This past week, longtime pastor, author, and seminary chancellor John Piper lit up the Christian blogosphere when he released a lengthy post affirming how rap artist Lecrae Moore has evolved in his Christian witness on race issues.
“His faith is not secondhand [and] I am thankful for that,” writes Piper of his friend, who goes by Lecrae as a performance moniker. “Lecrae is not an adolescent.”
Yet few of the rapper’s longtime Christian fans grasp why he now addresses race issues via social media and his songs. How did a 71 year-old Reformed Bible teacher find himself in dialogue on race with a hip-hop artist climbing the Billboard charts? It’s a cultural conversation worth considering.
Creating Culture from the Truth of Experience
Early in his career, Lecrae packed megachurches with rap hits like “Tell the World” and “Souled Out.” With the recent rise of Black Lives Matter, he began to speak openly his concerns about racism, including in his music.
“If we disagree on black lives and social justice, and I’m not getting pats on the back from John Piper, then who am I now?” asked Lecrae in a podcast interview that sparked Piper’s response. The two have been acquainted for years. “If I turn my back on white evangelicalism, who am I?”
Today, Lecrae has thrown out the expectations people place on him. His first Columbia Records release “All Things Work Together” charted at number 11 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums list in its debut week. The title refers to Romans 8:28 (“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose”), and several songs make biblical allusions. Still, uncomfortable with Lecrae tackling race issues, some in his Christian fan base accuse him of falling away from faith.
Critics point to his acceptance speech at the BET Awards on June 25. “Everybody in that category, man, are true gospel artists,” said Lecrae. “I’m just the rap artist they let in here to inspire people and I’m honored to do that.” YouTube channels such as The Vigilant Christian pounced, claiming, “He’s not a gospel artist and he knows it!”
One can hear a pastor’s regret from Piper, of missed opportunities to empathize with race-related hurt he now sees as real. “I know young men whose disillusionment with ‘white evangelicalism’ was not as painful as Lecrae’s, and yet they threw the brown baby of Bethlehem out with the white bathwater,” he says.
Piper says many white Christians resonate with the black perspective on troubling current events: “We are baffled that Philando Castile’s shooter walks free. We are dismayed at the nationwide resurgence of manifest racial antagonism.”
Seminary graduate Jemar Tisby, president of Reformed African American Network, agrees that difficult, ongoing conversations about race are worth having for the sake of the gospel.
“There may be no greater hindrance to the advance of Christianity in America than the persistent presence of racism in the church,” says Tisby. “I am encouraged by Dr. Piper’s humility to hear the concerns of Lecrae with an open mind,” he adds. “More white evangelicals should act in this spirit.”
In light of the key role Piper has served in evangelical circles for decades, his views on racial unity are hard to ignore.
From Desiring God to Speaking on Social Issues
Currently serving as chancellor of Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Piper has often spoken unpopular truths to the church and the wider culture. In 1994, he founded the teaching ministry Desiring God, which makes its library of resources available for download at no cost.
Piper has stood for biblical sexual ethics despite cultural pressures. He’s helped evangelicals rethink and refocus overseas missions efforts with his seminal work “Let the Nations Be Glad.” He did the same for cultural engagement with his biography of William Wilberforce.
Piper has also been an outspoken voice on behalf of lives in the womb, preaching often against the societal consequences of a nation ending 60 million defenseless lives since Roe v. Wade. In 2015, the theologian even appeared in a pro-life video alongside a young rapper who confessed on-camera to how he had pressured his girlfriend into getting an abortion.
That surprisingly honest young man was Lecrae Moore, who revealed his story in greater detail last year in the autobiography “Unashamed.” It’s a unique narrative concerned more with an authentic Christian witness in everyday life than about current raging political debates.
“Unfortunately, despite the efforts of individuals, in the aggregate, white evangelicalism still poses massive problems for the cause of race and justice,” Tisby states bluntly. So how did Lecrae gain a white evangelical fan base to begin with? And where is this dialogue going?
How Lecrae Found His Family in Faith
With a mother who fled his abusive father, Moore grew up in tough neighborhoods of Houston, Denver, and San Diego. He shares of being consumed with anger at his mom’s boyfriends and authority figures in his life who violated him. (“Unashamed” contains content not appropriate for children.)
He stood out among peers with his ability to rhyme and rap, first emulating artists whose honesty he connected with like Outkast, Nas, and Eminem. Gradually, Lecrae translated his own experiences into original songs. It was his way of fitting in, while using art to express pain he and his peers couldn’t find other means to say.
“For years, I lived in communities drowning in social problems and sin: fatherlessness, sexism, racism, poverty and violence,” he wrote. The years before and during college were marked by drug addiction and crime. His ability to speak difficult truths through rap gradually became more important to Lecrae.
The spiritual encounter that changed his life happened when he heard the sufferings Christ himself faced. “The Jesus I had pictured in my mind was frail and weak and bashful,” he admitted. “I’d never heard that he was whipped with sharpened pieces of bone and glass that ripped the skin off his back. I’d never heard that he had to carry his own splintering cross up a hill to the place of execution.” This was a man he could relate to.
Lecrae became radical in his new faith. He took to laying down foundational truths in his songs. His debut record in 2004 was self-distributed, then quickly reissued when he signed with a Christian label. Each of his subsequent albums set new benchmarks for the Christian hip-hop genre. The hit single “Don’t Waste Your Life” on his third record shares its title with a best-selling book by Piper.
As he became a husband then a father, life looked good for Lecrae. Yet within a few years of being pigeonholed as a “Christian rap” artist, he could tell there was a ceiling on his cultural impact: “Being an outspoken Christian in the music industry means always feeling out of place,” he wrote.
Creative Shift and Christian Backlash
Conversing with peers and poring over the works of Andy Crouch, Nancy Pearcey, and Francis Schaeffer on creating culture, Lecrae began to see his music in a new light. Riffing on someone else’s theology book wasn’t being authentic to his life on the streets.
Lecrae started to collaborate with leading hip-hop producers and develop friendships with artists whose work (if not lifestyles) he respected. This sharper focus on his craft caught the attention of Columbia Records, who signed him in 2016.
Just as “Unashamed” chronicles how fellow believers bashed his artistic shift, it still happens today. Constance Troutman, a communications professional who blogs at Truth and Fire, has not minced words in her critique of Lecrae’s new focus. In July, she published a 12,000-word post entitled “We Just Lost One: Bye Lecrae” enumerating the various compromises the rap artist has made in her view.
“I get that racial justice is his passion,” the young black woman wrote. “[But] it isn’t fair, nor is it very brotherly, of Lecrae to demonize the Church because we’re not all up in arms to speak on what he says we should. Our ultimate identity isn’t our race, but who we have become in Christ. The Lecrae we once knew, knew that.”
Often based on a reading of Galatians 3:28 (which essentially states, “There is no Jew nor Greek, we are all one in Christ”), this colorblind perspective is common among evangelicals. Tisby responds passionately to this view: “I don’t want you not to see me in my wholeness—that includes my body, my brown skin,” he said in a recent interview. “There’s also a culture that comes with it. I don’t want that to be erased from my history or my narrative.”
Other hip-hop artists who hold to Christian faith continue to wrestle with how to combine art and ministry. “On the church’s side, we have to make space for people to be who they are and change,” urged DJ Cut No Slack on a podcast this past summer.
Navigating the Charged Politics of Race and Religion
Piper’s stance of repentance, mourning, and humility on race issues is not widely shared among Christian conservatives. “White evangelicals’ generally assume they are a-cultural and bring no cultural influence into the fleshing out of their faith,” observed Piper in his post. “[Yet] every expression of faith, everywhere in the world, is embedded in and shaped by culture. Being oblivious to this does not help us with the difficult task of discerning when to be counter-cultural or not,” he concluded.
Recently Tisby joined more than 40 evangelical leaders in an open letter calling on President Trump to unequivocally condemn the alt-right movement for racism. “There are not ‘two sides’ when it comes to white supremacy,” the signers assert. “It is a belief system that is anti-Christian at its core.”
Other prominent faith leaders united behind the statement include Pastor Tony Evans, Bishop T. D. Jakes, Rev. William Dwight McKissic, Pastor James Merritt, Russell Moore, Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, and Ed Stetzer of Wheaton College.
“I hope more white evangelical leaders realize the fierce urgency of now and become willing to lose their praise, pulpits and positions for the sake of the marginalized and oppressed,” states Tisby.
Piper desires to keep the dialogue going, because he realizes what’s at stake. “The roots of his union with Christ are deep enough not to be torn up by the trials of these sad days,” he writes of Lecrae. “I would even hope that others in the tribe might join me in feeling more thankful than frustrated, and more hopeful than disheartened.”