A Postmodern U2 Worship Experience

John ArmstrongPostmodernity

Like it or not, U2 and lead singer Bono, are a huge success. They are not only a huge media success, and have sold millions of CDs, but they are having an even bigger impact upon the world for the cause of social justice and AIDS awareness in Africa. This phenomenon is not just about the music of U2, though their music has a power and an appeal that is unique.

Last evening my local congregation in Carol Stream, The Lutheran Church of the Master, hosted a U2 Eucharist. This service was the first of a new postmodern congregational gathering called Nexus, which will meet once a month on the second Sunday evening. The context for this “journey” was the music of U2 combined with many ancient practices of the Christian Church. And the band, a local Chicago group called Vertigo, was a pretty good U2 knock-off group. 

This U2 Eucharist included strobe lightning, very loud music and the popular songs of Bono’s famous band that speak of deeply spiritual themes: “Pride,” “I Don’t Know the Way,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I Am Looking For,” and the famous song, “One.” The service also included an excellent sermon by my friend Pastor Tom Lyberg titled: “I’ve Already Been One—I Want to Be Five.” He began with the story of a children’s sermon in which a minister spoke about the oneness of the church and kept repeating that we are all one. A little boy stood up, all of four years of age, and said, “Pastor, I’ve already been one, I just want to be five.” Tom used John 14:1-14 and 17:20-23 to illustrate how Jesus desired our oneness and that it was sin, or a breakdown in relationship with God and one another, that destroyed the oneness the human family had once enjoyed. Now our problem is that we all just want to be five, no longer one.

Tom’s message was simple, clear and presented in language that postmoderns could clearly understand. Long-time church goers, especially from rigid culturally conservative backgrounds, would not have liked the sermon or the setting last night. But that is precisely the point. The whole service was aimed at the U2 generation, not at older Christians. And it worked very well. Tonight Tom has also planned a special meeting place at a nearby Irish Pub (a fitting place since U2 is an Irish band) so the conversation that was created by Nexus last night can continue.

The Chicago Tribune did a front-page story on churches singing the gospel according to U2 in the Sunday edition. (Fox News also covered the event, as did WGN in Chicago by way of an interview.) The Tribune noted that this phenomenon is sweeping the country. Margaret Ramirez noted in this Tribune article: “Evangelical Christians have long used pop music and rock bands as part of worship. But U2 has emerged as the first secular rock ‘n’ roll band to be embraced so enthusiastically by clergy—predominantly mainline Protestants—trying to re-energize their flocks.”

For those who think this is a compromise with the world listen to these poetic and lyrical words form Bono’s song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”

You broke the bonds
And you loosed the chains
Carried the cross
Of my shame
Of my shame
You know I believed it.

Typical U2 Eucharistic celebrations include songs like “Yahweh” and “40” based on Psalm 40 and Psalm 6. Tom Lyberg told the Tribune: “It’s part of the faith discussion. It’s listening for faith music on the radio and making it an everyday experience. It’s taking worship from being a one-hour appointment on Sunday to a more lasting experience with God.”

In the book, One Step Closer to God: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God, author Christian Scharen, himself a minister, tells how the band met in high school when all but one of the members was already a Christian. In the early years reporters often spoke of finding the band studying the Bible after a concert. Bono, the ultimate ecumenist in one sense, was raised by a Protestant mother and a Roman Catholic father. He has frequently criticized church leaders for their failure to respond adequately to the crisis in Africa. He also refuses to call his band a “Christian rock band.” Says Bono: “Music is the language of the spirit anyway. Its first function is praise to creation.” Many of U2’s songs speak of faith in more subtle ways than some Christians would prefer. Scharen has noted, for example, that dozens of U2 songs speak of “you” when the band is clearly referring to God. The song that Vertigo sang between the two readings from John’s gospel last evening was titled “Gloria.” This is a love song to God. One line actually says: “Only in you I’m complete.”

The high point of the service, following the preaching of the Word, was “Crossroads,” an experiential opportunity to explore and experience some of the disciplines of Jesus, including communion, a prayer station, a confession place, an offering (without money), and a healing service including anointing with oil, which is ancient Christian practice. I led this part of the Crossroads time, lasting about twenty minutes or so. I anointed and prayed for at least 40 or more people in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The line became so long that two others came to assist me. Some came for physical healing, some for prayer about their addictions, some for family relational healing, some asking for the Spirit’s power to control anger, others for healing of the mind and their soul from deep longstanding pain, including in one case a troubling battle with thoughts about suicide. I experienced the power of God’s grace upon me as I anointed people with the sign of the cross and prayed over them with the love of Christ. When the time was all over I then asked Tom Lyberg to anoint me and to pray and he asked the same of me. I think we both experienced God’s grace in a fresh and deep way. I awoke this morning deeply and profoundly refreshed in my soul.

Pastor Tom ended the evening by reminding us that Martin Luther wanted people in the 16th century to understand the Eucharist and the sermon in their own language and thus he concluded, “It was fitting tonight that a Lutheran Church offered this service of praise to God in the language that many of you speak and understand.” Some will see this as mere marketing and commercialization, a newer version of the older “seeker” church worship format. I see it quite differently and believe Pastor Tom got it right about Luther.

All in all, I am not personally ready to make Nexus my regular place for worship. (I would take earplugs next time and I will go again!) But I am deeply impressed that this service touched lives powerfully and that it will be used to bring many young people further along the road that will lead them to a dynamic and living faith in Christ. It will, I believe, be one more instrument in the growing ways that the modern church can reach out to postmodern young people to communicate the gospel in a language that they can clearly understand. I thank God for the vision of Pastor Tom Lyberg and his leadership of The Lutheran Church of the Master.