I spent the summer of 1992, or at least a good portion of it, on a school bus. The drive from my small town in central Illinois to a small town in central Ohio seemed to take forever. It was a blistering summer day, and there was no air conditioning. We had been on the road since early in the morning, and the sun had finally risen to the perfect angle where it was directly cooking me through the window. I felt like a turkey on Thanksgiving Day. I wasn’t sure what would melt first, my skin or the vinyl seat it was stuck to.

I put my headphones on and stuck a cassette tape into my Walkman (the old school equivalent of an iPod—kind of).

I wanted to escape: The bus. The youth group. The world.

Gospel In, Gangster Rap Out

My music helped. I listened to some Easy E and Dr. Dre and a little Too Short. So much of what they talked about was foreign to me. I wasn’t from the hood. I didn’t know any real gang bangers. I grew up in a small town on a blue-collar street in a moderately diverse neighborhood. But I liked the beats, and I understood the angst. I was 15, after all.

And then it happened. We arrived. Checked out the scene. Checked out the options. Claimed our bunks and headed into the first service. I glanced around the room to survey the social opportunities for the week. I was distracted. I had no idea what would happen over the next of couple hours.

An old-school fundamentalist preacher waved a white hanky as he walked up and down the aisle. He was shouting.

Everything about my life up to that moment would make you expect to find me laughing, or scorning, or sleeping. But I was glued to this guy who had a weird name, and what would be considered by most today an offensive style. I was captivated by his message. I sat in a rusty aluminum folding chair on the left side of the auditorium, a third of the way back, with one empty chair separating me from the center aisle. And I was enthralled by a simple message I had heard hundreds of times before.

This night was different.

Like John Wesley, my heart was strangely warmed.

So I gave in.

Jesus captured me.

I followed Jesus that night, and he changed my life. It was pretty radical. I still have far to go, but he’s faithful to finish what he has started.

Not only did Jesus capture my heart, he also captured my Walkman. I threw out all of the garbage I had been listening to earlier that day on our road trip to youth camp. I followed Jesus, and as much as I can remember, I thought that meant hip-hop was supposed to be a thing of the past. I was now redeemed. And I was sure that had to mean something for what I put into my ears, into my heart.

Could a Christian really love Jesus and still like rap?

Bright Suits and Emerging Convictions

On the ride home someone gave me a D.C. Talk album, and I had a glimmer of hope God’s will for me might not include an earthly purgatory of listening to the Gaither Vocal Band on perpetual repeat. No offense to Southern Gospel fans, but that has never been my style. But even D.C. Talk wasn’t quite the same genre I had grown to love either. Props to Toby Mac, I have great respect for him, but I preferred the raw nature of a more authentically urban, less pop, sound.

I love rap music; I always have and always will.

I mean by that real rap, not a cheesy, sub-par, pseudo substitute. But I just assumed I had to give that up and try to develop an appetite for twangy quartet music. A few years later in a conservative Bible college in Missouri my initial fear seemed to be realized. We were only allowed to listen to Southern Gospel in our dorm rooms. The rule was enforced with fines.

The cognitive dissonance was the only thing louder than the suit colors on the album covers in my roommate’s music collection. No offense, Brad.

For a short time I thought I was wrong. I don’t think so anymore. I think it’s a human tendency to like for things to fit into neat categories, and it’s easier in a legalistic environment to simply baptize one particular musical genre and act as though it is truly free from cultural influence. I now recognize that this unfortunate rule illustrated a deficient understanding of how the gospel relates to culture.

Later in my journey, my wife and I actually lived in Nasvhille, Tennessee, for a few years (a couple of those years in the house of country music great Tammy Wynette, but that’s another story). Nashvegas, as locals call it, is the capital to both country music and Southern Gospel. There I learned first-hand the similarity of the two genres. And that’s when it clicked for me that some who reject Christian hip-hop because of the urban culture that gave birth to it, or with which it is still associated, have overlooked the fact that Southern Gospel finds its roots in the honky-tonk of Southern taverns.

In other words, they both come from specific subcultures. No musical form descended from on high, untouched by “secular” culture. Sure, the Bible is filled with lyrics, but it offers no sheet music. And Psalm 150 destroys any argument against musical instrumentation. And yes, the final chapter of the Psalms includes drums too.

The gospel is big enough to redeem any musical genre, and God is worthy to have all things subjected to and harnessed for his glory.

Reformed Rap

Christian rap has profoudly affected my ministry. Once, when I was preparing for a middle school lesson, I had the Christian rapper named Ambassador (one of the pioneers of the Christian rap movement) playing in the background. I worked to prepare my illustrations and jokes and object lessons to impress a single Bible verse upon the minds of young teenagers. Then I noticed something as I focused on the music: there was more theology in one of his three-minute songs then I had planned to sprinkle sparsely into my 30-minute youth group devotional.

I was convicted.

If he could pack so much into just 16 bars, then what in the world was I thinking wasting so much of my time slot with fun and games? I had ten times the amount of time as just one of his songs. In that moment I knew I could do more. I knew I should do more. And I knew my students could handle it.

So I changed my approach. The Ambassador directly affected my preaching. I still think about that change on a regular basis when I sit down to prepare a sermon.

From the Cross Movement, which included Ambassador, I added other guys who were packing theology into short sermonettes with boom bap and record scratching. I learned to love Lamp Mode Records and their thoughtful artists. And then one day I had the welcome surprise of discovering that one of the students in a class I was teaching at Boyce College was actually a Grammy-nominated Christian hip-hop artist.

Each week I started my class off with prayer, and this one student would always request prayer for himself and his wife as they prepared to travel somewhere around the world over the weekend for a ministry opportunity. Finally I asked the inevitable question: Who are you? His name is Marcus, but most know him by his performing name, Flame.

He has since become a good friend and a close partner in the gospel. He wrote the afterword for my recent book Jesus or Nothing, and his label Clear Sight Music produced an album based on the themes of each chapter. I don’t think I can exaggerate how humbled and honored I am to work with him. In fact, I told him that this is the closest I will ever get to achieving my lifelong dream of becoming a rap star.

Drama and Debate

But not everyone shares my enthusiasm for Christian rap. Last year, there was an unfortunate panel discussion by ministry leaders regarding rap music and ministry. An all-white group of men condemned the musical style as unfit for gospel purposes. Debate ensued. I didn’t get too involved, but not for lack of strong opinions on the matter. I did, however, tweet one of my sketches that pretty much summarized my view on the whole thing. 

And in recent months another debate, an in-house one this time, has been brewing about the approach that artists, who happen to be Christian, should take with their music. The debate has centered mostly on Lecrae and Reach Records. That difference of opinion has exposed or even created some tribalism and tensions in the movement.

I have a lot of faith in these young men who have put their names on the line and their lives on the road for the sake of the gospel. I’m confident they’ll work it out, and even as some agree to disagree on the issues at hand, I’m thankful Jesus is being preached. As Trip Lee once said, “All I need is one sixteen, to brag on my King.” These guys do a lot of bragging on the king. We should all be thankful.

It’s important for guys like Flame, Ambassador, Shai, KB, Lecrae, Trip, This’l, and so many others, to know the gratitude that we have for their bold ministries. They’re making much of Jesus and taking the gospel to cities around the world. They’re playing a crucial role in fulfilling the Great Commission.

My Journey of Following Jesus Has a Soundtrack

In the words of my fellow Italian, Reach Records artist Andy Mineo, “You can call me a Boom Baptist.” Over the years I’ve learned to understand and embrace the redemption of the musical genre I’ve loved my whole life. And I’ve also learned that I need to give that same grace to my brothers and sisters who prefer to listen to four dudes in purple suits using a bluegrass sound to sing about the Savior.

Like the evangelist who shared the gospel with me, I may not be crazy about his approach, but I’m eternally grateful for the content of the message he preached that humid night some 22 years ago.

Because in the end it’s really about the gospel of Jesus Christ.

And of this gospel, may we never be ashamed (Rom. 1:16).