The first sign something was unusual about last Sunday morning was that it didn’t take the normal four ounces of C4 to blast my 19-year-old son out of bed early in the morning. In fact, he was “salty” at me for not getting up promptly at 5:50 a.m. The second sign something was unusual was that my family and I showed up outside the LeConte Center at Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, for a worship service three hours early, and we were about 200th in line. The third unusual fact about that Sunday morning was that one of the worship leaders was going to be Kanye West.
Yep, I attended a Kanye “Sunday Service.” Here’s the tale.
The story begins in December. Scott Dawson, the leader of the Strength to Stand Student Bible Conference, canceled a planned Sunday morning appearance by Christian comedian John Crist after reports that Crist committed multiple acts of sexual misconduct. Dawson reached out Kanye to ask if he’d be willing to bring his Sunday Service to the heart of Appalachia, and West agreed. Within moments of the announcement, my eagle-eyed mother spotted the news and texted my wife. Nancy activated immediately. She reached out to Strength to Stand, found out it was a youth conference, signed up as a family ministry, and within an hour the fictional “David French Family Ministry” had six passes to Sunday Service.
And so, there we were—one month later—standing in the freezing cold outside the conference center as thousands of mainly Southern Christian kids streamed into the line. It brought back memories of my own youth group days, of piling into a church bus way too early, joining a mass of other kids—split almost evenly between those who wanted to be there versus those who had to be there—and waiting, always waiting, for the next event, the next concert, or the next speaker who was going to try to change our lives.
But this morning, the atmosphere was electric. Youth conventions are always at least a little bit exciting, but this was at a different level. Sprinkled within the crowd were a few true, hardcore Kanye fans. You could spot the Yeezy shoes. You could spot the Kanye concert shirts. My son, wearing his own Yeezys and sporting his “Jesus is King” merch, sought out a small group of Kanye-ologists. No, they weren’t there for the conference. Yes, they were there only for Kanye.
That was the exception. The youth group kids kept flowing in, by the hundreds, then the thousands, until the final count neared 12,000. They marched in like small, undisciplined Roman legions, often behind a youth pastor or adult volunteer who held up a sign on or a symbol on a long pole—their version of the Roman eagle—so the students could always find their group in the scrum. Sometimes the sign had a name. Sometimes it was just the big, beaming face of the youth pastor. One youth group walked behind a stuffed squirrel at the end of a 10-foot pole.
We waited almost two hours for the doors to open, and when they did, the conference staff just let us pour in. There wereo seat assignments. It was general admission. But these were southern Christian kids supervised by southern Christian parents. So there was almost no running. There was no jostling. There was just a polite, fast walk to the front.
As we made our way close to the stage, I was struck by something unusual. I didn’t see any merchandise for sale. There was no Kanye gear. There were no promotions for Kanye. There were no pictures of Kanye—at least not that I saw. If you’d just walked up, you’d have no clue that one of the world’s biggest stars was about to perform.
We fast-walked to sit seven rows back from the circular platform. It was slightly elevated above the crowd, and the edges were covered in flowers. The fragrance of flowers filled the room. A few musicians worked with the instruments, and big screen televisions above the stage played promotional videos for the conference.
As the minutes ticked down to 10 a.m., the scheduled start of Sunday Service, the buzz intensified, but it was clear from the beginning that this was a service, not a concert. There would be no “mosh pit” by the stage. Everyone was to remain in their seats. Just after 10 a.m., Scott Dawson opened the proceedings with a prayer, introduced Kanye and his “Sunday Service Collective,” and then we waited.
First, there was silence, then there was music. Kanye’s choir walked in. One by one, they passed by in plain robes. Everyone strained to look. Where was Kanye? He was there, walking as if he was just another member of the choir. Most folks, who were looking for an individual introduction, didn’t notice as he passed. He moved, still largely unnoticed to the center of the stage, and the choir surrounded him in a circle. He was lost to sight.
The service began, and this was not “Kanye’s” show. The choir director, Jason White, stood, the choir sang, and I was instantly blindsided by the power and the emotion of the songs and the sheer, awesome talent of the singers.
I’m convinced that Gospel choir music has to be heard live to be appreciated. It’s only live that the sheer exuberance of the worship is fully communicated and transmitted to the audience. It is not just a “joyful noise” to the Lord. It is joy to the Lord. And for song after song, that joy radiated from the stage. There were new songs. There were old hymns. It all glorified God. It all praised Jesus.
And there was no Kanye. He remained out of sight.
Then, about 30 minutes in, with zero fanfair, he stood and led the audience in a few songs from his Jesus Is King album, but again not as a concert focused on him, but as worship, focused on Jesus. The first segment of Sunday Service culminated in an extended version of “Selah,” and I have to confess that rarely (if ever) in my life have I ever been so profoundly and simply happy to worship God.
After Kanye’s brief appearance, White introduced Adam Tyson, the pastor of Placerita Bible Church, a small church a few miles outside of Los Angeles. Tyson’s Sunday Service sermons have spread across social media, and they’re best-characterized as straight-ahead, bible-based Gospel preaching. He’s not trying to be hip. He’s not trying to be funny. He pulls up scripture, and preaches it. Last Sunday, he preached directly to 12,000 kids about the prodigal son. He asked the prodigals in the room to return to their Heavenly Father. He spoke for about 10 minutes, then sat down.
The last segment of the service repeated the first. White and the choir sang, Kanye was out of sight, and then—at the very end—he stood up again and closed the service with an extraordinarily powerful rendition of “Jesus Walks,” combined with an old spiritual called “I Want Jesus to Walk With Me.” Then he finished. He filed out with the choir, and it was over.
Within minutes, I saw the squirrel pole rise up again. Youth pastor faces bobbed on poles across the auditorium, and the kids filed out in their youth group clusters. Dawson announced that more than 250 kids gave their lives to Christ in response to the altar call. The room erupted in cheers, and the “David French Family Ministry” left to get pancakes and talk about what we’d just witnessed.
So why tell this story? Why spend so much time on Kanye?
Ever since Kanye began his spiritual journey, he’s been met with intense skepticism, a skepticism that often lurched into a lack of charity. At various times, I’ve heard confident pronouncements that this is just another money-making scheme, that he’s already lapsing into heresy, or that this is but a passing fad for an unstable star.
By guarding ourselves against gullibility, we sometimes embrace cynicism. We place the worst gloss on each new development, then we fold our arms, tap our feet, and wait for the fall.
We can’t let people be new Christians—instead we demand they be John Calvin or Thomas Aquinas from day one and punish and scorn them for any theological missteps. We can’t rejoice in an apparently transformed life—instead we fret about its permanence and worry about what happens to his fans if he fails. Some folks move right past religion and start to obsess about politics. They wonder less about Kanye’s faith and more about whether he’ll help or hurt Donald Trump.
In fact, Kanye’s relationship with Trump was one of the first things I was asked about when I tweeted about attending Sunday Service. I was asked about Trump when I was a guest on Morning Joe, talking about Sunday Service. I get it. I do. Kanye has placed himself in the political conversation. He was performing in front of an audience that was 99.9 percent white Evangelical—Trump’s core constituency. I can see the reason for the suspicion.
But Donald Trump’s name was a million miles from Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, last Sunday morning. The name that mattered—more than Trump’s, and even more than Kanye’s—was Jesus Christ.
That’s an important reminder for our nation’s political class. Most of American Evangelicalism is far, far removed from politics. Yes, there is an activist community in American Christianity—and that community is disproportionately likely to read this newsletter—but the daily experience of Christian faith in Evangelical America is the experience of those kids (minus, of course, much exposure to megawatt celebrities). They wrestle with their faith. They seek to do right, then struggle to stand when they fall. They sometimes swing from spiritual elation to existential despair. And through it all, parents and pastors walk beside them—facing their own struggles, but united in the conviction that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.
Moreover, there are times when the greatest ambassadors for the Gospel are those people who’ve struggled and fallen and then risen again only by the grace of God: people like Kanye West. I don’t know the future, but I do know that moment in Pigeon Forge, and in that moment God was glorified, young people encountered Jesus, and my family was deeply encouraged.
I’ll close with some food for thought—and a marvelous truth about the Gospel. Shortly after Kanye’s spiritual renewal became very, very public, my wife reminded me of an old blog post by our friend Russell Moore. “The next Jonathan Edwards might be the man driving in front of you with the Darwin Fish bumper decal,” Moore said. “The next Billy Graham might be passed out drunk in a fraternity house right now.” Oh, and “[t]he next Charles Wesley might be a misogynist, profanity-spewing hip-hop artist right now.” Our present condition is not predictive of God’s divine purpose.
Again, I do not know what the future holds. But we do know how God works, and last Sunday I saw God work though Kanye West.
One last thing ...
Remember what I said about the impossibility of capturing the choir experience merely on video? Well, this is a pale shadow of what it’s like to experience Sunday Service live, but it will have to do. Here’s “Selah” almost exactly as it was performed for us. Enjoy: