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Hip-hop helps young worshippers relate with urban church

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Stacey Jones
Pastor Stacey Jones preaches in front of a graffiti mural of an angel at Urban Jerusalem in Minneapolis, Minn., on December 3, 2011. Jones and his wife founded the hip-hop church in 2006.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Many urban churches are finding it increasingly difficult to get young adults through their doors.

But one Minneapolis minister is engaging religion-wary teens and twenty-somethings by mixing a little hip-hop in with the holiness.

On a recent Saturday night, disco lights blasted colored rays around the room at Urban Jerusalem, a Pentecostal church in north Minneapolis. The DJ settled in behind a stack of vinyl. Stacey Jones, the senior pastor at Urban Jerusalem, commanded the microphone.

"Every time the religious leaders came to Jesus to try to catch him," he told the congregation, "Jesus would just blow their mind. Jesus would just throw one or two lines and they were like, 'Oh, snap.' "

Here, turntables stand in place of a pulpit. Graffiti art, rather than stained glass, frames the sanctuary. And the hymns are the kind which can, and do, move congregants to breakdance.

Stacey and his wife, Tryenyse, launched this Twin Cities church five years ago, with the goal of connecting urban youth with Christ. The best way to do that, they figured, was to incorporate a culture many kids already worshipped — hip-hop.

"Drop the track, man," the preacher calls. "Praise God! Yeah!"

In many ways, the Jones' are just like generations of pastors before them — they're using modern music to make religion more relatable.

"We still bring the word," Gerald Shepherd said. He's the evening's emcee, or minister of music, as he likes to be called. But he's just one of the worshippers who bring their faith to the dance floor.

"We still believe Jesus died, he rose, everything like that," Shepherd said. "We bring a different style to worship."

About 30 twenty-somethings in baseball caps and baggy jeans supplement the sermon with their own songs and poems — anything that expresses their spiritual side.

"The king of angels, the messiah, the sacrifice," raps a singer. "Why in this whole universe was he willing to pay this price?"

One of the rappers introduces himself as Brad Peglow. "My rap name is B.P. the Preacher Man," he said. "I had some secular hip-hop artists ask me one time, 'How can you flow for a whole song and not curse and keep it clean?' And I tell 'em, 'Well, I don't listen to any of that other stuff.

"Therefore it's not hard for me at all. I put the word in me and surround myself with godly influences so when the beat drops that's what comes out.' " Jones can't help but tap his Bible to the beat. But the way he sees it, hip-hop worship requires more than just spinning records to the scriptures.

"Our mission statement is to present the word of God in relevant form," Jones said. "Relevancy is not just the musical aspect. Relevancy is dealing with everyday life issues. You have drugs. You have people struggling with depression. Those are real life things. And one thing about hip-hop: hip-hop deals with everyday issues."

"Say hello to my little friend," sings a congregant. "The one who washed away my little sins, the one who kept from sipping a little gin."

"If there is any place you can talk about issues of struggle, why not the church?" Jones asks.

Since Pastor Jones hit the scene, at least five new hip-hop churches have popped up the in Twin Cities.

There are traditionalists who find beat boxing akin to blasphemy. But for the worshippers at Urban Jerusalem, spirituality just seems to go better with strobe lights.