U2 and liturgy

I wish that the AP hadn't picked this headline:

"Episcopal Churches Turn to U2 To Pack Pews"

I was the instigator of the first U2charist in April of 2004, and was a contributor to Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog. For me, preaching and doing liturgy with U2's music isn't about trying to "pack pews"; it's a perfectly natural thing for me to do as someone who grew up with U2's music. In all my travels, I've never met anyone of any age who's been to a U2 concert and hasn't found it to be spiritually uplifting; I think I've learned a great deal about liturgy and the art of leading it from U2.

If you think about it, it's a really remarkable thing that U2 manage to get a stadium full of people standing, raising their hands, singing or shouting something, or waving their cell phones at the same time. They don't pass out bulletins with printed rubrics, and they certainly don't have PowerPoint slides when they sing "Sunday Bloody Sunday" that say, "The CONGREGATION shouts: NO MORE!" So how do they do it?

They PLAN very, very intelligently, sensitively, and carefully. They rehearse a great deal. They're supported by excellent staff and the right kind of technology (which isn't always the most high-tech equipment). And they're sensitive in the moment to what's going on with the congregation (a U2 concert is a participatory experience, and although the band members are for the most part the only people on stage, the concert truly is "the work of the people").

I know, it sounds weird to some people to say that a rock concert -- particularly something with as much spontenaiety as a U2 show -- is carefully planned and extensively rehearsed, but it's true. I can say as a musician that solid planning and lots of practice together are absolutely necessary to free a band to respond with spontenaiety to the crowd. If I'm singing for a band that really knows me, one another, and the material well -- and lots of rehearsal as well as lots of gigs over a long period of time is the best way for that to happen -- then I can dive into the crowd for a few minutes, for example, and know that the band will be able to keep on playing something that makes sense without my vocals while I'm away from the mike, and then will be able to pick up again with my vocals once I'm back on stage. If I'm singing with a band that has played a great deal together, I can decide in the moment based on what I'm sensing from the crowd to draw out a song with a few extra choruses or some improvised snatches from other songs, and know that the band isn't going to be saying to themselves, "No fair -- we're supposed to do the chorus twice and then go into the bridge."

There are few ways -- maybe even no way -- to get that kind of confidence and chemistry in a band without lots and lots of rehearsal. I think the same goes for a team of folks leading a church service. If everyone from the altar guild and acolytes to the celebrant has enough good communication and time together, things will be more likely to go as planned when that improves the worship experience and the team will be more free to do something differently if that's needed in the moment. For example, let's say the power goes out unexpectedly in the middle of the Sunday service -- suddenly you've got no sound system. If the celebrant, deacon, and acolytes all know one another, the space, and the liturgy well -- or better yet, if a critical mass of the CONGREGATION as well as those vested for worship know one another, the space, and the liturgy well, everyone can improvise something -- e.g., moving to the center of the space if that's possible to make it easier for everyone to hear.

Getting that kind of chemistry with a group is about both the quantity and the quality of time together. Rehearsal is almost always better than no rehearsal, in my experience, but it also matters what kind of rehearsal. If a practice session is all about one person telling everyone else what to do and doesn't include mutual listening, the group won't get to know one another as well, and the liturgy is likely to suffer.

The same goes for liturgical planning, in my opinion. It makes perfect sense that at least some of the chief architects of a service should be those with the most liturgical and theological training and experience, but if liturgy is really going to be "the work of the people," then planning it should at some point involve some people in the congregation who are newer to the experience. A U2 concert that included only their more obscure songs rarely played live might thrill a few hardcore fans, but would leave most of the crowd puzzled if not bored -- or absent (the beer stands would get a lot of business!). On the other hand, a band tours not just to entertain, but to teach -- to increase hunger for more of the music by introducing fans to music they haven't heard yet on the radio. The members of U2 choose setlists for concerts that include old and new material, their newest hits and older songs that didn't hit the charts on their first release, and sometimes even material not released commercially at all.

Similarly, great liturgy both celebrates what we've already known and experienced and introduces us to ideas and experiences we haven't had that will deepen our walk with Christ. In my opinion, we're most likely to do that if we get and respond to feedback from newcomers to the congregation and its traditions. That doesn't mean doing ONLY things that are meaningful to people with no prior experience in Christian worship. Liturgy ACQUIRES meaning for us as we experience things that are new to us in a context that is at least partially familiar enough to be meaningful, and ought to inspire a sense that there's mystery in the universe -- things we don't necessarily understand, but don't necessarily have to understand to appreciate. Worship that just strings together pop-culture references in a shallow and trendy way might attract some initial interest, but is unlikely to be edifying in the long term.

On the other hand, worship that is entirely foreign to the congregation and that doesn't provide enough context to learn about what's going on is unlikely to be very edifying. For example, most Episcopalian congregations wouldn't get a lot out of a worship service conducted entirely in Coptic, with some exceptions that are worth noting. You could worship in Coptic with a congregation that doesn't have any prior exposure to the language and have the experience work if there were plenty of non-verbal cues -- e.g., visual or musical ones. Or the Coptic service could work very well indeed if what you're after and what the congregation needs is an experience that does feel foreign. Perhaps the congregation is about to launch a service that better meets the needs of a cultural group new to the congregation, and as part of the preparation to do that, you want a leadership team to experience worship in a language none of them have heard before and pay attention to what that felt like and what challenges and opportunities to enter into worship that posed for them.

Which brings me back to some more lessons in liturgy I learned in part from U2.

U2 plan concerts as whole experiences. They're musicians first and foremost, but they think long and hard about and get tons of advice from experts in the visual arts, for example. They think about how the clothes they wear, how they move, what images are projected on what kind of screen, what will probably be in the air (e.g., it's silly to plan a concert with the assumption that nobody will be smoking, even though it's illegal in most arenas to smoke) and what they want to be in the air (e.g., fog). They think about lighting for the mood of each song and how different lighting can provide cues to the crowd on how to behave. Everybody at a U2 concert knows -- not because anyone passed out a bulletin or offered an explanation before the start of the concert, but because it's instinctive and because of other indirect cues (e.g., the volume of the music) that when the whole arena is suddenly flooded for a moment with white light, you're supposed to jump up and raise your hands above your head. I think you'll know what I mean if you watch U2's performance of "Beautiful Day" and/or "Elevation" from their Vertigo Live in Chicago DVD.

U2 also think long and hard about different kinds of momentum and/or restfulness built up by different kinds of songs, and they structure concerts carefully around considerations of what they need and what the crowd needs. For example, Larry Mullen Jr., U2's drummer, like many, has developed back, joint, and wrist problems, and U2 structure concerts to give him breaks that are as regular as possible. "Elevation" is a song that on the All That You Can't Leave Behind album and accompanying tour was a loud rocker from about the fifth measure,  but in the more recent Vertigo tour is nearly a capella (there's just a quiet two-note guitar sequence and vocals) for the first two verses, so the drummer and bassist get a two-minute break three songs into the concert (a rare treat for a rhythm section). Bono, the lead singer, tends (like most rock singers) to push his chest voice up higher than one can do for long without going hoarse, so there are some songs (e.g., "Red Hill Mining Town") that don't get played live at all, and the band doesn't string together six songs in a row that are loud and high in Bono's range.

They think carefully about songs that in terms of tempo and theme will build a certain kind of momentum and give the audience some well-timed breaks. The current Vertigo tour has a classic example of this in the sequence -- just shy of halfway through the concert -- of "Love and Peace Or Else," Bullet the Blue Sky," and "Sunday Bloody Sunday" -- all medium-tempo songs with a very strong beat that thematically protest attempting to justify violence for political and/or religious ends. They flow right into one another to the point of almost being one long track, which allows the songs to comment on one another and invite listeners to make connections between the political situations the songs were written about (the cycles of violence in Israel/Palestine for "Love and Peace Or Else, "state-sponsored and U.S.-funded terror in Central America for "Bullet the Blue Sky," and I.R.A. and Unionist terrorism in Britain and Ireland for "Sunday Bloody Sunday") and current situations (e.g., Bono often asks for and displays a U.S. flag these days when performing "Sunday Bloody Sunday," inviting comparison of terrorism around "the troubles" in Ireland and 9/11 in the U.S.). But the emotional and musical intensity of those songs would be overwhelming and counterproductive if it continued much longer, so while the next song continues the themes of the three-song cycle it follows, it's usually slow and without a rhythm section ("Running To Stand Still" or "Miss Sarajevo"), giving the crowd as well as the band a chance to breathe and become a little more reflective as the lighting becomes more spare and cool in color, the projected images replaced by darkness. Good liturgy pays similar attention to pacing in music, cadences of speech, sound and silence, light and darkness, and theme.

And finally, at least for now, I learned a great deal from U2 about how liturgy can be participatory. When playing a song familiar to most or all, the band often invites -- sometimes verbally with a shout like "You know the words!" and sometimes visually by holding a mike out toward the audience or bringing the house lights up -- the crowd to sing the whole thing. On a song that most in the audience don't know or don't know well -- e.g., "Fast Cars," which was issued as a bonus track on some editions of their most recent album, but which is absent from most editions sold, and is almost never played on the radio) -- they'll invite participation by pulling someone up to the stage to dance or working in a simple musical phrase or quote from a more familiar song that everyone is then invited (usually with a nonverbal cue) to sing. Bono's improvisations and patter both reflect and intensify the ways in which he responds to or is carried along by the crowd and how the crowd responds to him. I almost never call a U2 concert a "performance" or "show," which sound too much like an activity of a band before a passive audience, much as I almost never call the crowd at a U2 show an "audience."  Every time I go to a U2 concert, I find myself thinking about how intentionally the whole U2 team -- management, visual artists, computer networking people, the techs for the musical equipment, lighting artists, carpenters, and more, as well as the band -- invites the crowd to shape the experience.

That in turn gets me thinking about how the crowd, the people, in EVERY concert and movie and worship service shape the experience everyone has of it. I'll never forget sitting in a movie theater suddenly filled with hooting and howls of laughter when during the trailer for the movie Little Buddha, the audience saw that the Buddha would be played by Keanu Reeves, who then even more than now was viewed as a one-note airhead actor from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Horror films are MUCH scarier when viewed with audience members who scream or jump when startled. I also recall many experiences of listening to a stand-up comic who probably would have seemed funnier to me if other people were laughing, but a truly flat room is very difficult if not impossible to overcome. And that can be true with liturgy too -- made all the worse if the celebrant, musicians, and the entire worship team isn't sensitive to how people are and aren't responding. Sometimes that insensitivity is due to circumstance -- e.g., the acolytes are new and haven't rehearsed much, so they're trying so hard to remember what's supposed to happen next that they go through the entire service with a pained and very distracting expression that they don't notice people are picking up on and feeling uncomfortable themselves as a result. Sometimes that's affected by the natural abilities of those involved. Usually it's a combination of factors.

Sometimes people experience shows where something goes "wrong" as the best shows of all because of the ways in which one person's weakness brings out another's strength. The Edge sings lead vocals for a verse or a song when Bono's voice is gone. The rhythm section keeps the song going when a key guitar string breaks. The crowd's energy carries Bono along when his father has died and Bono's grief is fresh and raw, and strength is surprisingly made perfect in weakness. And in every case, marvelous and life-changing things happen when the Spirit -- that wind and fire to which we can be more or less open, but never control or even consistently predict -- rushes through the room. As a musician, a U2 fan, and a worship leader, I have to say that rocks -- for a Eucharist, a concert, or anything else.

Photo below: Bono's asperges in Madison Square Garden on October 7, 2005 -- that's me in the yellow circle to the left of Bono getting splashed.


April 17, 2006 in Churchiness, Liturgy, Music, U2charist | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack