February 11, 2007
By Margaret Ramirez
Tribune religion reporter
Churches sing the gospel according to U2
Services turn to Irish rock band's Scripture-grounded
music to help attract young
On Sunday night the front pews of the Lutheran church will be moved to make room for dancing. On the right will stand a band whose lead singer strikingly resembles Bono of U2. And when the opening hymn begins, worshipers will shout the lyrics to the rock song "Pride":
"In the name of love! What more in the name of love?"
In a phenomenon that is sweeping churches across the country, Lutheran Church of the Master in Carol Stream is celebrating a U2 Eucharist, also known as a U2charist, in which traditional hymns are replaced with songs by the Irish rock band to engage young people and encourage social activism.
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.
The Episcopal priest who developed the concept in 2005, Rev. Paige Blair of York Harbor, Maine, said she has since advised about 300 churches from Omaha to Hong Kong on how to celebrate a U2 Eucharist. Last month, a bishop of the Church of England announced he would preside over a U2 Eucharist for the first time in May and asked Blair to preach.
Other well-known artists, from Bob Dylan to Kanye West, have dabbled in music about God and faith. But U2's music is particularly suited to mass church audiences, Blair said, because of the way many of the band's songs combine biblical lyrics with the call to help people suffering and in need.
Moreover, U2's recording and performing career spans nearly 30 years, meaning the services can attract three generations.
"The main thing is that their music is grounded in Scripture," said Blair.
"And the concepts in their songs are often deeply spiritual and theological. So, it's very easy to have them in a sacred context.
"And, of course, the music is very good," she added.
A typical U2 Eucharist usually includes songs that overtly touch on God and spiritual themes, such as "Gloria," "Mysterious Ways," "Yahweh" and "40," which is taken from Psalms 40 and 6. Another key element is sermons about God's call on the faithful to help achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, which include ending poverty and global AIDS by 2015.
"In Matthew 25, Jesus says when we feed or clothe or house someone who is hungry or naked or homeless, that in doing so, we care for him," said Blair, who is writing a book in response to the demand for her advice. "That's really what's at the heart of the U2 service."
For the Sunday service in Carol Stream, Rev. Tom Lyberg went so far as to hire a U2 tribute band called Vertigo USA. Lyberg also finds faithful messages in other contemporary music, and he has plans to hold services incorporating Johnny Cash's version of "Hurt," Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" and possibly a song by the hip-hop group Outkast.
"Outkast should not be off limits," he said. "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."
U2, though, stands apart as a mainstream rock band that has made religion a musical focus from the beginning. When the musicians met in high school, only bassist Adam Clayton wasn't a Christian.
Rev. Christian Scharen, author of the book "One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God," said that in the band's early years, reporters would find the musicians studying the Bible after a concert.
Over the years they struggled to reconcile their religious beliefs with the rock existence. Bono, who was raised by a Protestant mother and a Roman Catholic father, has remained deeply spiritual but refuses to identify with any Christian denomination. He also has criticized church leaders, saying they have not responded adequately to Africa's AIDS crisis.
In a 2001 interview with the religion Web site Beliefnet, the singer bristled at the idea that U2 was a Christian rock band. "The idea of turning your music into a tool for evangelism is missing the point," he said. "Music is the language of the spirit anyway. Its first function is praise to creation."
The band's songs tend to speak of faith in more subtle terms than the lyrics of most Christian music, often without explicitly mentioning God or Jesus. Scharen noted that in dozens of songs U2 sings about "you," when they are really speaking about God.
"Gloria," for example, is "a love song to God," he said. One line says: "Only in you I'm complete."
"But they use the word `you' as a way to make it more accessible to a variety of people so that people who aren't Christian or who don't really get the spirituality can still listen to it and be drawn into it."
Many people who have attended U2 concerts described the performances as a "church-like" or a "religious experience." Now, the music is being played in churches with the new purpose of sending people out to do God's work, Scharen said.
n Chicago, Epiphany Episcopal Church held two U2 Eucharists last year at which the church raised money for the Chicago CropWalk and the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.
"We wouldn't do this only for the music," said Rev. Meigan Cameron, the church's rector. "It's about people getting involved in mission."
Still, some people who admire the band's music don't feel it's appropriate in church.
After a U2 Eucharist was held last year at the Episcopal Convention in Columbus, Ohio, dozens of outraged church members burned up a popular Episcopal blog with complaints. One wrote: "Y'know, I'm probably one of the biggest U2 fans. ... That being said, their music has no place in the Eucharist." Another said: "The Word itself has the power to draw men and women to Christ--it needs no gimmicks."
Unfazed by critics
Blair remains unfazed by such charges and said many of the critics have never attended a U2 service.
"People need to get used to the idea that we can be informal and reverent at the same time," said Cameron of Epiphany.
It comes as no surprise that Blair is a big U2 fan. When asked if she has attempted to speak to Bono or other members of the band for input on the U2 Eucharist, Blair said no.
"Although I respect him and I'm grateful for the gift he has given us, this is not about meeting Bono," she said. "This is about meeting Jesus."