Is There Too Much Bono in Church?

About 10 years ago, I wrote a piece called “Everything I Know About Worship Leading I Learned From an Irish Rock Star.“ But after seeing U2 last week in Chicago, I no longer agree with what I wrote. Let me explain …

The concert was incredible. I’ve seen U2 over a dozen times, and the first half of last week’s show was one of my favorite performances yet. (The second half felt a little tired.) Bono’s voice was in top form, and the journey they took us on was powerfully stunning. I loved it and am already looking forward to their next tour.

But as I marveled at Bono’s ability to create such an epic worship experience, it occurred to me that this anthemic, euphoric, cathartic euphoria is the perfect model for a traveling rock show, but a potentially unhelpful model for weekly church. And yet so many worship leaders—myself included—have been trying to emulate this mountaintop experience every Sunday morning for years: “Did people lift their hands in the air? Did they sing loudly? Did they have a deeply authentic emotional experience?” These questions, learned from traveling rock stars, have come to define so much of the current Christian worship culture.

Why might this be a problem?

Disney World is a wonderful place to visit, but would be a strange place to live. And an extravagant, 12-course meal is great for an anniversary celebration, but would be impossible to replicate every night.

In the same way, I’m becoming convinced that the rock concert worship event is wonderful in small doses, but dangerous when it becomes normative. A few reflections …

First, mountaintop experiences are not the entirety of the Christian life. And if our worship mis-communicates that this is what everyone should be feeling all the time, we do a huge disservice to people who are currently in the valley or will be in the valley … which is everyone. There’s a reason the Psalms include celebration, lament, anger, joy, dancing and doubt.

Second, a steady diet of rock concert worship doesn’t teach us how to engage 99.9 percent of real life, which is not spectacular or very entertaining, and often involves quiet, awkwardness and less-than-spectacular people. Reality is gloriously diverse. A worship culture that doesn’t equip and propel us to find God in every moment of life is not a gift … and much too narrow to form well-balanced people.

Third, a pressure to be spectacular can be crushing to worship leaders, pastors and everyone involved. Every Sunday can’t be the Super Bowl. And trying to create epic experiences every week often leads to burnout (everything needs to be bigger and better than last week) and eventual disappointment (no church has the resources of U2). Check out Ian Cron’s words about this.

Fourth, if left unchecked, this form of worship can form shallow worshipers—because always getting what we want, like and enjoy has unintended consequences that can keep us from certain depths. We often learn best when outside of our comfort zone. Furthermore, God often speaks in a whisper, and constant over-stimulation can actually distract us from what God is trying to say and do in the moment. Sometimes a simple and quiet space is the biggest gift we can offer.

So can worship leaders learn from Bono? Absolutely! We have SO much to learn from him that will benefit the church and world. But let’s also learn from poets and parish priests, therapists and theologians, praying grandparents and passionate second-grade teachers, spiritual directors and singers of the old spirituals. The Kingdom of God is infinitely high and wide and near and deep and mysterious and closer than the air we breathe. May our worship help us to humbly embrace it all.  

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After majoring in music theory and composition at judson university, I joined the student impact staff at willow creek church as a worship leader. I loved my time there, but the definite highlight was meeting a fantastic girl named Shauna and convincing her to marry me. About a year later, we struck up a friendship with Rob Bell and moved to join his church, Mars Hill, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I jumped in as the worship leader and Shauna joined the leadership staff.