Jason Byassee: U2 and leadership

U2’s concerts are famously like worship. They also might show us something about leadership.

On our way to the U2 concert in Raleigh last Saturday, my wife reminded me I would have to miss church in the morning. As a pastor she doesn’t have the luxury of staying home with our sick children.

“That’s OK,” I said. “We’re going to church tonight.”

I said it partly in jest. I’ve written elsewhere with skepticism of the theological icing on U2’s conventional rocker cake (replete with endorsement from Blackberry -- slogan: “Blackberry loves U2.” Ugh). A concert is not church. You don’t have to be baptized to belong (you just shell out $50 for a ticket and $20 for parking), you don’t eat Jesus’ body and blood (just overpriced stadium food), and no shepherd looks over your shoulder to see that you’re growing in discipleship. I thought the show would be cool, but I still doubted my friend Scott Bader-Saye’s claim that “Attending U2 . . . [is] like being in worship (but a whole lot better).” A feeling of worship is not worship. And as much do-gooderism flows from the Irish band’s collective bleeding heart (support of the One campaign, a new song in homage to Aung San Suu Kyu), Jesus didn’t have to scramble up out of the grave to make it work.

I had those emotional brakes fully applied until Bono announced that he was going to “take [us] to church,” right before he launched into the last stanza to “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” I’d heard the lyrics before, but realized anew there’s no mistaking who the song is praising:

You broke the bonds
And you loosed the chains
Carried the cross
Of my shame
Oh my shame
You know I believe it

During one encore, Bono stood solo on stage, like a worship leader in front of a rapt congregation, and belted out the first verse to “Amazing Grace.” Who couldn’t follow him? He then burned into “Where the Streets Have No Name”-- a reflection on the historic violence in Northern Ireland. In that troubled land, you could tell if someone was Catholic or Protestant by their address. A place “where the streets have no name” is an eschatological place where neighborhoods are marked by peace. It’s not only a beautiful dream -- it’s a specifically Christian one (for more here see these books: Chris Scharen’s “One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters for Those Seeking God” and Robert Vagacs’ “Religious Nuts, Political Fanatics: U2 in Theological Perspective”).

It’s hard to speak of one of the most spoken-about phenomena on the planet without speaking in cliches. But this is a blog about leadership, and I was struck by Bono’s on “Still Haven’t Found”-- specifically by how far back he stepped from the microphone. All the way back. He wasn’t singing. He was the audience, and the audience was the singer. “I have climbed, highest mountains, I have run, through the fields, only to be with you, only to be with you,” we 50,000 sang -- having been taught so to sing by the one now listening. Bono had led to such a degree that he could do nothing but let us mouth his words to Edge’s guitar, and it was beautiful.

“Sunday, Bloody Sunday” referred originally to 27 peaceful protestors shot in Northern Ireland in 1972. But at the concert, the video screen projected images of Iranian protesters, advocating for freedom last summer in Teheran. In an act of traditioned innovation, a decades-old song was reset, away from a place that’s now largely peaceful to a place in turmoil, with bloodied protestors again crying for freedom. I watched the college kids in front of me as they learned where in the world Teheran might be (maybe the old joke, “What’s war for?” “God’s way of teaching geography to Americans” might have to be retooled as “What’s U2 for?”).

After that I was sunk. I realized Bono, Edge and friends do lead their audiences in worship of a sort. As they belted out “One,” to my mind their greatest song, they were not only saluting the One campaign, they were singing about God, all humanity and our unity in Christ, if not fully so now, then one day soon.

If the rest of us could lead with a fraction as much uninhibited praise, as much delirium for God, as much desire to change the world, maybe church would break out a bit more often in our sanctuaries -- just as it did Saturday night in a football stadium in Raleigh.

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.