By Jeff Walling
Someone asked me why I like using hip-hop poetry, sometimes called “spoken word,” as sermon illustrations.
I answered, simply, “Because God is a hip-hop artist.”
Before you brand me a heretic, consider this: God is the original spoken word artist. From the first introduction of God in the Scriptures, the creator of all things seems to love using words to create art.
He could have made the universe with a snap of his fingers or a nod of his head, but instead he spoke it into existence. And it’s not just any words he prefers, but poetic and rhythmic words. From the poetry of the creation account to the beauty of the Psalms, from the oracles of the prophets to the rhythm of the Beatitudes, God employed powerful, poetic language to communicate to his children.
If you were at the North American Christian Convention this year, you got to experience the power of spoken word poetry in the main sessions and the student conference. Three different spoken word artists challenged and moved us to speak out for God. For those unfamiliar with this style of poetic presentation, a little history may help.
The mix of creative prose and passionate rhythm is not new. The Harlem Renaissance writers of the 1930s and the West Coast beatnik poets of the 1950s helped give birth to a style of poetic prose recitation that was rougher and more gutsy than the gentle poetry of prior generations. These same influences were the roots of rap and, in the last 25 years, something known as a slam—a live and engaging poetry competition that had a huge grassroots following and became a style all its own called “spoken word.”
Instead of applause, attendees at spoken word performances snap their fingers in approval as the poet performs. (Trust me, this is cool.) In the last decade, spoken word artists have performed at TED events and alongside symphonies, and even taken part in Olympic opening ceremonies.
As this art form found its way into churches and youth events in recent years, spoken word artists introduced Christians to a more prophetic and challenging kind of poetry than the soothing verses most preachers read in those “three points and a poem” moments.
Because it is performed rather than simply read, spoken word poetry tends to demonstrate a heavy use of rhythm, improvisation, free association, and word play. It’s made for the stage, not the page. This is poetry to rattle your brain and get your heart pumping. Some find it reminiscent of the preaching found in many African-American churches. Not surprisingly, it is the style of choice for many young people who feel marginalized or disenfranchised, and it is frequently heard in younger, urban churches.
Cry of Truth
But spoken word is not just an ethnic or urban artifact. It is the cry of truth being spoken to power. It is the impassioned voice of the modern prophet challenging the status quo in a style that makes the intended target smile, in spite of ourselves. It lifts our spirits even as it kicks our rear, just like a good revival sermon.
Spoken word pieces can be shared via video or performed live. They can open a worship service, set up the teaching time, or send a congregation out with a unique challenge.
From my experience, there are a couple of things you will notice if you use a spoken word piece in a service. First, people will pay attention! There is something to the power of well-presented spoken word that touches us in a different way from prose. These poems are at once calculated and off the cuff, scripted, and free flowing.
Second, your younger attenders will lean in. Spoken word is both current and ancient, and your youth will thank you for including it in a worship assembly.
Finally, it will be remembered. As a preacher, I must admit to being bothered by the fact that my 30-minute lesson, over which I labored so long, will not be remembered as much as the three-minute spoken word piece that is powerfully and passionately delivered. Spoken word poetry is like an ocean wave: you’ve got to see it in action to hear its roar and feel its force.
So take a look at these clips from the NACC (www.gotonacc.org/spoken-word) and consider bringing the prophetic voice of spoken word artistry to your congregation. And be ready to snap your amen!
Jeff Walling serves as director of the Youth Leadership Initiative at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.