Wednesday, May 11, 2011

U2 in church

I'd be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I'd be in deep s---. It doesn't excuse my mistakes, but I'm holding out for Grace. I'm holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don't have to depend on my own religiosity.

- Bono

Our pastor has been preaching a sermon series using the music of those Irish lads known as U2 to help illuminate the truth of God's word. Sunday before last he juxtaposed Psalm 123 with the U2 song "When I Look at the World" and last Sunday he used "When Love Comes to Town" -- the song U2 did with B.B. King on Rattle and Hum -- as commentary on Jesus's teaching on love in John 15. This might seem like a desperate ploy to make our very traditional congregation appear hip, except that Pastor Randy really is a huge U2 fan and gets their appeal as unique pop culture messengers of hope. While I can't see into U2 frontman Bono's heart it's pretty clear that he gets the Christian gospel better than some Christians who wouldn't be caught dead wearing leather or wrap-around sunglasses. For evidence see his Grace over Karma interview.

Sunday I was struck anew by his evocative lyrics. They reminded me of the disruptive nature of Jesus' love and grace. Listen. . .

I was a sailor, I was lost at sea
I was under the waves
Before love rescued me
I was a fighter, I could turn on a thread
Now I stand accused of the things I've said

When love comes to town I'm gonna jump that train
When love comes to town I'm gonna catch that flame
Maybe I was wrong to ever let you down
But I did what I did before love came to town

I was there when they crucified my Lord
I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword
I threw the dice when they pierced his side
But I've seen love conquer the great divide

Love has been cheapened and sentimentalized to the point where we can hardly recognize it. When Jesus came to town he came with love that turned everything upside down. He said he came bringing a sword to divide sons from fathers and sisters from brothers. He said that anyone that didn't love him more than their own father or mother wasn't worthy to be his disciple. He said: "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit."

The lyrics of "When Love Comes to Town" effectively picture the hopelessness of our predicament until Christ's love apprehended us. Jesus is the Hound of Heaven who pursues us. He's the father who welcomes home the prodigal and invites the Pharisee to join the party. In C.S. Lewis's memorable turn of phrase he is the "Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape." (Surprised by Joy) Contrary to the popular altar call disclaimer -- Jesus isn't a gentleman. He doesn't politely knock on the door, he kicks it in, with the fervor of B.B. King's guitar solo.

I ran into a juke joint when I heard a guitar scream
The notes were turning blue, I was dazing in a dream
As the music played I saw my life turn around
That was the day before love came to town

Still on the subject of U2 I came across this fascinating article: Mega-Church Services: Like Going to a U2 Concert? Readers of this blog probably know that I've criticized the mega-church seeker-sensitive model, and I think it's a wave that's already crested. Nevertheless the success of the Willow Creek-type churches, and of U2, in reaching large numbers of people and remaining culturally relevant (a loaded term I know) might have something to say to all churches regardless of size or worship style.

"Organizations, to stay in a healthy place, have to have a balance of self-control and flexibility," Workman believes. "Sometimes you have to act more controlled because you're in danger of losing your core values; sometimes you get so stuck that there's no new life. You need to balance the teeter-totter.

"I think churches have to figure out how to do that. Too many churches are too stuck in maintaining control. They lose their cultural relevance. It's been fun to see U2 preserve core values and reinvent themselves."

It is interesting to hear this perspective on U2 from Workman, especially after taking part in many fan conversations about whether U2 has allowed itself to become too corporate, or whether something integral to the band/fan relationship has been strained (which is a "core values" question). Keep in mind, though, that much depends on one's point of view, and Workman has the perspective of working behind the scenes in church but has not been in on the conversations carried out on U2 fan message boards.

Workman's reflections end with an acknowledgement that ages and stages in life affect how one can reach the masses, even as he talks about the importance of churches engaging with the culture (what U2 has termed their "relevance," and the reason they still strive for the hit single). "[Christians] have to think like missionaries ... Good missionaries go as deep into the culture as they can without compromising their values. Too many churches have relinquished their cultural awareness. The culture, for the messenger, is a tool. And it has to be wielded wisely. People know when you are truly hip; at some point you have to be smart enough to know 'This is beyond me!' There's nothing worse than a 50-year-old guy talking about his 'posse.'"

What does this mean for someone like Bono, now that he's about to turn 51? "Bono has to be either close enough to the language [of the culture] to use it with authenticity -- or he has to create new language."

U2's been doing this for years, and that's what churches have been doing for many more years before them. "That's the church -- creating new language for a timeless message."

Next month, God willing and Bono doesn't hurt his back again, my wife and I will experience a U2 live show for the first time. I know it will be awesome. Come the following Sunday, though, I won't be interested in attending a worship service that approximates that experience -- except in this respect. A message of hope, delivered with integrity and authenticity, in a way that connects with a diverse audience? You bet! In that way I hope my church is like a U2 concert every Sunday.

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