You're more likely to hear a Skrillex breakbeat than an organ at the Revolution Church in Gary, Indiana. The pastor wears a fitted cap and sneakers as he leads his service at the speed of 140 beats per minute. His given name is Ryan Flemming, but at church he is known as DJ Rhino. For ten years, he has stood behind turntables as he conducts his electronic dance music-inspired Christian worship ceremonies.
"It actually kind of bugs me that more churches don't utilize different genres of music in order to speak a similar language," Flemming tells THUMP. His church services come in the form of a DJ set that combines traditional Christian prayers and songs with samples from mainstream trap and house producers. Although the emergence of his off-beat church was partly due to a lack of funds, it was mostly a result of his community's shared passion for contemporary rhythms and beats. "Initially, we couldn't [afford] a band or musicians. We couldn't pay anybody to do music. But [the incorporation of turntables] was also on purpose because we're part of a demographic of people that loves hip-hop and electronic music."
Yet, the 1's and 2's are not the only tables that have turned for the 40-year-old father of two. Flemming, who previously suffered from depression and contemplated suicide in high school, says it was his passion for music that eventually helped him to both identify with, and learn from, his Christian roots. "There was a time in my life that I was deeply depressed and strongly considered suicide as an escape from it," Flemming says. "Religion didn't do anything for me, but anchoring my life in Jesus Christ changed everything. Music became a source of healing and expression.
With his interests ranging from the Holy Land to Tomorrowland, a now content Flemming spoke to THUMP about the "church remixed" experience, and the ways in which the progressive institution proudly combats outdated notions of Christianity.
THUMP: Which DJs do you typically mix into your sets at the Revolution Church?
Ryan Flemming: I like A-Trak's stuff, I like Diplo and Skrillex's stuff, and I like Knife Party's stuff. I always pull in different loops, full songs, or other elements of theirs into the mix. There's been a few times where we haven't even had anybody do [live] vocals, but that's not a big deal because I know how to mix an entire worship set on the turntables. Another influence for me is DJ Jazzy Jeff. His sets are so musically diverse, from old school to hip-hop to trap.
What types of people attend your services?
We're a fairly young church, not a huge crowd, but majority of our audience would be in their twenties or thirties. There's some older people too. We've got a couple families in their sixties. The other people aren't traditional churchgoers because I'm not that way. I'll wear a ball cap and kicks. I'd be down to throw a full on black light party type-of-thing. I've been trying to slowly work to that level where people can can fully let go—I'm down for that.
What is your favourite Bible verse to drop in a set?
It's hard to nail down one, but probably Romans 8:28. That got me through many dark times in my life.
Which person from the Bible would have most likely been a DJ and what type of dance music would they play?
Can I pick two? I would say David because he was just a crazy music maker, ultra-poetic, and filled with powerful feelings—good, bad, and different. The other one would be Jesus because he went in to temple and "turned the table" on things and other cultures—that whole metaphor. I would say [they would probably play] whatever spoke to the people that they were engaging with—any of it. They would be well-rounded DJs.
People often have a negative perception of dance music, relating it behaviours such as illegal drug use. Do you have to worry people might think you're promoting a dangerous lifestyle?
I think what trips people out where I live is that they have such a heavy traditional religious mindset, which isn't always positive. There's a notion of what church is, and then they walk in and see this dude behind turntables in a low light setting like, "What in the world's going on?" I just tune out people who are haters. I chew the meat and spit out the bones with people who question what I do.
How does DJing bring you closer to God in ways that other forms of worship can't?
Even before I actually got turntables, music was a vehicle for me to speak. When I was making compilation cassette tapes back in the day for people, I was always like man this song encourages me, or this song gets me amped, or this song makes me get the anger out. Turntables are a gift for me to express myself and my relationship with God.
Rebecca is on Twitter.