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As thousands of people fill Bethany Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, they anxiously await to hear one of America’s most well-known rappers. But on this Friday night he is not offering up one of his popular and sexually provocative songs. Instead, at this “Sunday Service,” he will be seeking to lead them in a night of worship. Kanye Omari West (a.k.a. Yeezy) has flirted with Christianity in the past,1 but a few months ago when he announced his faith in Jesus there was something different, something that at least on the surface seemed real and genuine to many in the watching world. In the time since, the way that Kanye is publicly living out his Christian faith has caused some Christians to celebrate and has caused others a fair bit of concern.
Who Is Yeezy?
Kanye Omari West is an American rapper, business entrepreneur, fashion designer, and husband to reality television star, Kim Kardashian. Musically, Kanye is one of the most recognized artists of his time. Having won 21 Grammy awards, “West is one of the top GRAMMY winners in history.”2 Another indication of Kanye’s success is that his “Yeezy” shoes were the most searched-for shoe brand for five years, according to Google.3 Forbes predicted that the Yeezy shoe line in 2019 would bring in over 1.5 billion dollars in sales,4 and in July of last year they ranked Kanye as third on their highest paid celebrities list.5 The world has been paying attention to Kanye West for a long time, and his recent profession of faith in Christ has generated a lot of attention not just from believers, but from unbelievers as well.
Yeezy’s Life Change
According to Kanye, it was during the first half of 2019 when he truly began to own the Christian faith for himself.6 This decision had radical implications for his life. In the past Kanye had flirted with Christianity, even producing music with Christian themes for his 2016 album The Life of Pablo (GOOD Music). But as recently as a few months ago, Kanye implied that it was not truly a Christian album. He even expressed disappointment that the Christians who were around him during the making of that album were too afraid to share the gospel with him due to his celebrity status.7 Kanye’s commitment to his new faith, according to Adam Tyson, a Christian minister who shared the gospel with Kanye, almost led him to give up rap altogether. Kanye’s concern? That rap was “the devil’s music.”8 Let me repeat that: Kanye West, one of the world’s most celebrated rappers, was prepared to walk away from his rap career on account of his nascent faith. Adam Tyson encouraged Kanye not to turn his back on rap. Tyson says that he told Kanye, “Hey, man. Rap is a genre. You can rap for God…I think you need to use your talents that God’s given you and use that platform for God.”9
In October of 2019, in light of Tyson’s encouragement — or his own reflections on rap as a genre, or maybe some of each — Kanye went on to release Jesus Is King (GOOD Music), an explicitly Christian rap album. The album is good musically, theologically sound, and infused with biblical allusions.10 Jesus is King “debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 Chart, making it only the fourth Christian-style album to enter the chart.”11 When asked in an interview what he wanted people to get from the album, Kanye expressed satisfaction that people everywhere who discussed the album had to repeatedly say “Jesus Is King.”12 One online article reported that Google searches for “Jesus” and “What do Christians believe?” increased around the time the album was released and was trending on the Internet.13 It is indisputable that Kanye West, given his massive cultural influence, is causing many people to consider the Christian faith and message. It is possible that many are seriously engaging with it for the first time.
The Theology of Yeezy
Normally, it would not be necessary to seriously examine the theology of a new convert in a publication like the Christian Research Journal, but Kanye West is a special case. He is already having a massive spiritual impact on many within our culture. One way we see Kanye’s spiritual influence affecting the culture is through his “Sunday Service,” which before the current COVID-19 pandemic could bring together thousands of people at one time. These Sunday services initially began as small gatherings for his friends and family;14 but then over time morphed into weekly “pop up” worship services that happen at different venues around the country. These services, which include a traveling gospel choir that Kanye takes with him,15 have over time come to include preaching from various Christian ministers. Kanye’s spiritual influence through hosting these Sunday Services is significant for the many that come to these events16 and for the many that watch them online. At one “Sunday Service” in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, referred to in the opening sentences of this article (which actually took place on a Friday), one attendee reported that over a thousand people expressed a desire to give their lives to Christ.17 Kanye’s aforementioned album, Jesus Is King, has also had a notable cultural impact, debuting at number one on the Billboard 200 Chart. Given Kanye’s outsize spiritual influence on culture it would be wise for us to spend some time examining his beliefs.
One of the most helpful interviews for understanding the belief system of Kanye West was given by Adam Tyson, the Christian minister noted above. Tyson has had the opportunity to verify Kanye’s understanding of the gospel and to talk through other matters of Christian doctrine with him. Adam Tyson pastors Placerita Bible Church in Newhall, California and is a graduate of The Master’s Seminary, which is affiliated with the ministry of Bible preacher and teacher John MacArthur. In an interview given to Jeff Durbin and Luke Pierson with Apologia Radio,18 Tyson recounts how he first met Kanye when he (Kanye) started attending services at Placerita Bible Church. Eventually Tyson had a chance to engage with Kanye in a personal setting and took the opportunity to go over the “Romans Road” and explain key “salvation verses” to him, verses such as John 3:16, John 14:6, and Ephesians 2:8–9. Tyson was convinced that Kanye had a good understanding of the basic gospel message.
Tyson, in line with his own evangelical Protestant tradition, also implied in the same interview that he talked with Kanye about some if not all of the five “solas” of the Reformation. The five solas as understood by evangelical Protestants are these: sola gratia (the ground of the believer’s salvation is God’s grace alone), sola fide (the means of the believer’s justification is faith alone), solus Christus (the source of the believer’s salvation is Christ alone), sola Scriptura (the believer’s final authority in matters of faith and practice is Scripture alone), Soli Deo Gloria (the sovereign yet gracious divine plan of salvation brings glory to God alone).
In another interview Tyson stated that Kanye was so concerned about accurately communicating biblical truth in his then soon-to-be-released Jesus Is King album, that he requested that Tyson listen to all the tracks of the album in order to give input regarding the biblical accuracy of each song.19 Not only was Kanye concerned that his album be biblically accurate, Kanye’s burden, according to Tyson, was that “every song points people to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”20 From listening to different interviews given by Adam Tyson, one gets the sense that he faithfully sought to instruct Kanye in the truth of God’s Word. Kanye seems to have benefited greatly from Tyson’s guidance. Still, as positive as Tyson was about Kanye’s faith in the Apologia Radio interview, he nevertheless encouraged prayer for Kanye, specifically that he might know God through Scripture. Tyson underlined this need for prayer by saying that he is not the only Christian speaking into Kanye’s life, and noted that there were currently people around Kanye with whom he and his interviewers would have significant theological disagreements.21
Major Themes of Songs on Kanye’s Jesus Is King Album
|“Follow God”:||Expresses the necessity of living a Christlike life.|
|“Closed on Sunday”:||A call to raise your children in the Christian faith and to protect them from spiritual and cultural dangers. This song also seems to be implying the importance of having Sunday as a day to worship and as a day to teach one’s family God’s truth.|
|“On God”:||Kanye celebrates God’s favor on his life. Mentions that in the past the devil was in control of his soul. Affirms Jesus as Lord and Savior.|
|“God Is”:||An overall celebration of God’s goodness and faithfulness, especially in the saving of his soul. In this song Kanye expresses his evangelistic zeal.|
|“Jesus Is Lord”:||The final song on the album, which simply confesses that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord (Phil. 2:10–11).|
Yeezy Meets Osteen
On Sunday morning, November 17, 2019, Kanye West stood on stage in front of approximately 17,000 people at Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. Kanye was there that morning to be interviewed by well-known preacher and televangelist Joel Osteen; later that night Kanye would have one of his Sunday Services at Lakewood Church. Kanye’s appearance with Osteen has probably done more than anything else to generate concern from Bible believing Christians who want to see Kanye remain rooted and grounded in the truth. Those who want to see Kanye using his musical gifts and immense cultural influence in service to the advancement of the true gospel message cannot help being concerned about Kanye’s appearance and apparent friendship with Joel Osteen.
Anyone familiar with Osteen’s ministry knows that he comes across more as a pep talker than a preacher of the whole counsel of God’s Word (see Acts 20:27). Osteen preaches sermons that are intended to encourage people, but in his messages he intentionally and explicitly seeks to stay clear of talking seriously about sin. A faithful preacher must address the fallen condition of humanity in order to point their unbelieving listeners to Christ for salvation or to spur on their believing listeners in their pursuit of obedience to God and His Word. In a 2013 interview, when asked how he would summarize his core message, Osteen is quoted as saying, “God is good, He’s for you, He’s on your side.” Osteen went on to say, “When you put your trust in Him, even when you have difficult times, you can rise higher. You can excel, you can be leaders. It’s an empowering message, not one that pushes people down.”22
The problem with Osteen’s approach is that it is more therapeutic than biblical. The reality is that mankind’s main problem is not one of discouragement but rather one of rebellion. Fallen sinners and fallen saints need to be helped to sense their sinfulness, so that they may look to God for the grace provided for them in Christ and be reminded of their need to seek Him in obedience.23
From what I have heard from Kanye, he personally is clear that human beings have rebelled against God and need to turn to God through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.24 We can pray and hope that this message does not become diluted by his association with Joel Osteen, an association that will likely not end soon as the two of them, at least before the current COVID-19 pandemic, were already planning a joint event together this May at Yankee Stadium in New York.25
Yeezy Defends Mormonism
Christians should also be concerned by a statement that Kanye made about Mormonism back in October at one of his Sunday Services. Kanye said, “Here’s what I see. If you believe that Jesus died for your sins, then you know the gospel. That’s the gospel. Don’t be telling me Mormons got an extra book….It’s simple. Christians, we be making it too hard for people to come and be involved in this.”26 The judgment of charity would lead us to hope that Kanye is speaking from a place of ignorance as a new convert. Perhaps he is just not aware yet that Mormonism teaches that God the Father was once a man who became a god; that God the Father is now just one among many other gods that now exist; that Jesus is the spirit child of Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother, who himself became a god; that the Trinity is three separate gods rather than one God in three persons; and that all other churches have fallen away through a great apostasy. Mormonism does not just have extra books, it has extra doctrines, doctrines that every person should be warned to stay far away from.27 Kanye is new to the faith, and so we should give him the benefit of the doubt. We should not expect him really to be up on all the nuances of Mormon theology. Nevertheless, this type of situation does point out one of the challenges for high profile converts to the Christian faith, namely, before they are adequately discipled, people often hang on their every word due to their prior celebrity status.28 Thankfully, Kanye seems generally to take a “back seat” when it comes to a lot of the speaking at his Sunday Services, and he has expressed awareness of the limitations of his knowledge given his new convert status. With that said, as already pointed out, Kanye has publicly expressed error, though we assume ignorantly. We can pray that when Kanye speaks, God will increasingly give him wisdom to know what he does not know, for the benefit of his many impressionable listeners.
Pray for Yeezy
Anytime a person professes faith in Christ, another Christian should receive that profession of faith optimistically, believing that the profession of faith is genuine, until proven otherwise. Love, Scripture says, “hopes all things” (1 Cor. 13:7 ESV). In the case of Kanye West, it seems that the gospel was presented to him very clearly through the ministry of Adam Tyson, and likely from others as well. Kanye has also demonstrated a desire to know and remain true to God’s Word in his music. These are reasons for us to be hopeful that God is really at work in Kanye’s life.
Let us as the body of Christ pray for Kanye. Pray that God would be growing Kanye in the truth of His Word, and that He would remove from around him anyone who would confuse him or lead him away from a crisp understanding of the truth. Pray that Kanye would see, if he has not already, his need to be a regular part of a Bible-believing local church. Whatever benefits may come from Kanye’s “Sunday Services,” it is nevertheless not a local church. Kanye needs to be part of a local church where he can be under the leadership of godly men who know him, and who can consistently disciple him. We should all long for Kanye, as a faithful disciple, to be fruitful in stewarding his immense cultural influence for the glory of Christ. Let us therefore pray for Kanye West!
Aaron Turner Jr. received his bachelor’s degree in Christian Ministries from Geneva College in 2005 and his MDiv from Covenant Theological Seminary in 2009. He currently serves as Director of Outreach at Midtown Church in St. Louis, Missouri.
- Morgan Lee, “Kanye West’s Long, Complicated Relationship with Christianity,” Christianity Today, October 30, 2019, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/october-web-only/kanye-west-conversion-jesus-is-king.html. All cited URLs in this article were last accessed on either April 30th, 2020 or on May 1st 2020.
- Kanye West, Recording Academy, https://www.grammy.com/grammys/artists/kanye-west.
- Keith Nelson Jr., “Fact Checking Kanye: Yeezy Is Not the ‘Number One Google-Searched Brand on the Planet,’” BET, October 28, 2019, https://www.bet.com/music/2019/10/28/yeezy-is-not-the-number-one-google-searched-brand-on-the-planet.html.
- Zack O’Malley Greenburg, “Kanye’s Second Coming: Inside the Billion-Dollar Yeezy Empire,” Forbes, July 9, 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/zackomalleygreenburg/2019/07/09/kanyes-second-coming-inside-the-billion-dollar-yeezy-empire/#359917eb5ec3.
- Reported by Kurt Badenhausen, Madeline Berg, Dawn Chmielewski, et al., “The World’s Highest-Paid Entertainers 2019, Forbes, July 10, 2019, https://www.forbes.com/celebrities/#34c274325947.
- Beats 1, “Kanye West: Jesus Is King, Sunday Service, and Being Born Again | Apple Music,” YouTube Video, 1:54:53, October 24, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QuOCvKvrwI8.
- Joel Osteen, “A Joel Osteen & Kanye West Conversation,” YouTube Video, 21:26, November 19, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z9dYenI2QOw.
- Apologia Studios, “Special Event: Interview w/ Kanye’s Pastor,” YouTube Video, 1:14:03, October 17, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDUmbkdQksU.
- Apologia Studios, “Special Event: Interview w/ Kanye’s Pastor,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDUmbkdQksU.
- Jonathan Peterson, “85 Biblical Allusions in Kanye West’s Album Jesus is King,” Bible Gateway, October 30, 2019, https://www.biblegateway.com/blog/2019/10/biblical-allusions-in-kanye-wests-album-jesus-is-king/.
- Jay Greenberg, “Kanye West Credited With Spike in People Googling About Christianity and Jesus,” Neon Nettle, December 26, 2019, https://neonnettle.com/features/1734-kanye-west-credited-with-spike-in-people-googling-about-christianity-and-jesus.
- BigBoyTV, “Kanye West on ‘Jesus is King,’ Being Canceled, Finding God + A Lot More,” YouTube Video, 48:40, October 25, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t568Nd7k_Yk.
- Tre’ Goins-Phillips, “Massive Spike in Faith-Based Google Searches After ‘Jesus Is King,’” Faithwire, October 31, 2019, https://www.faithwire.com/2019/10/31/massive-spike-in-faith-based-google-searches-after-jesus-is-king/.
- The View, “Kim Kardashian West on Kanye Sunday Service, Health, Grief | The View,” YouTube Video, 5:38, September 13, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2orVaJWto0M.
- As someone who has listened to gospel music all my life, I cannot stress enough on a musical level how good Kanye’s choir is. They are one of the best choirs I have heard and seen (and “seeing” alongside “hearing” them is essential to get a sense of just how talented they are). The choir also brings a lot of joyful energy to Kanye’s Sunday Services. On December 25, 2019, Kanye released a gospel album that focused on his Sunday Service choir’s music, entitled Jesus is Born (INC).
- Due to the influence of Kanye’s connections, many celebrities have been seen at his Sunday Service, including people like DMX, Steph Curry, David Letterman, Dave Chappelle, Justin Bieber, Brad Pitt, Kris Jenner, Travis Scott, Chance the Rapper, Katy Perry, and others. Most names in my list and others appeared in this article: Andrea Wurzburger, “Can I Get An Amen? Justin Bieber, Brad Pitt and Every Other Celeb Who Has Attended Kanye West’s Sunday Service,” People, February 24, 2020, https://people.com/music/kanye-west-sunday-service-celebrities-who-have-gone/?slide=7262767#7262767
- Lindsay Elizabeth, “Thousands Gave Their Lives to Christ at Kanye West’s Latest ‘Sunday Service’ in Baton Rouge,” CBN News, November 4, 2019, https://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/entertainment/2019/november/thousands-gave-their-lives-to-christ-at-kanye-wests-latest-sunday-service-in-baton-rouge.
- Apologia Studios, “Special Event: Interview w/ Kanye’s Pastor,” YouTube Video, 1:14:03, October 17, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDUmbkdQksU.
- Wrath and Grace, “Kanye’s Sunday Service: An Interview with Pastor Adam Tyson,” YouTube Video, 1:03:10, October 8, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKksMkamHAM.
- Apologia Studios, “Special Event: Interview w/ Kanye’s Pastor,” YouTube Video, 1:14:03, October 17, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDUmbkdQksU.
- “Special Event: Interview w/ Kanye’s Pastor,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDUmbkdQksU.
- Nicola Menzie, “Joel Osteen Talks Preaching Sin, Materialism, and Gay Marriage,” The Christian Post, December 20, 2013, https://www.christianpost.com/news/joel-osteen-talks-preaching-sin-materialism-and-coming-out-in-support-of-gay-marriage.html.
- Editor’s Note: For in-depth critique of the teachings of Joel Osteen, see Hank Hanegraaff, “Osteenification and What It Portends,” Christian Research Journal 37, 03 (2014), Christian Research Institute, https://www.equip.org/article/osteenification-and-what-it-portends/ and Hank Hanegraaff, The Osteenification of American Christianity (Charlotte: Christian Research Institute, 2014). Hanegraaff writes, “While we may legitimately engage in collegiate debates over such ‘in-house’ matters as the perpetuity of spiritual gifts, not so the dogmas espoused by Osteen, which involve essential matters with real consequences for this world and the next. The reality is this: Osteenification has subverted the very essence of biblical faith in exchanging the glory of the cross for the glory of consumerism—a fast-food Christianity long on looks, dreadfully short on substance” (“Osteenification and What It Portends”).
- Though sadly it should be noted that Kanye did defend Osteen’s “positive approach” to preaching during his interview with him, over against the objections of his critics. Osteen, predictably, was very thankful for Kanye’s defense of him. See Joel Osteen, “A Joel Osteen & Kanye West Conversation,” YouTube Video, 21:26, November 19, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z9dYenI2QOw.
- “Tickets on sale now to see Kanye West, Joel Osteen at Yankee Stadium,” ABC 13, February 6, 2020, https://abc13.com/entertainment/tickets-on-sale-to-see-kanye-joel-osteen-at-yankee-stadium/5735244/.
- Jeff M, “Kanye West Defends Mormons, Catholics, and T.D. Jakes,” YouTube Video, 1:12, October 14, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=zyU3NM5MPqc&feature=emb_logo.
- Editor’s Note: See Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson, “Mormonism: Christian, Cult, or ???” Christian Research Journal 35, 03 (2012), available at Christian Research Institute, https://www.equip.org/article/mormonism-christian-cult/; and Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson, Mormonism 101: Examining the Religion of the Latter-Day Saints, revised and expanded (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2015).
- Editor’s Note: See biblical prerequisites for teachers and overseers, and warnings against appointing unqualified teachers and overseers, including new converts (1 Tim. 3:1–13; Titus 1:6 –9; James 3:1).