glory of God alone. Their latest CD, City of God, features such tracks as "Redemptive History," "Didactic Music," and "TULIP," an acronym for the five points of Calvinism.
Such titles might help explain why Christcentric and other Reformed rappers have struggled to generate much commercial success. Jones, Njoroge, and Mendoza all hold down other jobs and develop their hip-hop projects on the side, an arrangement they expected when first starting out. "We didn't know if our goal of really having our music saturated with the Scriptures and with theology would even be marketable," Jones said.
The whole of Christian rap represents a marginalized minority within the broader multi-billion-dollar industry of hip-hop. Reformed rap carves out a minority within that minority. Allen doubts whether Christian hip-hop-especially the Reformed variety-will ever make a significant commercial dent in a culture defined by narcissistic materialism and disrespect for women.
But he hopes the musical genre can serve as an evangelistic tool outside the church and a ministerial one within it. So far, Allen's opportunities to perform in church services have come almost exclusively in white churches. Many African-American Christians are wary of welcoming what they view as a destructive force in their communities. Christcentric, on the other hand, has found opportunities in black churches, though the group's overtly Reformed lyrics are not always well-received.
Allen does not view his music as appropriate for the group-singing portion of church services, and the members of Christcentric also do not expect to substitute rap for the Sunday morning hymns of their respective churches. But in the proper cultural context, they say, the form might serve well in a corporate setting. "As long as the music is not glorifying the culture and putting the focus on the artist that is performing it and as long as it is God-glorifying and Christ-focused and causes the listeners to reflect upon the goodness and graciousness of the Lord, then there's a place for it," Njoroge said. "The danger of hip-hop is that it's a pride-driven culture and that can carry over into the church."
Epiphany Fellowship in Philadelphia has drawn attention for its use of Bible-based hip-hop to reach out in an urban setting. Associate pastor William "Duce" Branch is a nationally known producer for Cross Movement, one of the first Christian rap groups. Philadelphia is widely considered the center of the so-called "holy hip-hop" scene, home to Lamp Mode Recording with such Reformed artists as Shai Linne and Timothy Brindle.
The movement has also stretched west with acts like Flame and J'son in St. Louis. Dishon Knox, a divinity student at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, counts such performers as mentors and friends. His exposure to Flame led him to Reformed theology, the focus of his debut album scheduled for release later this year. Knox, aka Born2Di, believes hip-hop can become a force for doctrinal correction. "The black church suffers a lot from theological malnutrition, for lack of better words," he said. "That's what drives me to go to seminary."
Knox is not shy with his musical styling on campus, recently performing during a chapel service. The song "True to Reformed Faith" chronicles his view of his own Presbyterian denomination: "Faithful to Holy Scriptures, true to Reformed faith. Presbyterian Church in America, grow in grace. Obedient to the 'Great Commission,' that's the mission. History ain't perfect, but the goal is gradual submission."