Un.Orthodox means of engaging the culture.
Tommy Kyllonen, a.k.a. Urban D, is a rapper, author and the head pastor of Crossover Community Church in Tampa FL, a church that caters to reaching the hip-hop culture. Given his ministry and his resume, it's only fitting that his latest projects bear the title Un.Orthodox and explore the intersection of Hip-Hop and the Church.
I was able to catch up with Urban D via a telephone conversation late last year as he was finishing up the projects - a book, CD and DVD. We chatted about the history of Crossover, his upcoming efforts and how the church can effectively engage culture in a meaningful conversation that leads them to the Gospel.
Below is that conversation for your reading pleasure.
(brenten gilbert): So, how are you doing today?
(Urban D): Good man. Just busy, man. Working on a whole bunch of different things.
Yeah, you seem to have a lot of stokes in the fire right now.
I do. Especially since I have a deadline. I have to mail back my book transcript today. I have it in my hands. I'm going to be reading that when I'm done with you. Just going over it some. It's like a final edit thing.
Yeah, it's all good stuff though.
Yeah, it always seems to be a lot of good stuff all at once.
So, for the sake of background, do you want to talk a little bit about yourself and how you got to this place in your life right now?
In a nutshell, to try to keep it short, I'm originally from Philly. I grew up in a pastor's home, but also grew up really having a big interest in hip-hop culture. And that was all around me. So I kind of strayed away from God a little as a teenager, but I came back and recommitted my life to Him. In my late teens, I went on to Bible college. At first didn't know why and then in the midst of that, I just really felt a sense to go back and reach the culture that I was from and really translate the message of Christ.
After I got done with college - I actually went to college in my later years down here in Florida - I thought I was going to go back up to the Philly area, but nothing opened up. So I started youth pastoring at a small urban church called Crossover in Tampa and I started the youth ministry there. The church was just a couple of years old, so over the next six years, I just developed the first of it's kind, hip-hop oriented youth ministry. We did a lot of different things to reach out to that crowd from concerts to basketball leagues to classes that teach kids how to rap, dj and dance and all of those different kind of things. So the youth ministry grew to where it had about 150 or so coming every week while the church still only had about 40 on Sundays. The pastor and the church council approached me a couple different times about me possible taking over the church. This was probably 2001.
At first I was real reluctant with that, saying, "No, no. I'm just going to be a youth pastor." I also was doing Christian hip-hop at the time, doing quite a bit of traveling and stuff like that and recording some albums. So my schedule was already pretty busy and I didn't want to try to put another hat on. But God really revealed to me and my wife that it was the direction that He had for us. So beginning in 2002, I took over as the pastor of the church and really just began to seek God, trying to figure out what direction we wanted the church to go in. He made it clear that He wanted us to reach people who were influenced by hip-hop culture. This was definitely a big question for us, because there was no model to look at. There was no other church that we could look at and say, "Okay, let's see how they are doing it."
So we had a lot of questions like, Could this really work? It worked well with the youth ministry and there were some young adults attending that as well, but can this work for the whole vision of a ministry? So we had all kinds of questions, but little by little, we began to make changes. Fast-forward to today, the church has grown quite a bit. Probably about 60-70% of the people who attend didn't previously go to church. So what we've experienced is really true church growth. We're reaching people that didn't have a relationship with Christ before, who weren't active in a faith community. So we've had to add multiple services. We've grown from about 40 to over 400 that attend every Sunday now.
Very cool. So would you say that Crossover Community Church is "Hip-Hop Church"?
We don't necessarily call ourselves that, because that can bring up all kinds of questions. But that is definitely, without a doubt, our target audience. [Our goal] is to reach those who are influenced by hip-hop culture. We even have that in our mission statement. That is our target audience.
"Our soul purpose is to give purpose to our soul"?
That's one of our slogans. Our mission statement is: "To Relevantly introduce the truth of Christ to the hip-hop culture as we develop worship, purpose, unity and leadership in their lives." It's on the website.
Right. So, what does that look like when put into practice?
Well, a lot of the things that we do are similar to what other churches will do. People will ask all kinds of crazy questions like, "Do you guys rap your sermons?" or "Do you guys have a concert every week?" or "What does it look like?". So we do a lot of the things that regular churches do but the format and the style of it is definitely what makes it unique and different. So it's relevant to our cultural context. We do our worship actually with. . . Well I guess first of all, the facilities don't really look like your average church. We have a lot of graphite murals - just the colors of the paint is real vibrant and bright. We have light boxes up all around - they are illuminated from the back - and they have different pictures and artwork - urban, hip-hop style artwork in them - and even some of them have scripture and stuff in them, as well. Definitely, when people walk on the campus, they are like, "Wow! This is really cool looking." It doesn't look like a church, but it's real professional looking at the same time.
Everything is customized, even our patio. The tables out there all have air-brushed album covers on the top of them. Everything from A to Z is real customized. Then with worship, we actually do it with a live DJ on turntables and it's been either a Christian hip-hop, an R&B instrumental or an original instrumental as well as having our worship team sings a lot of original songs. They've produced a couple of CDs even that have instrumentals on them so other churches can use them as resources. Then at the same time, they'll sing some of the regular choruses that other churches will sing, but [their version is] kind of remixed with a different flavor. We usually will have a rapper or two that we'll mix in with some of the faster songs to do a verse or two. So that is definitely a unique element that grabs everybody's attention.
"[Our goal] is to reach those who are influenced by hip-hop culture."
We do a lot of message series. Basically, we do all of the teaching in series. We tie in original short films, sometimes drama, sometimes a song, sometimes a testimony. Sometimes we have a panel up on stage where we have a couple of people sitting at a café table having real conversations. We just always try to mix up the teaching style and talk about real issues that people are struggling with. We did a series, for instance, this year on MySpace in the spring. We did a series on sexplotation this summer. We did a series on the Ten Commandments, but we called it "The Creator's Top Ten." We did it like a music video countdown each week. Each week we were counting down a couple of the Ten Commandments and tying them in with this real life application. So that's it kind of in a nutshell.
That's pretty cool. Now, to play devil's advocate for a bit, I'm sure you never get that. . .
no, of course not
Doesn't it seem like the culture is influencing what the church looks like in this case? What would say to somebody who says that the church should be working in the opposite fashion - influencing the culture rather than being influenced by the culture?
Yeah. I think that everything that we do as believers. . . We are in the culture, but we are not of the culture. But when we are in culture, obviously, I would argue with any church. . . I argue with a traditional church on that same exact statement. There are many elements in any one of their church facilities or in their buildings or in their dress that imitates culture. Many times, It imitates outdated versions of culture or more corporate or business versions of culture, but nonetheless, it's still culture. So just because some of the aspects of culture might be different or "pop culture," that doesn't mean there aren't neutral elements in culture. If you look all through history, culture has always influenced the church and the church has always influenced culture.
Unfortunately today, the church doesn't influence culture as much as it used to. There is a point in history when the church was the epicenter of culture. It's definitely not that today. Hollywood and the media is more like the center of culture. But there is still definitely some influence that the church does have on culture today - It needs to have more - but I think that as long as you are ministering to the culture, there are going to be some things there that are going to influence each other. But these are neutral things, the way things look or [styles of] music or clothing. A lot of those things can be neutral things that other people might criticize, but it's really just that they are criticizing based on their preference. They don't really have a Biblical base for [their criticism]. Of course, they'll use scriptures: "You shouldn't be looking like the world." "You aren't supposed to be conformed to the world, you are supposed to be transformed by the renewing of your mind." and all of those things. But in context, scripture isn't talking about dress, or music or the look of things, it's talking about character, morals, things like that.
Fair enough. I read an article that you wrote not long ago called "Living in the Culture and Finding Balance."
How do you find balance? Is there like a specific line that you won't cross or. . .?
I think that that has to be different for everyone depending on what their struggles are and what their convictions are. Meaning, I try to keep up with culture, but there are definitely things I won't watch, there are some places that I just won't go because I don't think that is healthy for me to go. I don't think it's healthy for most people to go to [those places]. But at the same time, I do read magazines. I do look at music videos, occasionally. Some times I need to change those things real quick - the images aren't decent - but I do try to keep up on what is going on. I look at a lot of different websites and read up so I can learn about the culture I'm trying to reach and engage. See what they are engaged in. So many times you can find angles. Or just talking about things, presenting things and even in pop culture there is a lot of spiritual truth that you can pull from.
On your MySpace I saw an ad for a series you recently did on The DaVinci Code. Did you read that book or watch that movie?
I didn't read the book, but I read a book about the book and I did go to watch the movie. I talked with some people - even about that example - and they were like, "You went and saw that movie?!" And I'm like, "There are all kinds of people who are going to see this movie and [there are] people who don't have the relationship with God wanting to talk to me about it." If I hadn't gone to see it, what basis can I stand on? 'Cause their immediate defense can be, "How do you know? You didn't even see the movie." And I didn't read the book, because most of the crowd that we engage in doesn't really read big novels like that anyways. But when it came out in the movie theatres, that was whole different thing. Because our crowd, our generation, goes to the movies. But then we felt like this was time because people - even at our church - people at their job, their school, in their neighborhood were going to be asking questions. So we did a short series on it. It was just two weeks, but it was good. It educated everyone on the movie.
What did you think of the movie?
It definitely wasn't what it was hyped up to be, in my opinion. I think even the church community hyped it up like, "Oh man. Tthis could really do a lot of damage." Even culture hyped it up like it was directly challenging Christianity. But when I watched it, it wasn't a strong movie like it said it was going to be. The plot wasn't really that great. I didn't walk away from the movie questioning my faith or anything like they were kind of scared everyone would. They were like, "Man, this could really rock the country." And a lot people that read the whole book said they were real disappointed in it.
Yeah. I read the book and it was pretty decent, but I didn't see the movie. I heard a lot of bad things about the movie being boring and drawn out.
Yeah. It wasn't that great of a movie. I don't feel like it was damaging. I think the church community was all hyped up and scared. I still feel like it was good that we did a few week series on it, because a lot of people did go see it and there was still a lot of questions and good conversation that came up. But when you know the facts of what some of the people are saying, it was ridiculous. They had nothing to stand on.
Cool. You mentioned that when you were younger, you kind of strayed away from the church and you came back to God later on in life. Was there a specific point or event in your life that caused you to turn around?
I think it was a combination of things, but it was basically when I was a senior in high school and I kind of began to look around at my group of friends. None of them were really headed anywhere. Some of them getting locked up. Some of them dropping out of school. Some of the girls I knew were getting pregnant. And none of them really had any futures planned, just the "street life," just getting by or whatever. Everyone was asking me what I was going to do with my life. Was I going to go to college? What did I want to be? And I was kind of clueless. That is when I began to really get scared and search God for my future, because I believe in God. I grew up in church. I had to be in church, so that is when it was kind of getting more serious for me. And that's when - in the middle of my senior year - I started turning back to God.
Do you see a lot of that in the people you minister to now? That same kind of searching for a place to go or wondering what to do with your life?
Definitely. That is one of the biggest questions that people have is direction. They're searching for some kind of purpose for their life or direction for their career or with their family. Even if it's only for them to find peace. That's why a lot of times they come looking for God. That or they've been through some really rough things and they want to make sure they don't go through it again.
What kind of success stories have you had at the church?
As I said, 60-70% of the congregation are people who didn't go to church before or some of them hadn't been in church since they were kids. There is a whole variety [of stories], from extreme cases and others. Some people came to the church because they were trying to get their lives together. They were on probation or they had a court case coming up for selling drugs. Some people were addicted to drugs and they were trying to get their lives straight. We've had several people that fall into one of those categories. I've even found myself in court - usually a couple of times a year - being a character witness for someone who has really changed. We have some great success stories with people like that. People who have now emerged into business owners and some that have gotten out of drug dealing and now they are working a trade. I have a couple of guys who used to do that, but now they are doing air conditioning and stuff like that. A couple of guys like that have even reached out to others in the church who find themselves in the same situations and they are training them up in a useful trade. Then we have some who. . . They weren't doing something extreme like that, but they were just going through relationship problems or they were just unhappy with their life, just searching for purpose. They really loved hip-hop, but they didn't think that the church or God could really connect with who they were.
That's great. Now, let's talk a little bit about hip-hop then. At face value, many people would say that no good can come from hip-hop based on what is out there. Obviously that's not true, but what are some of the positive aspects of hip-hop that the general public is missing?
"Culture has always influenced the church and the church has always influenced culture."
Well the great thing about it is it can be a great form of expression. Not just through rap, but also through art, dance, DJ-ing. There is just a lot of talent and creativity that can go into the whole culture, but obviously what we see in the mainstream is so negative and so repetitive. . . But you have to look at the people who run the industry. They don't have a relationship with God, which will be manifested, coming out of them in their art and their music and all of those things. The message is just going to be the opposite of Christ's. So that's what we see.
Obviously people can look at it and say, "Aw, man. How can anything good come out of that?" But being that there are a lot of different aspects of music, dance, and art that can be neutral, it can create a great platform for positive messages. For Christ-centered messages. For people just finding and developing their own gifts and their talents. We just have a lot of people at church who even discovered their gifts and talents as they started attending, whether they started rapping or dancing or DJ-ing or doing art or even getting into film. We have several people who, even now, have full careers in those things, who are making albums or who are attending film school. Some people are becoming graphic designers. We have a couple of people in the church who own their own websites and do graffiti art, do murals and have t-shirt lines. Then we have probably ten or eleven rap groups from the church that have produced CDs and go out to do concerts on a regular basis. And they use all of these platforms -what they do and what they have - to spread the message of Christ and talk about their story. We have a couple of dancers who work at Busch Gardens and do some different shows and have worked for some local dance companies. So in all of those areas, they are using areas of culture that are right on the cutting edge. People are actually into those things and they can use that and talk about their relationship with God and their experiences.
I guess that is at the heart of what your book is about, how you can put hip-hop's best foot forward and use it within the church. The book is called Un.Orthodox. What can you tell us about it?
yeah the title is Un.Orthodox and the subtitle is "Church.Hip-Hop.Culture." So it's kind of like a three part book with three different main parts. One of the parts is kind of telling my story a little bit - growing up as a pastor's kid and growing up in hip-hop culture. Kind of seeing both sides of it, both angles there, and for a while there, living with one foot on both sides of the fence. Then it talks about the transformation of what God did in my life. The second part of the book is an in-depth look at hip-hop culture. Really talking about how it started in the South Bronx back in the 70s and how it merged into a 10 billion dollar industry today. So people can really understand where it came from and that it wasn't always negative like it is today. It didn't start out like that at all. The book really kind of breaks that down and explains it. Then the other part of the book - really the most important part - is teaching people how to engage hip-hop culture, all the different obstacles, and how to navigate around them to reach that people group and communicate the truth of Christ. A lot of Crossover's story is tied in with that. There are several different testimonies and stories of people's lives from our church who have really been changed. There is even a chapter that just talks about how we do what we do from A to Z. It talks about a lot of different aspects, from worship to discipleship, to how we set up the campus to how we get the word out about what we do, events that we put on, training and all of those different things. It's coming out in the beginning of May 07 and it's coming out through Zondervan.
And coinciding with that is your 6th album with the same title.
Yeah. With the same title. That is coming out through EMI - Holy Hip-Hop and EMI Gospel - at the same time May 8th I think is the release date for the album.
Besides the titles, how do the two projects overlap?
There are going to be songs on the album with the same titles [as the book chapters]. A song about church. A song about the history of hip-hop. A song about culture. A song about being unorthodox. Then even the other songs outside of that will definitely have some of the themes that are talked about throughout the book. They're not going to be identical, but there will be a lot of things that complement each other.
You didn't write the book in rap format?
Nah. There will be some lyrics here and there in the book, though. We are going to tie that throughout the book as a common thread. Not much, but a little bit here and there as a nice little thing.
Nice. Alright, if you had a couple of minutes to address the church as a whole - leaders, congregants and all - what message would you give them?
I would say that our approach needs to be unorthodox, but what we believe in, what we stand on, our doctrine, that needs to stay the same. I think that is one thing that people, they can go to both extremes. They can get really scared when they see something like what we are doing, because it looks so unorthodox, but when it comes down to the doctrine and the message of it, it's biblical. It's the same thing. Then you have this other camp that'll try to go so far that they'll even compromise a little bit and say, "What? This is 2007 so we see how culture is. Everything is changing and we can't preach about certain things anymore because that is too offensive." I think that we have got to stay true to what the scripture is. We have to preach the whole Bible and preach it in context. That is another important thing.
So I would just encourage people. You can reach the culture and not have to change the message - the content of the message - but change the presentation of it. That is what always needs to be evolving as the world changes and the technology changes and culture changes. We shouldn't be scared of that as long as it's not compromising the message, the way we live our lives and our character. That is one thing I would say. Don't be scared of culture. Engage it. But at the same time, don't be scared to fully present the message, because the culture today doesn't want. . . They want you to be real with them. They want you to be transparent. They don't want it watered down. But at the same time, they want it to be [presentned] in a way that they can really understand it and digest it. They want to know why. Not just to say, "Here is what it is, this is it." That is more of a modern approach. Here is what it is, accept it, take it or leave it. Postmoderns are going to have a lot of questions. You've got to explain those things, and have the conversations. Questioning can be good, but you want to make sure the questions end up with real answers and real fruit to show people. I guess that is kind of it in an nutshell.
That will turn some heads. Is there anything else that I might have missed that you wanted to touch on?
I think you pretty much got everything. I glad we got to talk.
For more information, visit UrbanD.org - MySpace
Buy the CD/DVD or book titled, Un.Orthodox