Aquidneck Island Worship

a community that worships in spirit and truth

Lessons Learned from U2 for Leading Worship

by G.M. Plaster

There is no doubt that the modern worship movement has on multiple occasions paid homage to the band U2 in imitation of musical technique and in response to issues truly relevant to the universal church (i.e. In the Name of Love). Why has this band had such a profound impact on church music (i.e. the U2charist) when the musicians themselves have not, for the most part, been directly affiliated with Christian music culture? Looking at a few of Bono’s influences and musical techniques not only gives us an idea of why the music has resonated so deeply but also how we might continue to learn from it for the purposes of emergent worship and liturgical integration. (also see Walk On: The Spiritual Journey Of U2)

See Wikipedia Excerpt: Musical Style and Themes of U2

“Since their inception, U2 have developed and maintained a distinctly recognizable sound, with emphasis on melodic instrumentals and expressive, larger-than-life vocals,[109] … The Edge has consistently used a rhythmic echo and a signature delay[111] to craft his guitar work, coupled with an Irish-influenced drone played against his syncopated melodies,[112] that ultimately yields a well-defined ambient and atmospheric sound. Bono has nurtured his falsetto operatic voice[113] and has exhibited a notable lyrical bent towards social, political, and personal subject matter while maintaining a grandiose scale in his songwriting. Despite these broad consistencies, with each album U2 have introduced new elements into their musical repertoire. Beginning from their post-punk roots and minimalist and uncomplicated instrumentals heard on Boy as well as their second album October, their sound evolved through War into one more versatile and aggressive, with aspects of rock anthem, funk, and dance rhythms.[114] The two albums were labeled “muscular and assertive” by Rolling Stone[26] … The songs from The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum placed more emphasis on Lanois-inspired rhythm as they mixed in distinct and varied styles of America-derived gospel and blues … Social and political commentary, often embellished with religious and spiritual imagery,[117] are a major aspect of U2’s lyrical content. … An emotional yearning or pleading is another frequent conveyance,[109] in tracks such as “Yahweh[118] and “Please“. More generally, the investigation of loss and anguish coupled with hopefulness and resiliency, central in The Joshua Tree,[26] has motivated much of U2’s songwriting and music. …Described by The Edge as a fundamentally live band,[112] U2 has also taken full advantage of tours such as the Zoo TV to caricature social concerns. …[116]

There are several key elements to highlight here:

  1. Minimalist and uncomplicated melodic instrumentals
  2. Expressive, larger-than-life vocals and grandiose scale in songwriting
  3. Well-defined ambient and atmospheric sound (Irish-influenced drone)
  4. Social/political commentary with religious and spiritual imagery
  5. Muscular and assertive
  6. New elements in musical repertoire
  7. Elements of America-derived gospel and blues
  8. Emotional yearning, anguish coupled with hope
  9. A fundamentally live band
  10. Integration of ambient sounds with spoken word

Addressing these points one at a time, we will discuss why these elements are powerful and effective when incorporated in music written specifically for worship.

1. Minimal and uncomplicated instrumentals help the listener or worshipper to focus on the lyrical message rather than getting distracted by the complexity or talent of musicianship. Instrumentals can be beautiful in and of themselves, but are also useful for something. They are useful to help communicate the lyrical or unspoken Truth. Any part of the music which does not contribute to this Truth might as well be stripped away (kind of like a sanctification of sound!)

2. Expressive, larger-than-life vocals and a grandiose scale in songwriting appeal to the human desire to be a part of something larger than ourselves. Although it may be distracting in some worship settings for the music to become grandiose, there is certainly a place for awe inspiring music which instructs the soul to revere the King. Traditional organ music accomplishes this for many people, hence U2’s usage of the same sound in several songs (i.e. Where the Streets Have no Name).

3. A well-defined ambient and atmospheric sound does several things for the worship. It facilitates the soul in meditation on a focal point. It encourages a sense of something beyond or beneath the seen world – faith in an unseen Reality. Critics will complain that ambient sounds and ambient music encourage “thoughtless” meditation and even brainwashing. While this concern is historically relevant when considering the power music has had on culture, the music itself is simply a tool to be used for good or evil. Ambient sounds numb certain senses and heighten others. This can be useful for momentarily filtering out some of the worries of life and focusing on the resonant sound. Ideally this sound somehow carries a consistent feeling with the Truth which is being sung about, spoken or taught. In the case of U2, the Irish-influenced

drone harkens to Celtic spirituality which not only carries a feeling of spiritual grounding in tradition, but also feels consistent with Bono’s lyrics which frequently draw on spiritual imagery.

4. Social and political commentary laced with religious imagery might seem to be a bad fit for worship music, but scratch beneath the surface and it’s easy to see why it is often much more palatable than religious commentary with a social or political agenda (which is what the church is often accused of). What if we were to sing about, say, the social concerns of AIDS in Africa or Sex Trafficking in Asia or ending world debt. These concerns are sometimes labeled as humanistic causes – political and beyond the walls of the church. However, U2’s consistent lyrical emphasis on real world issues with transcendent sounds instructs the soul in being in the world but not of it. It’s missional. It’s catalytic. People who resonate with this element of the music want the Kingdom of God to be at hand. The good news is that IT IS! Worship music that specifically mentions current events in light of God’s active participation is powerful and rather shocking (i.e. Kevin Prosch Palanquin). Prosch sings about God’s love for the “gays and the lesbians” in the same phrase as the “Buddhists and Presbyterians”, like Bono, lyrically exposing a certain filter that we’ve used for our music. If we put some of that stuff back in, we may find that the music resonates more deeply with the human desire to be relevant and authentic.

5. “Muscular and assertive” music is simply strong enough to gain our attention. In the digital information age, the battle of emotions and ideas is usually won by whoever can yell the loudest and still articulate a position. Worship music which is not muscular enough in it’s strength of conviction and assertive in it’s theological stance will not gain the attention of the people for long. There are too many other sources of entertainment to compete with a weak truth. Only Truth is strong enough to handle the competition. Ironically all of our attempts to create seeker sensitive worship is a double edged sword – we create music that welcomes people as they are (i.e. Come Now is the Time), in order to challenge them later with teachings that aren’t always comfortable. So, there is a process to worship, and U2 shows us where we might be able to go with that process, towards a brave statement of faith and bold mandate for action.

6. Constantly experimenting with new elements in musical repertoire accomplishes a few things for both musician and listener, lead worshiper and parishioner. The Psalms instruct us to sing a new song (Psalm 33:3, Psalm 40:3) and worship God with a variety of methods (Psalm 150). While still keeping hold of those simple and ambient elements mentioned above, persistent experimentation keeps things fresh. It is good to take the perspective that there are seasons for worship just like there are seasons for the church calendar. New combinations of instruments on old songs, or new approaches to songs in general can do a lot to usher in such seasons. Worship itself is a process which God uses to renew us – so it is often fitting to renew our paradigms of worship. When this has been done in its proper season, with due diligence, there is a sweetness in returning to the earlier styles and songs. If we are not willing to try new modes of worship, we grow stale. Many fans who loved U2’s Joshua Tree album had a hard time with the sounds coming out of their Zooropa tour, but in the long run the band’s diversity was a benefit and helped to keep them fresh over the years.

7. Elements of the America-derived gospel and blues music should not be overlooked for any modern worship leader. While it is unrealistic to imagine a primarily white church to replicate the powerful sounds of a black gospel choir, there are a few easy lessons. First, the sound itself is born from suffering. Worship music with roots in the songs of the slaves is rich with Truth and transcendent hope both thematically and musically. By tapping into this sound, U2 accomplishes something similar to the use of the Celtic drone, which is an artistic allusion to spiritual heritage. The best way I can think of to do this is to contact local gospel churches and come together for combined worship – get the worship teams together to learn from each other and develop cross cultural music – share worship teams, leaders and choirs on alternating Sundays. – invite churches from different cultures to come and share with the worship team on what’s important for worship at their church. Another method would be to look more honestly at the music we are writing and see if it is truly addressing the suffering which is common to man. While our suffering is not anything compared to that of the slaves, there is still a deeper well of creativity to be found in trials than in contentedness.

8. Worship which honestly conveys an emotional yearning or anguish yet still expresses through music the hope that we have is valuable because it is complex enough to be real. The human condition is very complex and yet so much of our music is inspired by life, distilled down to a single emotion or thought and then mass marketed. Only music which represents this tension of hope despite pain will resonate with the human soul as authentic. U2 captures this dichotomy with their music.

9. Worship teams should always be fundamentally live bands, meaning that they are meant to facilitate a community and congregational worship. While there is certainly a place for studio recording and U2’s fans love them playing in their cars, it’s something else completely to stand in a crowd of like minded people, to sing together and feel the communal pulse of a well known rock anthem. Worship music is vertical by being for the King, but is also horizontal by being for the body of believers (and anyone who would like to hang out in the vicinity). There is a bit of an awkwardness about creating incredibly intimate “vertical” worship music in a public “horizontal” context. We expose ourselves if we cry, raise our hands, etc. The result is an understandable psychological battle between authenticity and awareness of the effect on those around us. However, if we accept that a large part of the congregational worship is for the edification of the body, we will more willing to go live, wear our emotions out on our sleeves a little bit more, and not try to overproduce our spiritual products. Preferring live worship requires a better understanding of what grace looks like in an authentic worshipping community.

10. Integration of ambient music with spoken word is a technique used commonly in a lot of churches. Bono frequently uses the instrumental refrains of songs as platforms to speak out on an issue. In this example we have a few of the most important lessons for leading worship in the emergent church and finding new ways to do ancient-future worship: theology and liturgy should be treated as poetry – like setting a King on His rightful throne. Therefore the recitation of liturgy can be simultaneous to musical worship and integral when done well. In order to pull this off, poetry and music must dance together – the feelings of the sound in agreement with the words (i.e. My King Sermon). Excellent musicianship not only means being attuned to each other dynamically in sound, but also in meaning. Learning to do this will facilitate the priest and parishioner to integrate preaching and liturgy without missing a beat. When musicians craft a song and then allow the song to speak for itself, they have properly created space for the poetry of the Word to speak. Critics will claim that music is emotionally manipulative and that teaching should be separated from worship. However, we learn from U2 that the musical platform is an effective and valid medium for the proclamation of truth. When the simple song is done and the verses sung, the lingering sounds and melodies are still in the air, there is a beautiful pedestal for Truth to stand on, through preaching and liturgy. Listening to Bono’s voice as he preaches against the sins of apartheid we learn not only the information of the crisis, but our souls also resonate with the physical punctuation of the musicianship. It penetrates us deeper. It becomes harder to remain ambivalent.

Coda

These musical elements would serve us well if we could learn them better – not so that we would sound exactly like U2, but so that we might stir the soul and grapple with Truth more effectively. If we did, what I believe would emerge is a more authentic and passionate worshipping community more in love with Jesus Christ and more responsive to His call.

G.M. Plaster is a former pastor at the Point Loma Vineyard Church in San Diego, California. He has led worship for several groups over the past 12 years, taught and written on the subject. He currently resides in Newport, RI with his wife and children. He is a graduate student at Salve Regina University where he is active in student ministry and can be reached at

grahamplaster@gmail.com

2 Comments»

  Dan Wilt wrote @

G.M.,

Strong article. I like every element of it, and it teases apart some concepts that we can and should learn from.

Thanks for doing this. It’s a worthy reference point.

  Beth wrote @

Just found this, and FYI am linking you on the blog for the “Get Up Off Your Knees” book of sermons interacting with U2 songs.


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