Rapping for the Lord

House MC, Gerald Shepherd, 30, of Minneapolis
House MC, Gerald Shepherd, 30, of Minneapolis, leads about 40 people in worship during the church service. Photo by Darwesh Singh
A typical church service
A typical church service includes people dancing, singing, and praying on Saturday evening services. Photo by Darwesh Singh
Senior Pastor Stacey Jones
Senior Pastor Stacey Jones, 36, of Minneapolis, co-founded Urban Jerusalem Four Square Church with his wife, Tryenyse Jones. Photo by Darwesh Singh
Krishawna Brown, 26, of Little Canada, has attended the church since its beginni
Krishawna Brown, 26, of Little Canada, has attended the church since its beginnings five years ago. She says that Urban J has strengthened her faith. Photo by Darwesh Singh
Hip-hop in its original state wasn’t designed to promote violence, wasn’t designed to promote ignorance, wasn’t designed to objectify women. Hip-hop was designed to keep kids off the street. -- Urban Jerusalem Pastor Stacey Jones

The services at Urban Jerusalem Four Square Church in north Minneapolis may look and sound like a club with lights and bumping beats, but when you listen to the music, the lyrics of the songs are about God and Jesus Christ. The loud sounds of hip-hop music combine with lyrics like “I was created to worship you!”

That’s because Urban J is a hip-hop church, and uses the music’s four elements during their church services: graffiti, break dancing, MCing, or rapping, and DJing, when music is played using turntables.

Urban J’s mission is to use hip-hop to reach north Minneapolis youth, high school and college students, and hip-hoppers, especially those who’ve never been to church.

According to the Pew Forum On Religion, about 13 percent of Minnesotans are unaffiliated with any religion, meaning they are atheist, agnostic or have no beliefs in particular.

At 7 p.m. every Saturday, the congregants of Urban J gather to worship by dancing on the dance floor, rapping into microphones, jumping and screaming in ecstasy and joy.

Krishawna Brown, 26, of Little Canada, joined Urban J after meeting Tryenyse Jones, 40, the wife of Urban J’s pastor, Stacey Jones.

While in college, Brown had been involved in secular Hip-Hop, but after hearing Tryenyse’s music – R&B neo-soul with gospel influences – she became intrigued by Tryenyse’s church and eventually joined. “I love God and I love music,” Brown said.

Senior Pastor Stacey Jones, 36, of Minneapolis, said he believes that a hip-hop approach to worship will help young people know God by using a music and culture with which they are already comfortable.

“People can come and have fun, enjoy themselves, and then at the same time hear an empowering sermon that will help them mature on the walk with Jesus Christ,” Jones said.

Jones founded Urban Jerusalem with his wife five years ago. He was born and raised in New Haven, Conn. He grew up loving hip-hop culture. But Jones was also interested in spreading Jesus Christ’s message. After getting his education at Crown College of the Bible and Northwestern University, Jones became a pastor and combined his two interests to form Urban Jerusalem.

“We started it because it was a natural expression of who we were,” said Tryenyse Jones, who is the worship pastor at Urban J. As a musician, she has a love for hip-hop and was also raised in a religious environment.

Hip-hop had its beginnings in New York in the late 1970s, Pastor Jones said.

“Hip-hop in its original state wasn’t designed to promote violence, wasn’t designed to promote ignorance, wasn’t designed to objectify women,” Pastor Jones said. “Hip-hop was designed to keep kids off the street. It was designed to educate and empower young people from this artistic background, but, at the same time, educate society at large.”

The pastor chose the name Urban Jerusalem, he said, because Jerusalem means “city of peace.”

He wanted to convey the message that the inner city has a positive side and isn’t completely infested with crime, as commonly stereotyped. Jones believes that the inner city can be a tough place, but it can also teach beneficial things.

But Pastor Jones said mainstream music companies have helped created the mentality that hip-hop is equivalent to gangster rap by emphasizing the negative aspects of city life, like violence, in the music.

The pastor believes that hip-hop has a solid relationship to Christianity because they share common themes like justice and unity. But Jones has received mixed reactions from outsiders – people claiming that his approach to worship is “Satan’s deception.”

But Pastor Jones said if even one person’s life is changed because of Urban J’s approach, the church is doing its job.

The House MC of Urban Jerusalem, Gerald Shepherd, known as G Shep, was a Christian who strayed away from the church. His sister recommended that he go to Urban J, but he didn’t want to go.

But after meeting Pastor Jones on Election Day 2008, he was convinced to come to Urban J and was welcomed “with affection and love,” he said. Urban J has given him a serving spirit and the boldness for teaching Jesus’ message.

Despite these successes, Urban J has had a few challenges. Due to the lack of stability and the lower socio-economic class of most of the congregants, the largest obstacle has been the lack of financial resources.

But Pastor Jones believes that his church’s efforts have been fruitful. Attendance at services range from 40 to 250 attendees, sometimes bringing in as many as 500 people. He thinks there is still room for improvement. Pastor Jones and Tryenyse are thinking about planting a church in Liberia.

Despite the mix of successes and challenges, the Jones’s motivation for spreading God’s message in hip-hop form is clear.

“You can love God and you can love hip-hop,” Tryenyse said.

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