The thumping music swells to a crescendo as dozens of young people stream down the sanctuary aisles as they bop their heads and sway to the music. No, it's not a rock concert--but a religious phenomenon that has ignited the faith of young people and revitalized churches across the country.
Some call it the youth church and others call it the hip hop church--but no matter what it's called, churches from Newark to Los Angeles are incorporating youth-based services into their programs. The results have been phenomenal--youth driven services are attracting droves of young people who identify with the urban inspired messages in a world beset with drugs, gangs and domestic violence.
Every second and fourth Sunday, nearly 500 young people from the ages 12 to 22 flock to Faithful Central Bible Church's "The Takeover," a twice-monthly church service where the guest pastor is none other than Grammy and Dove award--winning Kirk Franklin, who is assisted by youth pastor Daven Baptiste. Franklin flies into Los Angeles twice a month from his home base of Dallas to minister to the young people and deliver his spirited messages of praise, salvation and redemption.
"When I get to The Takeover and see all the kids waiting and hear their stories and their hunger for knowing more about God, it is just a real joy," said Franklin. "And I know in my heart God has a lot more work to do through the Takeover and through the kids that live in Los Angeles."
Asked about why The Takeover has become so popular among teens and young adults, Franklin reflected, "I don't know. It's just God is doing it big through me and my man Daven. The youth know what is hot and respond to that. We just try to present the Word of God in a hot and relevant way and the kids just are drawn to it," Franklin acknowledged.
Bishop Kenneth Ulmer, pastor of Faithful Central Bible Church, said that the concept for the Takeover was conceived over three years ago during dinner with Franklin, his godson. The two came up with a novel idea--to hold a church service entirely organized and led by young people that would appeal to the younger congregants.
We said, 'What if we allowed the youth to shape the content of the service themselves?' recalls Ulmer. "It never had been done before--to give the kids the freedom to shape their own service so that the format and content were totally theirs. At the time, it was an experiment and we really didn't know if it was going to work, but we said, 'Let's try it for a year and see how it goes."
The Takeover, held at the 2,200 seat Tabernacle in Inglewood, has proven to be tremendously successful. The service features a choir, a funky, gospel-driven band, a rapper who prowls the stage with the pumped-up energy of a manic Kanye West, and a hefty, gospel-inspired baritone reminiscent of a young Barry White. As the band breaks out with a funky groove, a band of teenage boys flock to the front of the stage and break out in a dizzying array of hip hop moves. Later, during prayer, the boys hunker over in the front row, their hands upraised and their eyes tightly closed in praise.
Along with the spontaneous praise, there is a "come as you are" atmosphere. No starched shirt or Sunday-go-to meeting dress spotted in these pews--girls are seen flaunting the latest jeans, colorful spangled T-shirts and stylish sandals while the guys are rocking low-slung jeans, key chains at the waist, funky laced up tennis shoes, and caps pulled to the back. But along with the trendy Roc-a-Wear and the Baby Phat gear, there's a sense of praise as a sea of well-thumbed Bibles are spotted being clutched tightly by youths throughout the sanctuary.
"I think the success of The Takeover emanates from two recurring themes-one is the spontaneity of the services and two, the freedom that the young people have to worship God in their own way," said Ulmer. "The Takeover is a way to address very deep issues in these young people's lives that they might never have done in a traditional setting, such as child abuse, abortion and drugs-issues that young people are dealing with in today's society. The Takeover is an atmosphere where the young people feel free to worship the word of God-and the style of the word is to appeal to them through the hip hop culture."
Even with the phenomenal success of The Takeover, whose goals and progress are reviewed by Ulmer's staff every six months, Ulmer observed that some traditional churches have shunned conveying an urban message to attract younger members. "I don't know if the youth church is a widespread trend," said Ulmer. "At the end of the day, there's always a fear among some churches of young people having that much freedom and of the church losing a semblance of control."
"The goal is to offer them Christ and salvation and not make them fit into a box of tradition," said Liana Sims, a youth worker who has been with The Takeover since its inception.
Karen Lewis, a public relations consultant for Faithful Central, said that there is a transformative aspect to the church's youth services. "When I came over to see what The Takeover was about, I was amazed at how excited the kids were," Lewis recalls. "They literally wait with baited breath for Takeover Sunday to arrive. This ministry has literally saved lives," said Lewis. "Kids have been on the brink of suicide and the staff and other young people have rallied around them. Lives have been transformed and saved."
Baptiste, 37, the program's executive director, says that the youth church is more of a venue that delivers urban inspired messages rather than one that focuses on hip hop. The Takeover is not a hip hop church, we are a community of believers that present the Word and Gospel of God to youth in a way that is relevant to urban culture," said Baptiste. We are planning to grow the Takeover in the years to come. We are already planning many programs through the Takeoever Youth Iniative which will teach kids workforce readiness, life skills and computer literacy. We teach God's Word and how to live it in a honest way."
On takeover Sunday, he tackles a subject that touches many young people's lives: drugs. "My friend asked me, 'Why is smoking weed a sin?' I got my Bible out and looked and nowhere does the Bible say, 'It's wrong to smoke weed.' But I asked my friend, why do you want to get high? He said, 'When I smoke, I forget about my problems.'"
Baptiste ripples through the Bible and pauses at a verse. "The temple is where God dwells. When we move out of the temple, God places his spirit in you to defend the temple, because that is where the Holy Spirit dwells."
Baptiste pulls out a pack of what appears to be marijuana but is actually oregano and rolls what appears to be a joint. He lights it up and smokes it as some congregants stare and others giggle. "Some people think it's cool to smoke and the temple is not that big of a deal," he said, quickly putting out the blunt.
But if the temple of God dwells in you, you are something special. Your body is a temple. Just like you wouldn't light up in here in the sanctuary, why would you light up on the inside?" Baptiste queries the crowd. "I told my friend, every time you get high, you become spiritually and physically impotent. You are ruining your body. Ask God to take the temptation and people out of your life. Pray and believe, and it will happen," said Baptiste.
Surveying the audience, Baptiste says, 'Smoking weed is wrong. Can you repeat that, congregation? Smoking weed is wrong."
Baptiste also recognized that youth church touches on issues that are affecting young people's lives today. "In our sermons, we've covered physical and verbal abuse, how to handle obstacles in their lives, having faith and never giving up on God, and how to fall in love with God. We've talked about low self- esteem, parent drama, relationship and school problems, and gang violence," said Baptiste.
Baptiste said that it is not unusual for young people to text, leave him messages from their cell phones, or approach him in Bible class or after service seeking assistance with personal problems. "There was this one young man who came to us who had a problem with anger. He would snap all the time at his parents, at his peers and on the job. Over time, by finding out who he was in Christ, this young man discovered he was angry because there were no positive male role models in his life. We worked with him and he's totally changed-we helped to turn his anger around."
It's Blueprint Sunday, time for youth church in the cavernous Faith Dome at Crenshaw Christian Center. Klieg lights brighten the ceiling that catches and reflects the Dome's royal blue carpeting and gold trim decor. Gueset Eddie Long, Jr., the son of renowned preacher Bishop Eddie Long of Atlanta, Ga. has flown in from his home city to deliver words of spirited praise. Leaping onto the stage and dressed casually in a T-shirt and jeans, Long starts spouting words of the gospel before leading the youth into the mass gospel-inspired slide on the sanctuary floor. Kids from age 2 to 22 are mesmerized as they follow Long's rhythmic arm waves and frenetic hip hop dance moves. Long is followed by the G5 dancers, a hip hop crew dressed in black, yellow and green who take to the stage and lead the youth in a spirited-and spiritual-dance frenzy.
The praise dancing is followed by the preaching of Fred Price, Jr., who strolls to the podium looking no older than his young audience. "Sin is seasonal fun. If you're into some stuff, get out now. You won't reap what you sow if you stop sowing it," said Price. "The mindset which is the mind of Christ is the mindset we must have," Price informed the audience.
"The youth and the young adults are the toughest generation to reach, so we use a variety of different vehicles when we have the Blueprint," said Price as he and his wife shake hands with the young churchgoers after the service. "Right now, hip hop has their attention. R&B, or rhythm and praise, rap, dance-whatever works, we use it." Pausing, he reflects, "We've got to minister to the soul. The soul is where the drama is, so we've got to penetrate that area," said Price.
Every second and fifth Sunday, the youth at West Angeles Church of God in Christ file into the youth center behind the North Campus sanctuary and wait expectantly for the service to begin. Like at Faithful Central, there's a youthful band that plays keyboards, guitars and organ and a lively drummer melts the beat into a riff. A 14-year-old disc jockey named DJ Epic 12 breaks and scratches on the turntable followed by a few selections by the youth gospel choir. The young members of the congregation clap and nod their heads.
"I've been dealing with the kids having a personal relationship with God that will govern their behavior," said Michael Davis, West Angeles' youth minister, "whether it's drugs, sex, or the music they listen to. I try to give them the practical tools to help them stay away from dangerous behavior." Pausing, he adds, "I'm trying to impart to them that if they have a relationship with God, that is a commitment that they are making to God. I'm trying to impart the importance of being disciplined because of the commitment that has been made-I'm trying to instill a sense of discipline in them."
"You are not too young to spread God's word," Davis tells the young audience. "I want to tell every young man that you are not a punk because you praise God. When you praise God, you are welcoming blessings into your life. Are you loving God out loud? Don't be afraid to praise him."
Davis also scours the city to bring an array of spoken word poets, motivational speakers, singers, DJs, and others that he hopes will inspire the kids each month.
One of the invited guests is poet Nakeia Gordon, also known as Sense, who restlessly paces the floor and delivers a spoken word sermon on black male survival as the male congregants lean forward expectantly. "To our black males, don't let this world take you down. I know you're tired of living in this hell, but there's a Heaven in you. Even when there's no way out, stand your ground."
Praise is followed by testimony as several young people come forward and talk about the blessings God has bestowed on them that week. One of them, Briana, 17, clutches the microphone and timidly faces the congregation. "I want to thank God. I've been continually attacked by the devil. I got jumped on and shot at, but I'm grateful that I came through it unscathed."
Guest speaker Brian Bradley, 26, urged the young people not to be afraid to publicly confess their faith. "It's all right to bang for Jesus," he reassured the youth. "Don't be afraid to share God's good word. Try to crack open the Bible during the week and it will help you on your praise walk."
Bradley also derided some of the music that young people are listening to and warned them about lyrics that tout violence and sex. "The media is flooding your ears with garbage," he said. "Try to go to a Christian store and pick up some Christian hip hop or R&B. There's an alternative to all that crap."
LaChappele Swain, 13, a guest speaker sporting pigtails, a plaid red-and-white shirt and jeans, asks the young congregation, "How many people know that God's love is free? He only asks for three things: To give your body, heart and soul for God. We might think we can take things like our iPod or computer to Heaven, but you can't. Do you think rapper Lil' Wayne will be in Heaven waiting on you so he can say, 'Listen to my song, 'Lollipop?' No, I don't think so."
Borrowing an example from the popular children's movie "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," Swain hands a young female parishioner a "golden ticket." God said, 'Keep the ticket nice, Sue.' But then sin enters Sue's life. She says, 'I saw this cute guy and I want to get with him.' Each time we sin, we're ripping the golden ticket," said Swain, who tears the yellow ticket into pieces. "Then God says, 'Where's the ticket?' All you have to do is confess your sins to God. Even if you think you don't deserve a second chance, God will forgive you and he will give you a new golden ticket," said Swain as she hands the parishioner a brand new ticket to thunderous applause.
Davis said he is not surprised that the influence of hip hop culture has permeated the ministry of the church. "It's a way to reach out to the kids because kids love hip hop so much," said Davis. "They love the rhythm and the beat, so you deliver the words that encourage a relationship with God along with hip-hop, gospel inspired lyrics." Davis adds, "Youth church is popular because the messages in the youth church are a little more on the young people's level."
After youth church is dismissed, the young people mill about the sanctuary, nibbling on chocolate cake in celebration of a member's birthday.
Tiffany Morris, 16, said, "I like coming to the youth service. It makes it easier for the young people to understand who God really is and what he's done for us," she said.
One of the attendees, Ronnell Thompson, 15, lingers in the alley after service and casually drapes his hoodie over his head. "I've been coming here for about a minute. It's cool and it's fun. They talk about topics a young brother can relate to. It's like they're talking to me-like they really know what's going on."
Thompson pauses, and then admits that up until now, his life had not been squeaky clean. Looking sheepish, he confesses, "I was hanging with the wrong people-gang bangers. But since I've been coming here to the West Angeles youth church, I don't hang with them anymore," Thompson said as he slowly walks away.