Michael Beck

An Open Letter to the Church—So, About Kanye…

“Everything that hath breath praise the Lord

Worship Christ with the best of your portions

I know I won’t forget all He’s done

He’s the strength in this race that I run

Every time I look up, I see God’s faithfulness

And it shows just how much He is miraculous

I can’t keep it to myself, I can’t sit here and be still

Everybody, I will tell ’til the whole world is healed

King of Kings, Lord of Lords, all the things He has in store

From the rich to the poor, all are welcome through the door

You won’t ever be the same when you call on Jesus’ name

Listen to the words I’m sayin’, Jesus saved me, now I’m sane

And I know, I know God is the force that picked me up

I know Christ is the fountain that filled my cup

I know God is alive, yeah

He has opened up my vision

Giving me a revelation

This ain’t ’bout a dead religion

Jesus brought a revolution

All the captives are forgiven

Time to break down all the prisons

Every man, every woman

There is freedom from addiction

Jesus, You have my soul

Sunday Service on a roll

All my idols, let ’em go

All the demons, let ’em know

This a mission, not a show

This is my eternal soul

This my kids, this the crib

This my wife, this my life

This my God-given right

Thank You, Jesus, won the fight”

Perhaps you were wondering who spoke these words. Or maybe it sounds like a familiar psalm or sermon you’ve heard. But these are actually Kayne West’s lyrics from a song called “God Is” on his new album Jesus is King.

The album is now number 1 on the Billboard 200. Jesus Is King secures Kanye’s ninth No. 1 solo album in a row. Billboard reports this lands Kanye a pair of record-tying feats: he now matches Eminem for both the most consecutive No. 1 albums (nine), and the most debuts at No. 1 in-a-row (nine).

Hundreds of thousands of people are having their first exposure to the Gospel through this album. For instance, Faithwire reports a massive spike in Google searches for “Jesus” and “What do Christians believe?” in response to the release of Jesus Is King. A similar phenomenon occurred when Florida Gator quarterback Tim Tebow wrote John 3:16 in his eye-black during a national championship game, resulting in over 94 million people googling the Bible verse. This week, in a pop-up gathering of West’s Sunday Service in Louisiana, over a thousand people came forward in an altar call to accept Christ.

From the perspective of my own United Methodist denomination, there’s another way to think about this: more new people heard about Jesus this week through Kanye, than all Methodist pulpits combined. 

More new people heard about Jesus this week through Kanye, than all Methodist pulpits combined. Click To Tweet

Not surprisingly, Kanye has received criticism from a diverse array of voices in the entertainment industry. Unexpectedly, and troubling, is the criticism Kanye is receiving from Christians across the theological spectrum. West actually acknowledges this unfortunate response in the album itself on a track called “Hands On,”

“Said I’m finna do a gospel album, What have you been hearin’ from the Christians? They’ll be the first one to judge me, Make it feel like nobody love me.”

I think this is sad reflection of the state of the church. I find the mindset pervading the church today can be captured by the word… Ressentiment (re,sante’man): a French word used by Nietzsche, which parallels the English concept of resentment, but combines: anger, envy, hate, rage, revenge, as the motive of political action. It is a form of political psychology, grounded in a narrative of injury (victimhood, real or perceived), a strong belief that one has been wronged. A sense of entitlement that a person/group holds. It’s expressed in a discourse of negation, the condemnation and denigration of enemies.

In this kind of an ecclesial ecosystem, we listen to respond rather than to understand, and our first impulse is to critique, deconstruct, and dismiss. Thus, we are less accustomed to standing under something: to immerse ourselves in a possibility, experiencing it from the inside. We default to a hermeneutic of suspicion.

I love Kanye’s music, and I love him as a brother in Christ. I have encouraged him publicly on social media platforms. Jesus is King is my favorite album he has created, and I’ve been following him as an artist since he was producing songs in the late 90’s. He has a community of Christian support around him and is engaged in an active discipleship process with his pastor, Adam Tyson and other spiritual mentors.

Perhaps I celebrate his “radical conversion” more easily, as it is similar to my own. Jesus saved me from a life of drug-dealing and multiple felonies, calling me to be a pastor. I too was met with skepticism, not only by colleagues and friends in the streets from which I emerged, but more pervasively from long-time church attenders and fellow clergy.

The purpose of this reflection is not to make an argument in support of Kanye’s conversion being legitimate. For me that is assumed. Rather I want to suggest several reasons why and how we as the Church should pay attention.

Jesus is King is producing kingdom fruit.

Millions are hearing the Gospel. The so-called “nones and dones” are encountering Jesus in a fresh way. We have a responsibility to exegete and interpret that for people. This simple truth in and of itself is worthy of our attention and celebration. How are local churches responding? For instance, the American Bible Society has seized this opportunity, by offering to send free copies of the Bible to any American intrigued by Kanye’s newfound faith and curious about the Bible and Christianity. They simply set up a link (abs.bible/Kanye) where all you need to do is provide your name and information. Various headlines read “New Wave of Revival” and “Thousands Accept Christ at Kanye West’s Latest Sunday Service.” Meanwhile, the top headline in UM News this week, “Church exit plan already in effect, court says” with other stories related to the ongoing debates in the denomination. How might your local church respond to this missional moment? For instance, we held a fresh expression called Skate. Pray. Repeat. the day after the album release. We encouraged participants to listen to the album, which then served as the sermonic conversation of the gathering.

This is a profound semiotic opportunity.

Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols and their interpretation. Leonard Sweet and I just completed a book on Contextual Intelligence (CI) called Issachar’s Secret (due for release March 2020). CI is about “reading the signs of the times and knowing what to do” (the Tribe of Issachar was known for this, see 1 Chr 12:32). In the business world, this refers to the ability to understand the limits of, and adapt our knowledge to different contexts.

While the church may a be a bastion of IQ with seminary-educated scholars, and even EQ clergy trained in intrapersonal and interpersonal skills, we are not exactly known for our CIQ, the ability to accurately understand our context and turn challenges into opportunities. Jesus is King is a profound opportunity for conversations about the Christian faith. It is the sign of a greater awakening that’s stirring. The world is watching how we handle it.

Jesus is King is a profound opportunity for conversations about the Christian faith. It is the sign of a greater awakening that’s stirring. The world is watching how we handle it. Click To Tweet

Sunday Service has marks of a fresh expression of church.

Kanye seems to have instinctually grasped that the inherited church as we know it is largely stuck in rigid institutionalism and is not reaching emerging generations. The gatherings that Kanye has been holding called “Sunday Service” have all the ingredients of a fresh expression of church:

Missional: reaching out to not-yet-Christians.
Contextual: seek to serve the context in an appropriate form to the people in it.
Formational: focused on making disciples, or spiritual growth.
Ecclesial: a full expression of the church, not a steppingstone to an inherited congregation (meaning for some this is their church).

Contextually appropriate music takes place. Pastor Adam Tyson often delivers a short but pointed message which includes a call to repentance (to me he is reminiscent of a young Billy Graham in his delivery). People who don’t go to church are going to Sunday Service, and their lives are being changed.

The gatherings that Kanye has been holding called “Sunday Service” have the ingredients of a fresh expression of church. Click To Tweet

This is good for the traditional church.

Yet let us not too quickly become afraid that this is leaving the traditional church behind in the rearview. While it may not be an overnight process, an awakening is taking place that will positively benefit the whole church. In Deep Roots, Wild Branches I explore the phenomenon of how churches experimenting with fresh expressions experience forms of revitalization through a phenomenon called “bridge backs” in a blended ecology of church. As new believers come to faith, grow spiritually, and begin to challenge stereotypes about Christians and church, they often make the journey back to some traditional congregation.

This may release a wave of Christian creativity and imagination.

One of my favorite Kanye statements occurred during his interview with Jimmy Kimmel who asked, “so are you a Christian artist now?” West responded, “I’m just a Christian everything.” We need a lot less “Christian music” “Christian subculture” and “Christian films” and much more artists who are “Christian everything” people who follow Jesus and are innovators, musicians, film makers, and so on.

My 15-year-old son Alex and I listened to the album together and talked about it. It opened up some very thought-provoking questions. I long for these conversations with my son, a PK (preacher’s kid) who struggles with his faith largely based on the behavior he sees in long-term church members. To walk past his room and hear God-glorifying lyrics bumping on his stereo as he blares Jesus is King has been invigorating.

Like me, his heart is naturally oriented toward gangster rap and club music that is often full of cursing and false messages. For us to share a passion around this album and have music that points to Jesus, but is actually exciting to listen to, has been a special opportunity.

Nothing against so-called “Christian music.” But I have always struggled with the false dichotomy between sacred and secular. I personally don’t listen to much of it, because I often find other music that is beautiful, good, and true, sometimes in the most unexpected places. Further, I feel it’s part of my job as a clergy person to spend time exegeting culture and using it as a medium to proclaim the Gospel on a post-Christendom U.S. mission field. Perhaps clergy should spend less time listening to each other’s podcasts and more time listening to cultural phenomenon.

Public conversions can release movements.

Kanye’s conversion offers an incredible counter narrative to the fragmented assumptions of our culture. Here is a man who achieved everything the world says is noteworthy to pursue, and he found it lacking. In an Instagram-filtered, digitally-mediated culture, most people live with a deep sense of shame in the shadow of the pedestals of the famous. In the celebrity cult ideology, there are people who are winning (the famous) and people who are not (the rest of us). This is a false narrative and a form of idolatry. While it’s not any more or less significant that Kanye has repented and turned toward Jesus than anyone else, historically when this happens, waves of conversions can be released. Consider three historical precedents:

  • Paul the Apostle: a notorious persecutor, the Dog the Bounty Hunter of Christians in the ancient world. Once converted, God used Paul to spread the Gospel to the gentiles all over the known world.
  • Aimee Semple McPherson: one of the most famous, charismatic and influential women of her time. Throughout her life amidst a sea of controversy and critique, she led a movement that introduced hundreds of thousands of people to Christ. This eventually became the denomination now known as the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. There are intriguing parallels between Sister Aimee and Kanye.
  • Tim Tebow: as referenced above Tebow used his platform as an athlete to spark a search of the Christian faith. While he didn’t quite receive a fair opportunity in professional football, many people have come to Jesus through his very public proclamation of faith.
Kanye’s conversion offers an incredible counter narrative to the fragmented assumptions of our culture. Here is a man who achieved everything the world says is noteworthy to pursue, and he found it lacking. Click To Tweet

So, church… about Kanye.

I think the most important thing to do as Christians is pray for a great awakening, break free from an ecclesial ecosystem of ressentiment, learn to love God, ourselves, and each other again.

Rather than tearing each other apart in real time on social media platforms, what if we were to seek to embody a posture of listening to understand? What if rather than critiquing Kanye and waiting for him to fail, we were to bless, celebrate, encourage, and show a watching world how to love a new Christian deeper into the faith?

This is what the world is hungry for: a church that’s not defined by division and judgement, but the love of Jesus Christ. It is a gift only the church can give to the world. Let’s pay attention.

Michael Beck

Michael Beck

Rev. Michael Beck is South Atlantic Coordinator Fresh Expressions US and North Central District Cultivator of Fresh Expressions for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. Michael serves as senior pastor of Wildwood UMC where he directs addiction recovery programs, a jail ministry, a food pantry, and a network of fresh expressions that meet in places like tattoo parlors and burrito joints. He currently lives in Wildwood with his wife, Jill, and their blended family of 8 children.

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