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Monday, December 7, 2015

Rap Up Your Preaching: What a Preacher Can Learn from Rap Music

Lately my 12 year old son, Zach, has been listening to rap. He carries his Ipod around the house blasting the funky music for all of us to hear. If his Ipod is not available, usually because I confiscated it, he will rap for us. If I believed in rap karma, I would conclude that I’m being punished for the torture I subjected my family to when I was Zach’s age. Rap was my thing, or “thang,” back then. I went to sleep listening to NWA, The Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy. I’m thankful that Zach prefers a much more wholesome brand of rap, like the Christ-exalting lyrics of Lacrae and Andy Minneo. Regardless, I’ve grown tired of rap, I suppose from imbibing too much of it as a kid. I suppose it could be worse. At least there’s no country music playing in our home.

Since my pastoral eyes and ears are trained to locate redemptive value in just about anything, I’ve discovered several ways that rap music can inform Christian preaching.    

Familiar but Fresh: The best rap songs will often use a familiar tune with fresh lyrics for a new generation. Listeners hear the familiar tune but in a fresh way. The fresh lyrics give the familiar tune a new feel. And that gives the song a captive audience. I remember Nice and Smooth did this with Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car (80s) in their rap song Sometimes I Rhyme Slow (90s). We preachers are called by God to tell the old familiar story in new and fresh ways. How do you preach on Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost year after year after year and stay fresh in the retelling? Rap music shows us how. Reinterpret a familiar biblical text with a fresh twist of lyrical content for a new generation.

Memorable Mantra: The catchiest rap songs of all time utilize a cleverly and strategically repeated phrase. One of Lecrae’s most popular songs is All I Need is You, a proper name for a song that repeats the title in the song at least 15 times (then I stopped counting). The phrase is not redundant; it actually helps the message stick with power. The best sermons employ a strategically repeated memorable phrase. I used the phrase “God’s got it” as a repeated mantra in a sermon a few years back. Several years later someone who heard that message was trying to encourage me with the same phrase God used through me to encourage them. A short phrase that encapsulates the singular thrust of a sermon can have a powerful and lasting impact upon listeners.  

Concretize the Conceptual: Of all the musical genres out there, rap music is tops at making concepts concrete. Concepts like love and faith are concretized in rap. It’s not hard to picture what the rapper is saying because rappers typically use word pictures. Here’s an example from a 2003 rap song called Whatever you Say.  “I usually play the background, you know clean cut, Soft spoken well dressed dipped out straight chillin, When I’m in the club yo, sipping the Sprite with the, Ill lemon mixed in it sippin’ on it I was just chillin’, Til I saw you, that’s when my heart stopped knees gave, Head sweating jaws locked I was sweating you.” I’ll stop there, because expletives follow. But you get the point. These lyrics are earthy not ethereal. The rapper gives us the sights, sounds, and smells that enable us to enter the scene of the picture he paints. The most effective preachers do the same. You don’t just hear what they say, you see it.  

Voice for the Voiceless: Public Enemy’s Fight the Power still rings in my head. I listened to that song so many times during my teens that, even though I’ve not heard it in 25 years, I can still rap it, Chuck-D swag and all. Public Enemy was trying to voice through rap the experience of young African American men. My favorite Beastie Boys song back in the day was You Gotta Fight for your Right to Party. The Beastie Boys were trying to be a voice defending the right of suburban teens to get drunk. Obviously, the aims of the preacher are much higher. The preacher, through the sermon, must not only be a prophetic voice proclaiming the will and way of God; the preacher must also be a priestly voice articulating the hurts and hopes of those who have no voice or words to express their pain. When a preacher proclaims with words something deep in me that I have not found a way to articulate, I lean into whatever else the preacher has to say. In other words, when the preacher articulates with honesty and profundity the pain and the angst of the human condition that I know is real, I am most inclined to listen when that preacher proclaims the good news of Christ I hope is real.

Feel free to jump in and add you insights to the list. But remember, no country music lyricsJ