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Too much Bono in the church?

Filed under: church,Discipleship,music,worship — 9:30 am

About ten 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.

U2 Chicago 07.02.15

U2 – Chicago 07.02.15

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% 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.

U2 live

U2 live

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 2nd 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.

Grace and peace,


  1. Stumbled upon this blog via somebody’s Twitter!! Great words, Aaron. Thanks for posting!! Dave (Berlin, Germany)

    Comment by Dave — July 9, 2015 @ 10:30 am

  2. Agree wholeheartedly. So now Aaron, how about part 2. What would this look like? What would be different about worship on Sunday?

    Comment by John — July 9, 2015 @ 12:06 pm

  3. Aaron, so so good. Thank you for having the guts to share this.

    Comment by David Santistevan — July 9, 2015 @ 12:33 pm

  4. As Bono said himself, “then i put jesus in show business, now its hard to get in the door” 🙂

    Comment by Matt Stowell — July 9, 2015 @ 12:35 pm

  5. Aaron – I saw U2 in Toronto on Monday and your words resonated in many ways with me. I do think worship leaders can learn and should tons from Bono, U2 and the team that put together the experience, might i even say encounter. The first half was stunning, a well curated seamless journey. Oh that worship leaders and pastors would pay that kind of attention to creating a thoughtful, purposeful environment (from the single symbolic lightbulb, to the pages that fell from the sky and just about everything in-between – nothing was wasted). i thought your words about the second half, “tired” were interesting. In some ways I agree, but I wonder, are our gatherings ever “tired.” And is there something wrong with that. In the second act, I saw playfulness, spontaneity, cliche, ritual, and routine. I know we need more of some of those elements in our gatherings…

    Comment by Terry Timm — July 9, 2015 @ 1:48 pm

  6. Love it! Your perspective on this is rather freeing.

    Comment by Charles Lane — July 9, 2015 @ 5:10 pm

  7. “Disney World is a wonderful place to visit but would be a strange place to live.” The imagery you used in this article is so spot on for what you are talking about here. As a worship leader for the better part of two decades and a U2 fan for the better part of two decades, its always refreshing and encouraging to hear someone voice how you feel inside. We are entering a unique season as a church where transparency from the stage, even more than ever, is going to be paramount in everything we do. What you’ve written here NEEDS to be thought about for that reason and more. With all of our heart let’s continue to ask, “What can we give back to God for the blessings He’s poured out on us?”

    Comment by Mike — July 9, 2015 @ 7:59 pm

  8. Hi Aaron.
    I think you know me. 😉

    I have never attended a U2 concert, yet 99% of what I hear about how great U2 concerts are come from my churched friends. No one in my secular world mentions U2.

    That said, yes, I think the WCCC churched world places more value on what happens in U2 world than the unchurched. Yes, my data set may be skewed, and the fact I’ve never seen U2 in concert may color my view. Interesting to me how many posts I see by my churched friends of such trivial things like U2 microphones and patch bays. Really?

    Live life by the Spirit. Rock bands come and go.

    Miss you, brother.

    Comment by Greg Boncimino — July 9, 2015 @ 8:44 pm

  9. Very insightful post, thank you Aaron.

    Comment by Robert Broz — July 9, 2015 @ 11:36 pm

  10. Good stuff Aaron. This more wholistic perspective on corporate worship resonates with me!

    Comment by Matthew Deeren — July 10, 2015 @ 9:42 am

  11. Well said Aaron!! Thanks for sharing. I so agree, and your perspective is very refreshing in this “post-modern worship” era.

    Comment by Jerry — July 10, 2015 @ 9:56 am

  12. […] Aaron Niequist reflects on a recent U2 concert, and what it revealed to him about music and worship …: […]

    Pingback by Overdosing On Spectacle | Worship Links — July 10, 2015 @ 4:02 pm

  13. Ahhhh…the same Bono that drops f bombs on awards shows?

    Comment by Vicky — July 11, 2015 @ 1:34 am

  14. Aaron, I think you misunderstand your role as a worship leader, it is not your responsibility for my experience, you are not the Holy Spirit. I also have a responsibility to prepare myself for a great experience, ie. remove burdens prior to worship. We often come to church to be entertained and depend on others for the experience!

    Comment by Floyd — July 11, 2015 @ 8:33 am

  15. You know I couldn’t agree more.

    I think it’s easy to swing from big-production-concert-driven worship styles to a totally stripped down minimalistic style. #pendulumswing
    All styles have their place… and so I’m glad that you recognize that there’s room for both…it’s a good reminder for me. The main danger is doing one style (especially big U2 style) all the time…every single week. I just can’t handle it… not as a worshiper… and especially not as a worship leader who’s creating the visual experience that surrounds the music.

    Seismic experiences just aren’t sustainable every single week… and even if teams CAN sustain them more often than not, they certainly lose their impact after a while. I like big experiences…but only once in a while. I’m a fan of planning big creative worship experiences once in a while (like every quarter… especially when synced up with the Church Calendar/Feast Days)… and then letting all the other Sundays remain quiet & simple.

    My favorite moments in worship these days seem to be in the quiet, still, contemplative spaces where we pray & commune together. On most Sunday mornings, I’d rather listen for whispers than yell out my praise. And it’s only when I hear those whispers from the Spirit that I am led to sing out. Then & only then am I ready to turn it up to 11.

    Comment by Stephen Proctor — July 11, 2015 @ 10:30 am

  16. I have to admit that – reading your blog title – I was skeptical. I’m a huge U2 fan, & have learned a lot from them as well. Well written, sir. Good words!

    Comment by Shannon Lewis — July 13, 2015 @ 1:22 pm

  17. From my understanding,church worship is not supposed to make the hair on your arms stand up because of an incredible guitar lick, but because you are experiencing the presence of God in your midst in an experiential way – you are singing to God and he is responding.

    This is not for entertainment value, but serves to strengthen our faith, and build our relationship with God, plus worship can transport us away from the worries and stresses of life and into the peace, joy, love and hope that come from only from God and by bringing him, his grace and mercy, to the forefront of our attention. It makes us more responsive to the Holy Spirit while inviting God’s presence simultaneously.

    For Christian music – as compared to a rock concert – it’s not about the volume,the energy and performance as much – it’s about creating moments that draw the congregation in, that celebrate our salvation, that communicate our gratitude and love for God, that convict us in our hearts and that reaffirm our commitment to God and His Kingdom. It’s about opening our hearts to God and each other so that we can be filled to overflowing with his everlasting love. It’s a win win win situation – for us, our congregation and for the Lord

    Comment by Chris — July 15, 2015 @ 6:43 pm

  18. This is a nice contrasting perspective to a lot of what I’ve heard and seen in recent years. I agree that church is not meant to be a rock concert, and if we’re trying to be another rock star on the stage, we may need to check our hearts. Although I don’t think we should ever lose the sense of anticipation in worship that God wants to do something new and exciting in our midst every time we gather together to worship him!

    Comment by Owen Goward — September 1, 2015 @ 5:46 pm

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