With songs like Jesus Walks and Ultralight Beam, Kanye West has written his fair share of music that hints at his faith in God. While it was certainly unexpected, I can’t say I was too shocked when a friend casually mentioned, “Hey, did you see Kanye started a church?”
Now, before I go any further, let me set something straight: I am not a Kanye West super fan. I think he makes some great music and I listen to it here and there, but that’s about it.
Soon after that initial conversation, stories of Kanye’s Sunday Services started hitting social media and online news outlets (you can read about them here or here… or you can jump to the next line and I’ll save you the trouble). These gatherings, which are invite-only and apparently have a dress code, include music from a full band and a gospel choir. The service is strongly slanted toward music, especially toward Kanye’s contributions (except for that one Sunday they did Nirvana songs. For real). This is a pretty good example.
Word on the street is that those who attend Kanye’s Sunday Service must sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement saying that they won’t share what happened at the event. Most of what we know is from videos and interviews from Kanye’s wife, Kim Kardashian-West, and the rest of the Kardashian family.
As is the case with pretty much anything Kanye does, he’s faced a fair share of backlash for his gatherings. From the Christian community, it’s mostly been based around the fact that the services don’t seem to regularly include prayer or a stand-and-deliver sermon. Without those components, many thought-leaders, inside and outside the faith, have jumped to the conclusion, “That’s not church.”
But I’m not sure we should run to the dust in Kanye’s eye before we self-examine our own church plank. (That’s a Bible joke.) And, actually, self-examination is precisely what Kanye’s Sunday Services have led me to do. I’ve spent some time reflecting and in conversation with others, trying to get to the bottom of what we mean by the word “church,” and why it is millions of people gather on the weekends to worship.
So far, I’ve decided…
We’re Not Speaking the Same Language
The easiest conclusion I’ve reached is this: we don’t know what we mean when we use the word “church.” For some people, it conjures up a picture of a building with a steeple. For others, it brings to mind a weekend gathering that involves some music, prayer, and a sermon. For far too many people, it connects to a past hurt—feeling betrayed, let down, or judged.
But I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind. In fact, he didn’t even talk much about the church. Instead, he focused his teachings and life around something called “the Kingdom of God.” As the message of Jesus spread, his followers didn’t buy up land and start laying brick. That’s because buildings weren’t their goal—people were. They invested their time, their money, their efforts into others. They spread the story of Jesus through relational networks, and people’s lives began to change.
Don’t misunderstand me, they still gathered to worship. But as the church grew, and the power of Rome moved in to crush what they viewed as a rebellion, these gatherings usually happened in secret, in the homes of friends and neighbors. Church was a movement you belonged to, not a place you went. It was much more about the everyday action of caring for the poor, loving enemies, and spreading good news than it was about a 60-minute gathering.
How different would our world be if we grasped that definition of church again—if we used that word to describe a movement we gave our whole life to, and not a box we checked for the weekend?
Try Something New
As a culture, we don’t often try new things. When it comes to spirituality, that’s even more true. But a little challenge can be a good thing.
If you’ve given up on church, try it again. Go to a big church? Try a small one. Have a conversation with someone who thinks differently than you. It’s healthy to challenge the way you think and even what you believe.
Much of the confusion around Kanye’s Sunday Services is that it falls outside our cultural expectations for what “church” or “worship” should look, sound, and be like.
But different doesn’t always mean wrong.
God is Big… and Narrow.
God is big. Like, really big. Bigger than theological debates, bigger than pop culture, and yes, bigger than Kanye West. I believe He will work all things for the good of his kingdom in the end. And yet, God is also quite narrow. Through scripture, He’s been clear about who he is and what worship that honors him looks like—such as here and here. The problem is, what we call “honoring worship” mostly doesn’t include the things He’s outlined. And unless we’re doing the things listed in the two verses above, we might want to slow down on claiming our “worship” is the one God approves of.
In Conclusion: Jesus
A few weeks ago, Kanye invited Rich Wilkerson Jr, pastor of VOUS Church in Orlando, to preach at his Sunday Service. Up until this point, there had been very little in the way of oral communication at Kanye’s gatherings. But Wilkerson delivered, bringing a message that was centered around God and invited those listening to put their faith in Jesus. (You can view it here.) Wilkerson wasn’t standing behind a podium or on a stage. He was standing on a boulder, surrounded by ordinary people, not a building in sight. Is this church?
If I stood on the side of the road and gave a sermon, would that be church? How about if I started singing worship songs in my basement? If a musical genius invites his friends into the desert to sing gospel songs, is that church?
I guess what I’m trying to say, in asking all these questions, is this: Jesus. Buildings shouldn’t be the focus. Music shouldn’t be the focus. Teaching shouldn’t be the focus. As a believer, Jesus is the focus of my worship. He is the focus of my life. He is the reason why I challenge my own beliefs and assumptions. He is the reason I attend a weekend gathering, and why I meet up with guys during the week. He is the reason why I invest in other people.
I encourage you to challenge your own opinions. Challenge the way you think, what you believe. We might not have all the answers. We might not ever have all the answers. And that’s OK.
Are Kanye’s Sunday Services “church”? Are they worshipping God or Kanye? Is Kanye even a Christian? I don’t necessarily know the answer to any of those questions and, to be honest, I don’t think I need to.