Essays VII


The Promise of Worship in Public Space

Author: Randy L. Rowland © 2001 Worship Leader Magazine

Contributed by Ian Doreian ( idoreian@PEACE.GORDON.EDU )

I absolutely love to worship. Whether it is contemporary, contemplative or somewhere in between, I just love to worship. As I have grown older, I have discovered that some of the worship experiences I have are unattended. I remember climbing to the flying bridge of my boat one morning while at anchor in the Puget Sound and catching a spectacular view of the Olympic Mountains. Just taking in that breathtaking view made me break out in a few verses of the hymn "How Great Thou Art": "Oh Lord my God/ When I in awesome wonder/ Consider all the worlds thy hands hath made."

Some study days when I am preparing sermons, my prayers burst into a time of private worship wherein I profoundly encounter the presence of God and am transformed eternally by the moments with Him. Maundy Thursday this year turned out to be one of those unexpected worship moments.

The church where I serve as lead pastor did not have a Maundy Thursday service planned. So, two of my staff colleagues, a church elder and several friends and I made plans to attend the Elevation Tour concert featuring the rock band U2. We traveled south to the domed stadium expecting a really good show. What transpired, however, was an unexpected worship experience.

We gathered. With the house lights up full, people filled the stadium and began to settle in. The stage was quite interesting. It was shaped like a heart with a large seating area for audience members in the middle. The stage area itself was relatively simple. The simplicity caught my attention, especially since U2 had been using high-tech and major props on previous tours. The four members of U2 met as school boys in Dublin. And, if my understanding is correct, one of their earliest recordings, entitled October, was nothing short of a praise and worship album.

Since those humble beginnings, U2 has become a major musical force. The band's lead singer and front man, Bono, has become known over the years as one to add a cavalcade of theatrics, costumes, video clips, etc. to their shows. But, what I was seeing this time was a possible return to something that expressed more of the band's humble beginnings. In the background, the preconcert selections featured uplifting themes played to set the "Elevation" tone for the night. From "I Want to Take You Higher" by 1970s funk-rocker Sly Stone to Rita Coolidge's "Your Love Keeps on Lifting Me Higher," we heard song after song about the elevation of the human spirit. Then, without any fanfare, the band walked across the backstage area with the houselights on, took the stage and began to play the tour theme, the song "Elevation." It wasn't until part way through the opening song that the lights dimmed and the light show began.

As the concert progressed, I was struck by the arrangement of the songs in the set. The selections were very inviting. Bono and U2 guitarist, The Edge, often held up on vocals and let the audience sing the songs. They involved the packed dome audience like masterful worship leaders. As Bono got people singing on some of the songs, he would adjure "unto the Almighty ... unto the Almighty" not unlike a worship leader urging the audience to "sing it to the Lord, now." I found myself singing the songs, very aware of God's gracious presence. At times during the concert, I found myself praying in the gaps between songs or during instrumentals.

When the concert was over, I realized that I had been involved in worship even though I hadn't really expected to worship. I hadn't been all that conscious of what I was being caught up in, but there I was, worshiping the risen Lord at a rock concert. I thought I was a freak, really, and sort of kept my response to the U2 event quiet. A little later on, bolder souls than myself, who share my faith in Christ, began to related similar experiences from the concert.

A little further digging about U2 and their spiritual underpinnings and I found out that what I had experienced that night was the culmination of the band's longstanding desire to become rock 'n' roll missionaries. In a letter to his father before U2 had recorded their first album, Bono writes, "[God] gives us our strength and a joy that does not depend on drink or drugs. This strength will, I believe, be the quality that will take us to the top of the music business. I hope our lives will be a testament to the people who follow us, and to the music business where never before have so many lost and sorrowful people gathered in one place pretending they're having a good time. It is our ambition to make more than good music."

What strikes me is that the spiritual longings of our culture are so strong that bands are now sensing the spiritual hunger and responding by creating space for transcendence in their live concerts. Interviewed by legendary rock magazine Rolling Stone, U2's Bono said of the Elevation Tour, "it's more God and less Elvis."

Is the possibility of worship moving to rock arenas? Is it possible that venues and performers that have traditionally aroused a baser side of humanity are now exploring ways to connect their audiences with God? If not, then it was a great and unexpected night of worship at the U2 concert. But if so, then we should prepare for another spiritual awakening.