The response to a question about the legitimacy of “Holy Hip Hop” from a panel hosted by the National Center for Family-integrated churches erupted into a social media firestorm this past week. The views of the panel can be summed up in the following statement made by Geoff Botkin, he said “And what concerns me about this so called art form, it is a picture of weakness and surrender on the part of people who think that they are serving God and they’re not. They are serving their own flesh, they’re caving into the world, they’re disobedient cowards! They are not willing to engage in the fight that needs to be engaged.” The panel’s harsh criticism of “Holy Hip Hop” has incited a number of responses from men like Mike Cosper, Ligon Ducan, Carl and Karen Ellis, Paige Patterson, Owen Strachan, Jonathan Akin, Brian Davis, and others. What was the heart of this controversy? It was not about the message communicated by these Hip Hop artists (something the panelists acknowledged was doctrinally sound), it was wholly about the style in which it was being presented. The heart of this controversy goes far beyond questions about the legitimacy of “Holy Hip Hop.” At the center of this controversy is a much bigger question, a question that every minister of the Gospel must ask: What are valid expressions of contextualization in Christian ministry?
It is critically important that we do not confuse our cultural standards with the Gospel message. We must be uncompromisingly committed to upholding the truth of the Gospel in all our teaching but we must do so without imposing our own cultural biases on those who come from other cultural backgrounds. We need to remember that we, as Christians, are called to share only the Gospel of Christ. When we elevate our own cultural standards to the same level as the Gospel, we alienate the people around us and draw attention away from the Gospel message we are called to share.
Proper contextualization of the Gospel message is something with which we all must wrestle. Too little contextualization hinders the spread of the Gospel message by imposing barriers that Scripture does not impose. When we suggest that obedience to Christ requires one to abandon a particular style of music, kind of food, style of dress, etc… we have imposed a standard not given in Scripture and have raised an unnecessary barrier to the Gospel. At the same time we must remember that too much contextualization can so compromise the truth of the Gospel that the message of the Gospel itself is lost. While the Hip Hop style of music itself does not compromise the Gospel message, there are aspects of Hip Hop culture that do and we must be willing to abandon those aspects of culture that stand in opposition to the Gospel. For instance, we can praise our Lord with the sound of Hip Hop but the lyrics of many secular Hip Hop songs truly do not belong on the lips of those who proclaim faith in Christ.