An Internet search for Rev. Tony Lee, pastor of Community of Hope AME Church (COH) in Hillcrest Heights, Maryland, reveals three seemingly disparate things converging at his church—a historically black denomination church plant that attracts young adults, involvement in local social justice movements, and go-go music.
Before we meet in person, I learn about Rev. Tony Lee through old and new media. We are both ordained clergy in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and have several friends in common. For years, I’ve heard that COH is one of the fastest growing churches attracting young adults in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. That was all word of mouth. When I want to get in touch with Lee, I hit a friend on Facebook and ask if Lee is cool. Given an affirmative answer, I namedrop my friend’s Twitter handle when I Tweet Lee.
Lee and COH are easy to find in the online social media world. Lee’s personal Facebook profile tapped out at 5,000 friends years ago. At the time of this writing, Lee’s page has 7,215 likes, and his Twitter accounthas nearly 3,000 followers. His LinkedIn account has 325 connections. COH’s Facebook page has 846 likes, with the YouTube account at 70 postings and 269 subscribers. Church t-shirts can be found onhttp://www.cafepress.com.
In preparation for a site visit to COH as part of my case study research for the New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary, I spend time on the church website. I’m immediately impressed by the options for interaction—video games, a place to “Ask Pastor” any question, a place to enter prayer requests, basic information about the church, video clips of guest preachers, live streaming of worship services. I decide to watch the noon worship service online one Sunday. There’s nothing atypical about the service—announcements, welcome of the visitors, scripture reading, preaching, and music. I find myself singing along with the musicians. They are playing a popular gospel song that was recorded by Kirk Franklin. All of a sudden, I realize that the instrumental music is different than the recording. The words are familiar, but the beat is different. I laugh aloud when I realize that it’s a go-go beat.
Go-go music is a blend of funk, rhythm & blues, and hip hop music. Originating in the early 1970s, go-go music’s popularity is found primarily in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Associated with dance clubs (borrowing the term “going to a go-go” from the local African American community), go-go music features a distinctive syncopated beat. During the 1980s, go-go music saw limited national success, although its beats and samples are still widely used in hip hop and pop music today. Conga drums, cowbells, and the call-and-response of live performances remain essential components of go-go music. Like hip hop, in its early days, go-go music was often associated with crime, as police cracked down on and closed many of the District’s historic go-go clubs and nicknamed their crime blotter as “the go-go report.”
As I recognize the go-go rendition of the contemporary gospel song, I conclude that COH must be all that it appears to be—a church of twenty- and thirty-somethings with smartphones in their hands.
My four-day visit in September 2011 begins with the church picnic. Pastor Tony Lee and I agree to meet at the church first. Although the church is located inside Iverson Mall, it’s difficult to get there by public transportation. COH is in the Hillcrest Heights area of Prince George’s County, Maryland. Although the official mailing address reads Temple Hills, Hillcrest Heights is known as a primarily African American area (more than 93 percent of the population at the 2000 census) with many of the same demographic features as the Anacostia neighborhood of S.E. Washington, D.C., which is less than a mile away. Thus Hillcrest Heights is not indicative of one of the most well-known features of Prince George’s County—being the wealthiest African-American majority county in the United States. Rather, the areas of “P.G. County” near Washington D.C. are known for a relatively high crime rate—with 13 homicides in the first 12 days of 2011. A local person references such a neighborhood as being “P.G. County, inside the beltway.”
Lee texts me to indicate that the funeral he’s attending has gone on longer than expected, and he’ll be slightly later than we agreed. I wait for him in the neighboring McDonald’s, where I can continue my online research of COH with free Wi-Fi. Lee pulls around the corner in a low riding black Corvette and jumps out to greet me. I tell him that I circled the mall and wasn’t able to find the church. He admits that it’s a common problem for non-locals.
COH is located in what was once a big box store on the lower level of the mall accessed by the parking structure behind the mall. Lee tells me that if he attends the church picnic in dress pants and a button down shirt, no one will recognize him. He rubs his hand over his trademark cornrows. His braids form a zigzag pattern on the sides of his head and end in a series of plaits about four inches below the nape of his neck. When he emerges from a bathroom, he’s wearing baggy jeans, a sports jersey and large headphones around his neck.
The church picnic takes place on the grounds of a local middle school where COH runs an after-school life skills program. The DJs pull a tent over their speakers to keep the impending rain from hitting the electronics. Children are squealing in the moon bounce. A clown with a painted face entertains younger children. Teenagers are working a portable booth of cotton candy and popcorn. Men and women stand behind tables of food flanked by the DJs on one side and a large BBQ grill on the other side. Men are tossing a football down the long side of the field, and I recognize the assistant pastor, Rev. Bill Lee, as the one throwing a pass when I arrive. Everyone else is sitting around, talking, and partaking of the spread of macaroni salad, corn on the cob, grilled chicken, sweet potato pie, yellow cake, etc. I feel comfortable joining the dancing congregants near the DJ when they play songs with patterned dances like “The Dougie,” “The Cupid Shuffle,” and “The Wobble Dance.” The COH church picnic is the kind of event one might find at any black church in the Southeast or Midwest United States.
Taking me for a visitor, several members approach and welcome me to COH. I tell them that I live in Los Angeles, but I saw the worship service online. I take this as an opportunity to ask about how they interact with COH through new media. Much to my surprise, most indicate that they don’t use Facebook or Twitter to communicate with COH. They say that they sometimes watch the worship services online when they can’t attend, but they’d much rather be there in person.
One member I spoke with believes that the family church atmosphere is a result of COH’s ability to attract young people. Another member who is grateful for the family feel says, “I think it’s [Lee’s] heart [that] everybody else sees. The older people have been praying for their grandbaby to go back to church for years, and this is the pastor that pulls their grandbaby in [and] they’re like, ‘Let me go see what he’s talking about.’ ” Once they come, they feel comfortable staying.
COH is a family church. The assistant pastor, Rev. Bill, is Lee’s younger brother, and his mother, affectionately called “Dr. Nancy,” is the executive minister. Tony Lee thinks that this is the reason why the church has people from every generation. With a serious look on his face, he notes that working with his family also helped protect him from some scrutiny when the church began—few black pastors are under 40 and single. Lee appreciates working with family because he trusts them and their motives.
The church is surprisingly more traditional than it appears online. COH is a church plant of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Established in Philadelphia in 1787 by Richard Allen, the AME Church is considered the first historically African American denomination in the United States. With the blessings of the bishop and his former pastor, Tony Lee founded COH on Easter Sunday in 2006 when they held their first service at Legends, a strip club in Hillcrest Heights. Lee references COH’s locations in a nightclub and then a mall, saying, “No one needs directions.” The Washington Post article chronicling the first Sunday calls COH a “modern ministry,” and references the church website where videos, games, and music are available.
Lee says it is a blessing that COH is part of the AME Church tradition. The denomination and its web presence give the appearance of a church with a history. Lee says, “Being AME connected us to a larger institution that was more stable. It wasn’t just Tony Lee starting in a nightclub. I see COH as firmly AME. We may not be liturgically AME, but we are fully AME.”
Lee references a key debate within the AME Church. As the fastest growing churches adhere less and less to the official worship liturgy of the denomination, they are accused of being “not AME enough.” Some churches have even dropped the words “AME” from their official names. Indeed, in most AME churches around the globe, one will hear the same words at the beginning, middle, and end of a service. But Lee asserts that being AME is more than saying the same elements in the order of service. Using today’s business language, Lee says that a common liturgy was “branding.” Uniformity of liturgy gave a feeling of stability when churches were emerging all over the place. But Lee believes it’s unhealthy to idolize that liturgy now.
Although he was raised Baptist, Lee and his family joined Ebenezer AME Church in 1989 when Lee was a 20 year-old college student at the University of Maryland at College Park. Before then, Lee says with a laugh, he was one of those people he’s trying to reach now—the young folk, out in the street, out in the club, who don’t go to church. His experience at Ebenezer was transformative. Under the tutelage of co-pastors Rev. Grainger and Joanne Browning, Lee accepted his call to ministry and began to work with youth. He started his theological education at Howard University Divinity School and transferred to Union Theological Seminary in New York where he could study with the liberation theologians he was reading. He was the youth pastor at Inglewood Baptist Church in northern New Jersey when the Brownings asked him to come home and be the senior minister of youth at Ebenezer. After nearly ten years in youth and young adult ministry at Ebenezer, Lee felt a call to start a new church.
Lee readily credits the Brownings and Ebenezer AME with his understanding of ministry. The Brownings at Ebenezer were parts of the early development of the neo-Pentecostal movement in denominational black churches. Often credited to AME bishop Rev. John R. Bryant, the neo-Pentecostal movement saw the introduction and acceptance of charismatic worship practices, such as speaking in tongues, healing, and prophecy, in historically black denominations. The pastors embracing this move were highly criticized for it. That, Lee says, was a radical move; it was significant. Lee describes himself as “a regular AME minister doing what AMEs do. We build churches; we adapt. And that is part of the tradition of the AME church. This is remembering what the AME church does well.”
Even though the press describes Lee as a “hip hop preacher” and the COH as “rambunctious, loud and mildly chaotic” with a “go-go band set up,” Lee doesn’t think he’s being that radical. Lee looks at the needs of people, which makes him thoroughly AME. “That is the power of the history and being a part of an institution that has stood the test of time,” he says. “The history is not to be worshipped but to be utilized. You have to meet the needs of people—with maybe new methodology and new tools.”
In early discussions about COH, Lee echoes what the press has noted—he’s trying to reach the un-churched and uncommitted, the hip hop generation, Generations X, Y, and Z. COH has always had a Street Team Ministry that gives out handbills of the same size and design that club promoters use to advertize events. They distribute handbills at the Metro subway with breakfast bars or at a busy intersection with bottles of water on a hot day. They’ve been so effective that record labels have tried to hire them. It’s old school media—on the streets, person-to-person, inviting people to church. In a word, evangelism.
Lee’s hair has also been a tool of evangelism. He laughs about how his hairstyle has helped attract people to COH. His tightly cornrowed look initially granted him access to minister to young men involved in gangs and crime who wore similar hairstyles. He could just walk into their territories, and they were willing to listen to a minister who looked like them. Chat rooms around the Internet can’t help but mention it as well. Now, it’s just his trademark.
This facility with the un-churched community is part of what drew Daniel Bradley to COH. Bradley has been a community worker with youth since he finished high school. Beginning in gang intervention, he co-founded a non-profit, Dreams Work, that helps young people harness arts and technology around social issues that matter to them. Bradley admits that he was once one of those people who didn’t like traditional church. Although he was raised in the church, he’d become discouraged with it. It was COH’s ability to engage young people and social issues that attracted Bradley. He says, “I knew a lot of pastors who care about the community, but there’s a difference between caring and knowing what to do. [Lee] was one of the first ones who knew what to do. I really felt like I could learn from this guy.” He gives the example of the church website name: Hiphopenation. “It’s a catchy name. That’s what I mean when I say that [Lee] knows what to do. He knows how to grip this generation of church-goers.”
Bradley’s non-profit partners with COH to develop new technologies with and for young people. They started a project on bullying in which youth make videos and facilitate workshops about bullying. COH offers space and young people, and it functions as a producer connecting the arts and technology non-profit with other organizations and funders.
The project on bullying is just one of COH’s social justice ministries. Lee and COH have also partnered with local law enforcement and led community walks against crime. Other current projects include a youth program in the local middle school and Lee’s ongoing work in brokering truces between gangs. Bradley says that community justice work is a hallmark of Lee and COH. “You can’t work in this community and not know Rev. Lee.”
For Lee, social activism is part of his theological orientation. This emerges in a slogan said every week in church after the visitors’ welcome: “We don’t care who you are; what you’ve done or who you did it with. We don’t care if you did it last night or who woke up doing it this morning. You’re in the right place at the right time to become all that God has called you to become.” COH preaches an inclusive and contextual theology. This is Lee’s understanding of the gospel. One reporter notes, “Jesus, [Lee] said, was ‘born in the ‘hood’ in an ‘unwed kind of situation.’ Jesus, he told the congregation, was surrounded by ‘haters’ until the day he was killed.”
That’s the kind of language Lee uses in everyday parlance. He is able to communicate as easily with the staff of the United States President as he is with gang members. This is an important part of ministry today. One newspaper cites Lee saying, “There is a generational communication disconnect in the church because the church is communicating with eight-track tapes, when the world is moving in the MP3 age.” For Lee, new media is a language for welcoming more people into the church.
A lot of ministry happens through Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging. When I ask Lee who manages his social media, he replies that it’s just him. Convinced that he doesn’t understand my question, I ask again, “I mean who checks the emails, manages your status updates, and videos.” He repeats: “I do.” With a church of 2,200 members and growing (Lee says he can count on one hand the number of Sundays when no one joined the church), he wants to be sure that when you Tweet or message him, you actually get him. He learned about the suicide of a member’s sibling through Facebook and was able to attend the funeral. He communicates with members through Twitter. When he recently had the opportunity to meet President Barack Obama, he took a picture with his smartphone and Tweeted and posted it to Facebook within minutes to share his excitement with the congregation. This use of social media crosses generations. At 72 years old, Dr. Nancy says that 60-70 percent of her ministry occurs online.
The use of technology is so subtle that several church members tell me that they don’t use the COH’s new media, even though they actually do. After chatting for awhile, they mention how they like the Men’s Ministry that comes to them via text. The head of the Men’s Ministry has a text list of over 250 people and sends out 3-5 texts per day announcing activities of the church or who needs prayer. This was not done in consultation with Lee; the church leader just began texting.
During the worship service, no one blinks when they see the ministers on their smartphones while the choir sings. Before preaching, Rev. Bill names the people who are watching COH services online and Tweeting. When he cites the scripture for the sermon, at least half of the members pull out their smartphones or iPads to read from a Bible app. The preacher reads the scripture from his phone app. Members say that when they can’t come to church, they’ll just watch online—sometimes even on their smartphones while at a kid’s soccer game.
Before our final conversation, Lee told me that once, when he was visiting a minister in the hospital, he was recognized by a family who lives in Korea. They had flown back to the States to visit someone they love who was sick, but they had been watching COH online in Korea and considered it their church. Lee said that he was able to stop and pray with them there in the hospital. Lee is still amazed at how the online worship services reach people around the world. Reflecting on this, Lee concludes that social media “give us longer arms.” He continues, “It extends our arms and lets us have other ways to reach and to touch people who need hope.”
Lee is remarkably intentional about his use of new media in ministry. He describes himself as a less-than-ideal student but a quick learner. In the late 1980s, he had a job with the Small Business Administration. This government agency received the newest technologies before most other people did. They asked him to work on a PC with Harvard Graphics and then teach the rest of the staff. A techie was born! Lee follows technology blogs like Mashable.com and pays attention to the ways in which both churches and the entertainment industry use technology.
Lee thinks of COH’s use of media as something akin to televangelism. He recounts the story of how Billy Graham got into television so that he could offer his tent meetings to a wider audience. Years later, people realized that the Christian market would actually buy things from them, but the advent of television ministry was for televangelism. When COH started in 2006, Lee noticed two kinds of church websites: those that just provided information and those that sold products. He wanted COH’s site to be more interactive, to build community. That’s why they rolled out games on the website.1 He wanted people to come to a church website and receive something for free like they do at church.
Currently, Lee is drawing upon his experience hosting a weekly radio show on WPGC to think about how to combine the new media he sees in the entertainment industry with church life. He is partnering with Bradley’s organization to encourage the youth to produce a web channel with programming for children. COH is in the process of designing a new website that will include polls and contests like radio stations do. The new site will also have a more accessible content management system so that any of the ministers can update information. Ministers will be able to post articles relevant to their ministries and engage site visitors about it directly. This way there will be content about the church and the world at large on the church website.
Other uses of social media function to make the ministers more accessible. Lee says, “It levels the playing field. You don’t have to be rich. Facebook is free.” During a snowstorm when no one could leave their homes and church services were cancelled, Lee noticed that a lot of members were using Formspring. So he began the “Ask Pastor” forum where people could email in questions. Although church members can literally Tweet and Facebook clergy for access, social media also allow parishioners to have a window into the lives of clergy. Through Facebook status updates and Tweets, members can see that “we’re not celebrities,” says Rev. Bill Lee. Ministers eat dinner with their moms, go to music concerts, and preach.
New media provide a primary form of communication for COH by being the first way, but not the only way, COH leadership communicates with members. Lee gives the example of hearing about the suicide of a member’s family member on Facebook. “I couldn’t just say, ‘Sorry about your brother; see you on Livestream.’ Some stuff needs to be in person.” Borrowing a term he’s heard elsewhere, Lee says that he wants to be “high tech and high touch.” Other times, he’ll see someone on Facebook talking about hanging out with a crowd he knows isn’t healthy for them. “People are interestingly honest on Facebook.” Lee can then check in with them after worship service and see how they’re doing.
Of course, not all uses of new media have gone so well. Lee hasn’t blogged in three years. He says, “I have to be honest with myself about how I like to communicate, and honestly, I don’t like to write as much as I like to talk.” As the only one updating information, Lee is also overwhelmed with the task. COH is creating a team of people who can edit worship services and post them online in his stead. And then there was Lee’s stalker-member who repeatedly asked personal questions on “Ask Pastor” and insisted that God told her they were meant to be together.
Ultimately, Lee wants to use new media that fit COH and fit the personality of the ministries. Using the language of the young people, Lee says that use of new media has “to fit my flow and the flow of the church.” Discerning that is part trial and error and part research and planning. COH rarely uses new media for crowd-sourcing or making important decisions because there are too many people on the social media pages who might not be connected to the congregation. The social media numbers still don’t reflect the number of people in the congregation. Lee is concerned that their current uses of new media don’t do a good job of getting the pulse of the congregation.
If someone took the congregation’s pulse, it would sound like a go-go beat. However, Lee tells me that he doesn’t want to be known as a go-go preacher or as having a go-go church. The worship services, after all, are balanced with hymns, spirituals, contemporary gospel, and go-go music. Still, COH is known for its go-go music, but it is just part of how Lee remains relevant in his context. “For me, I don’t see how you could minister to a certain population of D.C. and not use go-go music. It’s an indigenous art form of the region.” A Washington Post reporter says succinctly, “Go-go is Washington. The music never made a real national splash, but it has come to reflect this city, its artistic pulse and the often painful reality of life for many of its black residents.”
Other churches in the D.C. metropolitan area incorporate go-go rhythms into their worship services, but COH is more direct with it than most. They held a go-go benefit concert last January to raise funds after the Haiti earthquake. Lee has worked on anti-violence initiatives with groups such as the Go-Go Coalitionand major go-go groups like the Backyard Band and the W.H.A.T.?! Band. Lee notes that a local radio DJ with a go-go show often buys CDs of COH’s worship services and plays the go-go gospel music in his lineup along with secular go-go music. Lee buzzes with news that COH is upgrading the sanctuary sound system for live studio recording that will allow them to put out mixed tapes of go-go music with positive lyrics that anyone can “crank in the car.”
In a more relaxed moment, Lee laughs and says, “If they called me the go-go preacher, it would mean that I have fulfilled my mission.”
Being a go-go preacher is not about the conga drums and the syncopated rhythm. Being a go-go preacher is about speaking to people in a language they understand. It’s about using the tools at your disposal to draw people into church who would not otherwise do so. It’s about being as much a part of a Christian tradition as one is a part of the streets and the neighborhoods. Being a go-go preacher is about entering the painful realities of the D.C. area and creating beauty where others see only despair.
Unlike his brother, Rev. Bill admits that it took him a long time to use Facebook in his ministry. He confesses that he didn’t want people to know all of his personal business. Then he pauses and says that social media has actually been a blessing. “It allows people to feel like they are a part of you. Because really at the end of the day, all people want to feel is connected; they want to feel connected to something.”
Tony Lee is a go-go preacher, and COH is a go-go church. Although Lee is deliberate about COH’s use of all forms of media, it’s always for the same goal—to offer hope to the local community. That’s why it’s easy to attend COH and forget about the use of new media. The new media is mixed in with the old. COH is as fervent about handbill flyers, home baked goods, t-shirts, and radio programs as they are about web channels, online video games, Bible apps, and Facebook. It’s all about connecting people to church and to God.
1The games aren’t particularly Christian; they’re old school like Pac Man and Space Invaders. When I ask Lee if that was a nod to our generation of Atari gamers, he tells me that they were just the easiest to get.
Monica A. Coleman, a research fellow for the New Media Project, serves as Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religions and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies atClaremont School of Theology and Associate Professor of Religion at Claremont Graduate University in southern California.
This article is reposted with permission from the New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary, which is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. Copyright 2011.
This article was written as part of a case study on Community of Hope AME Church for the New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary. The full report of this case study and more information about all the case study research are available on our website.