Like a lot of staffers at the Harris County Jail, Jason Spencer didn't expect to be fielding media calls about a surprise visit from one of the most recognizable celebrities. But then, a lot about Kanye West's last few months has been a surprise. A life-changing one, judging by the inmates at Friday's impromptu concert. "This is a mission," the newly-converted Kanye insisted, "not a show." And he proved it, doing his best to set even these prisoners near downtown Houston, free.
"Say what you want about the man," Jason posted, "but Kanye West and his choir brought some light to people who needed it today..." Watching the inmates on their knees, some crying, others lifting their hands high in praise, Sheriff Ed Gonzales had never witnessed anything like it. "It was really like a worship service," he told reporters afterward. "...Even some of our teammates [were] brought to tears." Maybe it wasn't the crowd of thousands Kanye had two days later at Joel Osteen's church, but the impact was just as profound.
We're not all so different from those prisoners, Kanye seemed to say on Sunday to a much bigger audience at Lakewood Church. We all need Jesus. We all need to repent. But, he promised, "Following the Bible can free us all." For twenty minutes, the singer stood on stage in front of a massive "Jesus is King" backdrop, talking about a range of issues as they came to him. His priorities, he insists, are different now. "There was a time I was letting you know what high fashion had done for me. I was letting you know what the Hennessey [liquor] had done for me. But now I'm letting you know what Jesus has done for me... that I'm no longer a slave -- I'm a son now, a son of God. I'm free."
"I know that God's been calling me for a long time," Kanye said, "and the devil has been distracting me for a long time. But making this change, and this new gospel album, he explained, wasn't easy. There's a culture of celebrity that doesn't want to hear about Christianity, because they don't want to be reminded about their sin. People don't mind the ads for alcohol or strip clubs, but then we bring up the name of Jesus and we're told to be quiet..."
"The Devil stole all the good musicians, all the good artists, all the good designers, all the good business people -- and said, 'You gotta come over and work for me.'" But that's all going to change, he insisted before breaking out into a grin, "Because now, the greatest artist that God has ever created is now working for him." While the audience stood and clapped, he went on to say that, "[A]ll of that arrogance and confidence and cockiness that you all see me use before, God is now using for Him, because every time I stand up, I feel that I'm standing up and drawing a line in the sand..."
Even when it comes to taking that message to his own industry. "You know, as rappers, there's so many things we've done to maintain the idea of coolness. We have our own daughters, and we're still rapping about hooking up with somebody [else's] daughter -- like not taking the responsibility as a man.... I now have a family -- I'm 42 years old and married for five years -- there's a blatant responsibility for me to become more like my mother and my father [who took us to church three times a week]..."
Of course, Kanye's whole evangelistic outreach is taking place in a society where people think the church has lost its influence. Just this month, Pew Research did a survey that essentially says religion -- at least according to 78 percent of Americans -- is losing its grip on society. And most people think that's a bad thing. Why? Because religion is often a force for good. Even in a culture as hostile to faith as ours, the majority in this country (55 percent) believe it has a positive effect. Like strengthening morality, 53 percent say. Or bringing people together, another 50 percent point out. People can argue about Kanye's authenticity or his approach, but they can't argue about this: the message he's bringing is a transformative one.
"The more and more this entire country follows Christ and sets the example that we are a Christian country... When you remove the fear and love of God, you create the fear and love of everything else. But let me word that not in a negative way, but in a positive way: Reinstate the fear and love of God -- and eliminate the fear and love of everything else..."
As I explained in the Federalist, we need to encourage Kanye's growth in the faith. He isn't daunted by the criticism or by the culture's expectations. He cares about one audience. "The only superstar is Jesus," he told people. And we need to be serving Him "every millisecond."