This may sound like an oxymoron to many, but to pastor Phil Jackson – it’s an average church service.
“It’s respectful, it’s relevant and it’s real,” Jackson said. “We don’t have any ambiance. We try to be ourselves and as approachable as we can.”
Jackson, 43, is an associate pastor at Lawndale Community Church and pastor of The House Covenant Church, known as The House.
The church is an evangelical Christian church that reaches out to youth and young adults through hip-hop. Jackson has been mentoring youth in the community for nearly 20 years.
Stemming from his own personal battles with the temptations of street life at an early age, Jackson isn’t your average church pastor.
He’s eager to create an environment that lets teens connect their everyday lives to biblical teachings.
Hip-hop arose in the 1970s as an urban cultural phenomenon where youth expressed themselves by rapping, DJing and breaking, known later in the 1980s as break dancing. While traditional churchgoers might think of hip-hop in terms of racy music videos and secular lyrics, Jackson is advocating the musical genre as a way to speak to young people.
“We don’t believe in Christian music,” Jackson said, “we believe in Christian lyrics.”
Jackson, a native of Kansas City, Mo., became an ordained minister at age 24, having turned his life around from drugs and gangs.
Soon after, he came to North Lawndale Community Church, where he saw an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of youth in the community.
After working with youth for a number of years, Jackson launched his youth church with a hip-hop focus.
With more than 100 churches in North Lawndale alone, Jackson said many of them aren’t filled on Sunday mornings, evidence that the service alone can’t bring people to the church.
That’s one of the reasons why The House’s services are on Saturday nights instead of Sunday mornings.
“We try not to be so biblically and heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good [or] so earthly minded that we’re no heavenly good. So there’s a unique balance,” Jackson said.
He added that the church is a place of safety and a refuge from trouble for many young adults.
Jackson’s own upbringing is a testament to that.
Growing up in Kansas City, Mo., Jackson joined the church at age 12. During high school and into college, he continued his relationship with the church, attending Central Missouri State University, where he met his wife. Still, Jackson said he felt that there was always something missing from his Sunday worship.
“I needed a connecting point to bridge what that experience was on a Sunday to everyday life,” he said.
While crossing that “bridge” Jackson faced some obstacles along the way.
“I just got involved in some gang stuff, got involved in selling drugs, got involved with fighting,” he said. “My identity was formed from that, but really, I was hiding who I really was.”
After struggling to find a balance between his spiritual life and his personal life, Jackson, at 23, reached a turning point, changing his life for the better. His own experiences trying to break from the street life led him to North Lawndale. It was a place where Jackson saw the youth as a reflection of himself.
“The ministries of North Lawndale Community Church create an atmosphere where you are welcome at whatever content and whatever background,” he said.
After a few years in the church’s ministry, Jackson began planning for a youth church in the summer of 2003. He wanted to give teens in North Lawndale a place to express their faith in their own way, filling the void that he once felt during his own worship experiences.
In October of that year, Jackson helped start The House Covenant Church. Services take place the first and second Saturday nights of each month.
As a husband and father of three teenagers, Jackson is always finding new ways to relate to young adults. He said The House tries to open its doors by connecting with youth on a personal level – and bringing the church to them.
“We pray together, we cry together and we try to help you get back in school,” he said. “That’s were things start – it’s not a quick fix.”
When students join the church, instead of becoming “members,” they are “partners,” Jackson stressed.
The youth partners at The House vouch for Jackson’s commitment.
Andrea Williams, 21, is a ministry team leader at the church and said she thinks of Jackson more as a friend than as a “stuffy pastor.”
“I have had a lot of sit-down meetings with him where he’ll consult me and give me advice if I’m going through any problems or situations,” Williams said. “He has a young spirit and stays in tune with everything the young people are doing.”
Other church partners agree.
“I don’t only see him on Saturdays and Sundays,” said team leader Bryan Sanchez. “Compared to certain pastors who are like a pinnacle or superior being within the church, Pastor Jackson is just a regular guy.”
In addition to his church duties, Jackson authored The Hip-Hop Church and founded Bringn’ dafunk Communications Inc., a ministry that trains and mentors youth in urban communities on how to connect religious teachings to young people.
Jackson is now in the process of trying to convert a vacant firehouse in North Lawndale into another venue for the church. Despite such lofty goals, Jackson said it’s often the little things that bring him the most joy.
“I enjoy the journey and I enjoy the ‘ah-ha’ moments during that journey,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”