The auditorium pulsated with youthful energy for nearly three hours. A diverse crowd of nearly 2,000 had formed large lines long before the doors opened to general admission seating. During the sold-out concert, they shouted out familiar lines and danced with abandon among friends and new acquaintances who shared common affinity for the music. But the message took priority over the music and even the musicians on this evening. And that’s just the way everyone wanted it.
Last Sunday night, I headed to Moody Bible Institute for the Chicago stop on the Unashamed tour, inspired by Romans 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” There is no better way to describe the event than unashamed of the gospel. The concert—featuring rappers Lecrae, Trip Lee, Sho Baraka, Tedashi, Pro, and DJ Official—made Jesus Christ the star of the show. Every song and nearly every interlude made much of him, his work on the cross and resurrection from the dead. The rappers continually appealed to the crowd to repent of their sins and believe in Jesus Christ, the only hope for eternal salvation.
I don’t know the reasons why each person turned out Sunday night to hear these rappers. But I have a hard time envisioning other venues where you could gather almost 2,000 youth and young adults to celebrate the gospel for three straight hours. The headliner for the event was Lecrae. If you’re unfamiliar with him, it’s worth a few minutes of your time to check out his “Don’t Waste Your Life” music video, which has been viewed nearly 1.5 million times on YouTube.
Lecrae, a Texas native, now lives in Atlanta, which he told me has become the capital city of hip hop. That’s the home base for Reach Records, the label he co-founded. He has been performing for more than five years and gleaned much of his musical and theological convictions from Philadelphia-based CrossMovement, a pioneering group in Christian hip hop. They set the standard for a rising generation of talented rappers who hold strong convictions about the centrality of the gospel in all of life and enjoy learning from contemporary and classic Reformed teachers.
This new group, led by Lecrae, explicitly include messages from John Piper, Charles Spurgeon, John MacArthur, R. C. Sproul, and others in their songs. These biblically grounded messages appeal to youth who have seen a false prosperity gospel bring further damage to their broken urban communities.
At every tour stop, these artists sit down for hours and talk with youth from diverse backgrounds trying to find their way in the world. If a concert ends around 11 a.m., they’ll counsel spiritual seekers for another two hours. It’s a grueling schedule, but Lecrae and the others artists realize God has given them unique gifts and an uncommon opportunity to reach people with the gospel. Their talent and the increasingly popular hip hop genre doesn’t only open doors in urban communities. Their reach also extends into predominantly white suburban churches where maturing Christians desire to passionately live out the gospel and seek a firm theological foundation. Their constant focus on the gospel resonates with Christians who want less of themselves and more of Jesus.
The concerts also provide a platform for proclaiming the good news to seekers. On Sunday night, Trip Lee closed the concert with a 15-minute sermon that called on the crowd to trust in Christ.
Despite the evident way God is using these men to spread his message, they face a number of challenges straddling the divide between their urban context and Reformed culture. They know from experience how much the hip hop culture needs the gospel and solid theological teaching to help Christians grow in grace. But they’ve also learned much about God and his Word from the riches of the Reformed tradition.
The successful artists of Reach Records have more experience with bouncing back and forth between these two worlds. Others, though, feel forced to choose between what they know to be true and the context where they feel welcomed, understood, and supported. Each Sunday forces them to decide if they will side with truth or culture. Cooperation is vital for the spread of the gospel and formation of the church. More traditional Reformed leaders might marvel at what God is doing through these artists to reach communities closed off to their influence. They might be surprised to learn how many Christians in their own churches enjoy listening to rap. Already, signs point to increased collaboration among Christians divided by background, race, and musical preferences but united by God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Earlier this fall, I sat down at a 9Marks Weekender with Trip Lee and another gifted rapper, Shai Linne. I first talked with Linne several years ago when interviewing his friend and fellow rapper, Curtis Allen, for Young, Restless, Reformed. When we talked in September, Linne had recently concluded an internship at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and Lee was making plans to join the program. I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to learn from them about some of these challenges as we discussed what the Lord is doing in our day to make his name known among the nations.
We live in extraordinary times. The brokenness so evident in our world sends seekers grasping for solutions. God in his gracious provision has equipped his church with diverse gifts for spreading the good news. What a privilege we have, then, to join together for mutual support as we make disciples of Jesus Christ in every context.