For a new breed of young Christians, hip-hop is not the self-glorifying music style of gangster street culture but a way of glorifying God and saving lost souls.
For Nathan Carse, who co-leads the Brisbane branch of national cross-denominational hip-hop network Krosswerdz, rap music has become a way of building a bridge to the gospel for hurting young people.
“I grew up reading Scripture and not really knowing how to share the gospel with my friends,” he says.
“For a young person who just loves the way that rap sounds, you already have a connection through that in itself, so they will be willing to hear what you have to say.”
Krosswerdz Brisbane puts on events in the community every couple of months, attracting up to 60 regulars and new faces, which finish with a sharing time and some praise and worship.
“We’re just trying to bring young people together and our prayer is that people come along and connect and then we can find local churches to plant them in and help them in their day-to-day walk.”
Carse, 31, grew up in a Christian family but from the age of 10 or 12 became gripped by hip-hop culture and its ability to tell stories in a raw, honest way.
For him, hip-hop songs can be like psalms, reflecting the struggle to maintain faith and find answers to disappointment and injustice.
“They’re like psalms, going through this stuff and looking for answers.”
“What I noticed is hip-hop is about storytelling. What you hear on the radio may be obscene and be more about trying to look good. But the origin of hip-hop is storytelling and when you hear young people talking about issues like drugs and fatherlessness, they’re telling you things in song that they probably wouldn’t tell you in real life.”
“So it’s definitely this culture of sharing stories and for me I found that when I was rapping, I was rapping about faith and I was rapping about struggle and they’re like psalms, going through this stuff and looking for answers, knowing that God will do it but just struggling with what is going on.”
Although he grew up in the church, Carse did not understand grace until a few years ago when a medical crisis prompted him to look deeply into the Bible.
“I’ve been a type-one diabetic for about 15 years and a while ago I had a bad episode where I had a fit in the street and people were walking past me and there was nothing I could do. And I thought, ‘Wow I don’t have as much control over my life as I thought I did.’
“At that time a lot of what I was believing was things people had told me, so I didn’t know where I was going to go if this didn’t go well. And then that episode caused me to jump into the word and to really ask some hard questions for myself.
“I had faith and understanding that God was good and God was Father but it was more ‘I’ve got to do good things, otherwise I might upset him.’ Then I dived into the word for myself and that’s when the idea of grace just slapped me in the face.
“It’s been a beautiful journey and I’ve learnt many things along the way, seen God’s work in my life more so now than at the time.”
Carse spent two years as an Ministry Training Network trainee at Village Church – Kelvin Grove in Brisbane, which now employs him to run hip-hop church services in Brisbane Youth Detention Centre every month.
“It’s just beautiful to have that opportunity,” he says.
“We have about 70 people who have signed up of their own accord, so that’s the majority of the centre coming to church because they connect on that hip-hop level and they get a story from the Bible as well.”
Carse says he takes lyrics from famous hip-hop artists and helps the inmates break them down in the light of the gospel message.
“So we take that hip-hop culture and break down their lyrics and see what the Bible says about it.”
“One had a line: ‘God, send me a father before I hit puberty.’ We asked the young guys – what does it actually mean? Another was: ‘Only God can judge me.’ I said ‘This is one court case where we know the outcome of when we trust in Jesus.’
“So we take that hip-hop culture and break down their lyrics and see what the Bible says about it and find the hope in that.
“There’s a lot of hip-hop that’s not good at all but there’s also a lot of hip-hop where you look into the lyrics and you see there’s a hurting person in there who’s asking some really big questions that I and the kids can relate to, so let’s see what we can do with that.”
Carse also visits schools with a school chaplain and runs helps students to write and record raps.
“I’ve had a lot of young people who aren’t Christians ask me to put a CD together for them of some Christian hip-hop artist that I show them in class, because they do hear there’s hope and they do hear a story of struggle. They’re not Christian and yet the video is talking all about Christian faith – there’s an attraction there to what’s going on.”
Many of those who come to the Krosswerdz “church” on a street corner or attend a Krosswerdz workshop believe that God couldn’t love them because of their background or situation.
“For them to come into an environment and see others who are similar to them and yet call themselves Christian, that blows their minds a bit,” Carse says.
You definitely have some people who wouldn’t have thought of walking into a church – because of a complete disconnection there. They might come to a place like this and think I can relate to these guys, ‘Geez, what are they talking about?’.
“Some of the young people come to an event just because they have a connection just through hip-hop and wanting to express themselves.
“But others become part of the family. One young person came out of an interest in hiphop and is now a youth leader at a church.”
Started in Sydney nine years ago, Krosswerdz now has fellowship groups in eight locations including Melbourne, Adelaide, Wagga Wagga, the NSW central coast, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea. As well as offering church services combined with hip-hop jam sessions, Krosswerdz also runs a national hip-hop workshop every November. Up to now it has been held in Sydney, but this year it will be in Brisbane.
“Each state has its own flavour, so in Sydney they’ve got a big breakdancing, rap element,” says Carse.
“In Melbourne they’re all youth workers who are graffiti artists as well, so they put on legal graffiti days.
“Up here we’re a bit of a mix of breakdancing and graffiti and rap. But the nice thing is you’ll find a good mix of guys and girls around the country.”More