Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Worship of U2, Part Two

As increasing numbers of young people are becoming disillusioned with organized religion and are turning to more subjective expressions of spirituality, church leaders are desperately struggling to engage them in meaningful ways. Unfortunately, no blueprint exists for how best to go about it. Consequently, some attempts succeed while others go horribly awry. I think contemporizing worship, as important as such a thing may be, is seriously misguided if it is taken to be the solution to the problem. One difficulty is that it can lead to the church becoming too heavily influenced by the culture rather than being a prophetic voice to the culture. This results in churches with McDonald's drive-throughs attached to their buildings and ATM's in the church lobbies (I am not making this up), or churches that turn the worship assembly into a spiritualized version of the AMC Plaza, thus creating a Christian form of one-stop shopping. I can't help but think of the church in Kansas that decided to entice young people with beer by holding weekly meetings in a local bar. When the church becomes dominated by marketing strategies designed to fill seats, we have gone seriously off-course. When the church becomes indistinguishable from the culture around it, it ceases to be the church.

Having said this, I'm not quite sure what to think of a recent development that was brought to my attention (thanks to Patrick Mead for turning me on to this). An article in the "Scotsman" refers to Episcopal churches that have created "U2 Eucharists" in a stated attempt to attract more young people. First off, it worked. These Friday night U2 Eucharists have been attracting as many people as typically attend their Sunday morning services. The service involves the use of U2's music within the context of a prayer service.

My response to this is somewhat mixed. In line with my previous post, there is a fine line between worship and idolatry that can be easily blurred and I wonder where a U2 Eucharist stands with respect to that line. Is this simply an attempt to utilize the language of the culture as a way to open people's eyes to God or is it a well-meaning marketing ploy that obscures the distinction between fandom and worship? I don't know the answer to that question so I will leave that up to whoever reads this. I do, however, find it ironic that Bono has become more of a prophetic voice to the church than the church currently is to the culture. As of late, Bono has made a career out of calling Christians to task for failing to live out an authentic Christian existence characterized by helping the poor and seeking social justice. There is great irony in a church using U2's music as an attraction to get people into the church building while Bono is trying to use his music to get Christians out of their church buildings and into American ghettoes and African villages.

On the other hand, I am intrigued by the Episcopal church's use of U2's music. Two of the songs included in the service are "Peace on Earth" and "40", both laments. Since we in the church have such a paucity of lament songs in our hymnbooks, perhaps we need to look outside of them to find the words to lament. In fact, one of the Episcopal church leaders interviewed for the article suggests that it is only a matter of time until some of U2's songs become a part of the church's authorised hymnal. That would be an interesting day. This past weekend I spoke at a retreat in which I lectured on the role of the Psalms in U2's music. During the worship period after, Chris, the worship leader, led us in singing a medley of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and the contemporary hymn "Open the Eyes of My Heart." The seamless blending of these two songs perfectly captured the seeking language of lament and the confidence of faith, thus more faithfully representing the spirit of the Psalter than virtually any current hymns in the church's musical canon.

I'm not sure where all of this is leading, but it seems to me that as churches continue to seek creative ways to engage the culture with the gospel message, some of which will lead to success and others to widespread embarrassment for the entire Christian community, it will at least be anything but boring.


At 10:56 AM, Anonymous Chris Wise said...

Hey Greg,
great thoughts! Its exciting to me to hear a spiritual conversation including U2 and the efforts they are making to get US off our butts and into the world making a difference! But I'm always leary in presenting people like Bono in my teenage classes because I do feel a pull from rock stars to be held as the worshiped and not just the worshipers! What a thin line to balance, which brings to mind a truly shining moment in a recent U2 show. U2 closes with 40, and as they close out the song with the repeated lament of "how long must we sing this song", Bono turns his microphone out towards the crowd, giving us the lead role in this 'worship' and allowing him to be led. Great moment, of which I felt there were 15,000 "rock stars" in the audience instead of just the four guys on stage.

At 11:08 AM, Blogger k2 said...

i've enjoyed both of these posts in this series. i like u2, but i have a hard time remembering the titles to songs, so the comment by chris helped me remember what '40' is about. its a favorite.

i, too, hope that u2 is not going to be worshipped, and that they help lead us to worship.

thanks for this new perspective, and reminder of Who is to be worshipped.

At 11:19 AM, Blogger Beth said...

Very thoughtful post. I love your comment that "There is great irony in a church using U2's music as an attraction to get people into the church building while Bono is trying to use his music to get Christians out of their church buildings and into American ghettoes and African villages."

There is IMHO a massive difference between a faith community where a number of participants naturally find U2's work to be consonant with their experience and express that reality by drawing on it in worship, versus a faith community that has lost touch with those outside its walls and uses a packaged U2 service as a ploy to attract an "audience" it can't naturally connect with. When we put together "Get Up Off Your Knees," which has a couple sermons on lament btw (one on "Wake Up Dead Man" and one on the Psalms in general), we had submissions from people from many denominations who had been involved in the former kind of liturgical engagement with U2's work (and other popular culture products) for years. I've gotten to see several other examples of dialoging with U2 in worship since, going back to the 90s, and have come to feel that doing it well requires a kind of intellectual clarity, humility before art, attentiveness to the risks of promoting celebrity culture, and personal integrity that are sadly not universal.

In all of this, however, I'm most intrigued with how U2 coax their crowd into the presence of God (as chris wise alluded to above) rather than who's singing what in church.

Incidentally, I am glad to see you blogging -- I had linked to an audience member's writeup of your ACU event and will probably link to your own comments on it in the next few days, if you don't mind.

At 11:58 AM, Blogger Suzie said...

You've given me lots to think about. In our effort to change the method to communicate the message (which is a necessary thing), we have to make sure the method does not become the message (Does that make sense?). I'm enjoying your blog.

At 12:32 PM, Blogger Greg said...

Would that happen to be the U2 show where I was 5 feet from the stage in the inner circle while you stood outside looking in? (Sorry, it's hard to resist.)

At 12:43 PM, Blogger Greg said...

Thanks for the insightful comments. I had been asked (it may even have been by you) to consider contributing a sermon to the "Get Up Off Your Knees" book due to an article I had published on "Walk On," but I regret that I was not able to because of the deadline I was under in trying to finish my book on Buffy. Having to choose between U2 and Buffy is a choice no one should have to make.

Hearing your experiences with the book is helpful. Please feel free to link to my comments any time you wish. I have no doubt there will be further U2 posts down the line.

At 12:46 PM, Blogger Greg said...

k2, Thanks for the comments!

It makes perfect sense.

At 1:08 PM, Blogger Sermoniac said...

In defense of Bono, I figure that he is in the same boat as the Apostle Pauls, Martin Luthers, or even Alexander Campbells of the world. Leaders always have lines that get blurred in the minds of their followers. Just as I believe that Martin Luther would be rolling over in his grave to see how Lutherans sometimes regard him today or even the Apostle Paul, I believe that Bono laments the idolatry of some of his fans toward himself. And I doubt that worship for himself is ever what Bono is striving for - who knows?

As far as the church that uses beer to attract people - where exactly is that?

At 1:31 PM, Blogger Beth said...

Greg, yes, I was probably the one who approached you about contributing -- I wrote everyone I could find who had demonstrated a thoughtful engagement with U2 and faith-issues.

At 1:37 PM, Anonymous Chris Wise said...

HAR HAR GREG!!! I PURPOSFULLY left that point out of my original comment to try and keep my personal feelings from interfering with a good conversation on things that are above such petty pride!!! But since you brought it up, YES that was the show I was talking about. (by the way, I met Bono at the Denver show last May...)

At 1:58 PM, Blogger Greg said...

How in the world did you pull that off?

At 4:16 PM, Blogger Bruce said...

I appreciate the thought of the blogger who said great leaders often are criticized for crossing the line with culture. Was this not one of the chief criticisms of Jesus as he eat with sinners? I know as the church we are looking for where the line is. The problem is the dang thing never stays in the same place so we will cross it inadvertantly at times. But as long as our motives are for the Lord, will there not be grace?

You know we've been doing this stuff with kids for years. VBS and Veggietales fall into the same category of trying to speak a word of Christ through the language of our culture. Because of this, I think if we are doing a good job it will always look a little funky.

On the cultural ventures, my concern is that the cultural language spoken often appeals only to those of power and status (thus ATMs and Starbucks in the foyers) I'd be a little more pleased if some of the common structures in church's addressed social justice needs to. It would be nice to see places where they get free meals, coffee, and clothing instead of having to pay for it. That's taking the mall and twisting it for Christ.

At 9:29 AM, Blogger Greg said...

As always, thanks for the thoughts. I wonder if a big part of the problem is that churches have adopted a worldly model of success that requires marketing strategies as a means of getting people into the building. What would happend if the church altered its model to identify success as how many Christians it gets out of its buildings and into the streets. In the early chapters of Acts, Jesus commands the disciples to go out into Judea and Samaria etc, yet they remain in Jerusalem and never leave for the first 7 chapters. It is only after persecution breaks out that they are FORCED into Judea and Samaria. It is almost as though God uses this persecution to get the Christians out of their comfort zones and into the world where they belong.

At 1:30 PM, Blogger Sermoniac said...

This is the whole of the problem - is it not? The moment Christians are sent into the world they must begin to function in that world to be taken seriously?

Look Here - Right click and open in New Window.

We Christians tend to treat the happenings of the "church" as though it were more important than the sinners that Jesus hung on the cross to save. I often wonder if Jesus is as petty as we Christians sometimes think that he is. I tend to think that he might just be pleased with what U2 is doing with their music and concerts.

At 2:19 AM, Blogger Ron Cox said...

Choosing between Buffy and Bono. Why did I have the picture of a crooning, slaying love child when I read that line?

At 1:41 PM, Blogger KMiV said...

Greg, I would have to say this is not idolatry--they see Bono/U2 as a prophet. How often have we quoted lyrics from songs in an attempt to attract people (old or young). I feel that our interpretation of Revelation in "Jesus is Coming Soon," or "Mansions over the Hilltop," is way out there but we have used those lyrics as gospel at times.

I did an article on an online journal called Sendero (which is offline now) concerning the search for God in Rock music. One of the theologians that was there had authored the main book/lecture (A Matrix of Meaning) and was formerly with ACDC. He commented afterward that he agreed--social justice has always been a theme of rock musicians and they never understood why contemporary Christian music did not address these areas. He said, "We always felt that the praise and worship was so inward focused that 'Christians' cloesd their eyes to poverty, abuse, and injustice." Hence my paper's quote on Poison's "Give Me Something to Believe In."

I guess my point is that people see Bono as a prophet. Whether we like it or not--he may be a voice from God. If the Proverbs' scholars used the Egyptian tract "Amenemopet" for Prov. 22:16-24:34 is it possible that God could speak through rock writer(s)?

I guess when I hear the words (along with others) I ask--are they right? Can we be motivated to respond?

Just some thoughts from the Northwest.

Ron Clark

At 6:39 PM, Blogger Greg said...

I think the prophetic aspect is important. I applaud what U2 and other celebrities are doing when they function as a prophetic voice to the church, but it is sad that the church is not raising that voice itself. On the other hand, were not many of the OT prophets to some degree outsiders to the community to which they prophesied?

At 12:25 AM, Blogger KMiV said...

Amen Greg!


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