Kanye West Headlines At Evangelical Student Conference In The Bible Belt

Kanye West has performed his music at many of America’s top venues, from Radio City Music Hall to the Coachella festival. This weekend, the rapper stepped onto a stage in Tennessee to perform for a different sort of audience ― young students at an evangelical Christian Bible conference.

West headlined at the Strength To Stand conference with his Sunday Service Choir, sharing his testimony of faith with about 17,000 attendees at the LeConte Center in Pigeon Forge on Sunday, ABC affiliate WATE reports.

“Do you know the good news? Jesus can save a wretch like me,” West told the crowd on Sunday, according to The Christian Post.

The Strength To Stand conference targets students from sixth grade to college who come from various churches in the Great Smoky Mountains region. The evangelistic event is the brainchild of Scott Dawson, a Republican who ran an unsuccessful bid to become Alabama’s governor in 2018.

The annual conference has been held every year since 1990, AL.com reports. Past conferences have featured prominent Christian musicians such as Lecrae and Tauren Wells.

Dawson says West volunteered to headline the Strength To Stand conference in November, after Christian comedian and YouTuber John Crist was removed over a sexual harassment scandal. Conference tickets sold out quickly after the announcement, leading organizers to schedule another show on the same day that was open to the general public.

Watch Kanye West perform “Closed on Sunday” at the Strength To Stand conference in the video below.

West spent most of Sunday’s concert blending in with the members of the Sunday Service Choir, a gospel collective he has assembled, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. He placed himself in the center of a circle formed by members of the choir, wearing the same gray robes as the other musicians and only occasionally stepping onto a platform that allowed him to be seen over the choir.

West and the choir performed several of his own gospel tracks, including “Closed on Sunday.” The song encourages listeners to emulate the fast-food chain Chick-fil-A, which doesn’t open on Sundays, by standing firm to their own faith convictions.

The choir covered traditional hymns, such as “How Great Thou Art,” as well as Coldplay’s “Fix You,” changing the lyrics to state that, “Christ is here to fix you,” according to the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Adam Tyson, pastor of a conservative Christian church in the Los Angeles area, has been touring with West and giving sermons at his Sunday Service concerts. Tyson spoke to students at the Strength To Stand conference about the parable of the prodigal son, a Bible story about how an irresponsible, wayward son was welcomed back home. 

The story shows that anyone can turn from “loose-living” to “the loving mercy of the father,” Tyson told the students.

Sunday’s performance was West’s latest attempt to carve out a space for himself in the world of American evangelical Christianity. West has said that he received visions about starting a church near his home in California while he was hospitalized for mental health treatment in 2016. He began hosting concerts on his property last January. Since then, he’s been touring the country with the Sunday Service Choir.

He released two gospel albums last year that focused exclusively on Christian themes, debuted two Christian operas, and spoke at evangelist Joel Osteen’s church ― the largest in America.

Some Christians have been skeptical about West’s new public persona as an evangelist ― especially in light of his suggestion that slavery was a choice and his support for President Donald Trump. But many evangelical leaders appear to have embraced his story.

On Sunday, Dawson told AL.com that West was a “cultural icon” with a strong “spirit of humility.” Asked whether he was skeptical of West’s recent spiritual transformation, Dawson drew a parallel to Bible stories about the apostle Paul, who, thanks to a dramatic conversion experience, went from persecuting the early Christian church to becoming a key Christian leader himself. 

“I am firmly convinced I’m speaking to a brother in Christ,” Dawson said. “It’s not up to us to judge.”

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