The introductory message on the Web site of the Akron-based Divine Soldiers tells visitors, "Our main objective is to intercept the enemy communication in the hip-hop culture by adding a fifth element -- Jesus Christ." In a concert last week at the parish festival at St. Barnabas Catholic Church in Northfield, the group entertained a multigenerational audience with break dancing and fast-paced lyrics praising God.

Erika Zganjer, 15, a member of St. Barnabas, said she could have listened to Divine Soldiers all night. "Other hip-hop, the only good thing is the beat. They have a meaning with their beat," she said.

Jason and Brandon Wallace, the lead singers in Divine Soldiers, said secular radio stations are reluctant to play gospel rap because they fear it is too soft. So it is particularly frustrating that Christian radio stations hesitate to give it airplay for fear that it is too hard-edged.

Meanwhile, youth need an alternative to negative rap, the Wallaces said. "Kids, they're looking for it. They're actually starving for it," said Brandon Wallace, a youth minister at Calvary Temple in Akron who goes by the stage name S.O.L. (Servant of the Lord).

Tim Loney, the group's manager, laments that, "I just believe, as usual, the Christians are five years behind the time on all this stuff."

There is some evidence the tide seems to be turning. At the Oakland conference, participants signing the proclamation encouraged ministers to stop calling holy hip-hop sin, and to develop relationships with artists in their churches for the benefit of their own youth ministries.

The Rev. Kyle Early, who wants to start a nontraditional church by the fall in East Cleveland, plans to have hip-hop Sunday once a month, featuring local artist LeBaron Simpson, who goes by the stage name 7 Complete. "Jesus inspires us. And that's what this music does. It inspires us," Early said.

Neal says the rhythmic use of words is what legendary black ministers have done for generations to keep congregations spellbound. "Some of the best black preachers are hip-hoppers," Neal said. "I laugh when I hear preachers say rap is not of God. Well, you do it every Sunday, preacher."

© 2003 Religion News Service