Dec 4, 2013, Midwest Center for Theological Studies
Due to the kindness and large-heartedness of my friend Scott Brown, I was one of the speakers at the NCFIC conference on the Worship of God. Sadly, despite the many good and helpful emphases of that conference, it is now famous for the controversial and negative statements made about Reformed Rap by a panel of speakers in a Q & A session towards the end of the conference. If you have viewed the video, you will notice an empty chair at the table of panelists. Though I do not actually know why that chair is empty, it holds a special significance for me since I could have been in it. I do not know whether to be sad or really happy that due to another conference obligation I had to leave the Worship of God conference early and could not participate in the panel. If I had been there, I hope I woould have had the boldness and wisdom to say something like what I will say here. This is why I entitle this blog: “Comments from the Empty Chair.”
Being old (Well 62!) and not particularly “Facebook and blog aware,” I was alerted to this controversy first by a much younger member of my church. After viewing the video and reading Ligon Duncan’s related comments, I wrote the following email to the to my younger, but like-minded, brother in the Lord. It is slightly edited for this blog.
Thanks for pointing out the article from Ligon Duncan addressing the Reformed rap furor caused by the panel at the Worship of God conference. It is pretty well known–at least I have made no secret of it–that I enjoy Shai Linne’s doctrinally solid raps. I have played them for college students in college classes with a good conscience and with gladness that they present the Christian religion in a different and contemporary cultural form. I think that as an art form and performance this may give them a helpfulness that other art forms and performance styles may not possess for today’s generation.
I certainly do not agree with many of the things the panelists said. . . . I am glad that Botkin apologized for the unfortunate things he said. I certainly do not agree with the very negative tone of the video as a whole about Reformed rap. Yes, Reformed rap does draw attention to the perfomer (or rapper), but all musical performance art does. I do not think that rap can be singled out for this reason as bad.
Having said all of this, my reservation about rap in a meeting of the church is the same as my reservation about a lot of contemporary and traditional music in church. I doubt if it has much or any utility in meetings of the church, because it is performance. If rap has any justification in the liturgy of the church it would be as music I suppose. Meetings of the church are not about performance, but about worship. By the way, the moment preaching takes on the indirectness and artificiality of performance I think it ceases to be true preaching with the authenticity and directness necessary. The part of worship involved here is singing the praise of God and particularly the congregational singing of the praise of God.
You mentioned as a speculative possibility a whole church rapping together. I have actually never seen congregational rapping and know of no instance of it. It would have to be a whole other world before any churches I know could do this. Indeed, rap seems to me to be essentially a performance style.
In sum, I have no problem with Reformed rap as performance or art form. I can see how it might be used in concerts or other gatherings with an evangelistic intent. I cannot see how it could have any utility or edification and thus place in a meeting of the church of the living God.
Since I wrote the above email both Scott Brown and Joel Beeke have issued apologies for aspects of their comments. I think their apologies show wisdom and humility. Both emphasize the distinction I am insisting on in this blog. Let me only add that my ministry at the NCFIC conference emphasized the crucial distinction I was making at the Worship of God conference between the corporate worship of the church and other situations. The question of whether Reformed rap may be a good and useful kind of performance art and thus evangelistic tool is very different from the question of whether any such performance art has any place in the formal worship of Christ’s church. These questions should be separated for a more fruitful discussion.