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Rock of Ages

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By Stephen Knapp

Venerable hymns like “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” and “Bringing in the Sheaves” are fine in their own quaint, antebellum way, but many of today’s younger set get more spiritual kick from the pop charts.

On the evening of Friday, March 7, about three dozen worshipers turned out at Church of the Hills Presbyterian to enjoy the familiar comfort of a traditional Communion service accompanied by the powerfully expressive music of contemporary rock band U2. Sponsored by Church of the Hills and Evergreen Lutheran Church, it’s called the U2Charist, and it’s a growing phenomenon that aims to bring young people back into the fold.

“It’s geared to kids to provide a different kind of worship experience,” explained 24-year-old Brittany Reed, youth director for both Church of the Hills and Evergreen Lutheran. “The service is the same, but the music is U2. It’s popular with people in their teens and 20s, which is the age group that’s falling out of the church.”

“It’s a beautiful day,” crooned U2’s lead singer, Bono, as the small congregation gathered beneath the church’s gracefully vaulted ceiling. The assembly ranged in age from about 6 to 60, which isn’t surprising considering that the boys from Dublin have been performing their vocal-intensive style of “anthem rock” for more than three decades.

“It appeals to a generation that isn’t set in the traditions of the church,” said the Rev. Dee Cooper, pastor of Church of the Hills and longtime U2 fan. “It’s a type of worship that speaks to them through music that reflects their preference. That’s why it’s so generous of U2 to provide their music without cost.”

The U2Charist began in the Episcopal camp in 2003 and has since been adapted by numerous denominations. Still, some might question the compatibility of rock music and Christian worship. In fact, U2’s play list has always contained strong religious and moral messages, and the band is well known as a tireless champion of the world’s poor and oppressed.

“Bono is a deeply religious person who cares about the Earth, about people, about justice and about relationships,” said Pastor Vera Guebert-Steward of Evergreen Lutheran. “I think kids now are more concerned about justice than they were when I was a kid, and they are much more concerned about the Earth than we ever were. I think it’s pretty profound when a rock star shares the same faith as the young people of Evergreen.”

Friday’s service kicked off at 9 o’clock with “Pride,” U2’s musical tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., followed by a compelling hour of prayer and song. For the unfamiliar, lyrics were displayed on a large screen next to the altar against a backdrop of images both Christian and secular. Further binding the music to the worship, Reed provided programs introducing each song with a paragraph or two explaining its spiritual significance or detailing the purpose of its composition in Bono’s own words.

Immediately following U2’s evocative ‘Psalm 40,” a hopeful meditation on the nature of grace, Reed offered up her own meditation on the nature of love and its ideal practice. Though brief, Reed’s sermon held much to occupy the mind and dovetailed perfectly with the evening’s soundtrack.

“We want to do this on a regular basis, and everyone in the mountain area is always invited to join us,” said Cooper, as the congregation filed out to the forceful strains of “Walk On.” “If it takes off, we might move into ‘emerging’ worship. ‘Emerging’ is out of L.A., and it’s becoming really popular. It’s nondenominational, very tactile, very high-media and very engaging.”

And if the U2Charist aims to attract a younger audience, it’s worth asking what Friday’s younger audience thought of it.

“I thought it was cool,” said 16-year-old Greta Gansauer. “It definitely kept me pretty engaged compared to a traditional service, which is pretty weird to admit. And I wasn’t really a U2 fan, but I am now.”

“I liked it better than a traditional Sunday morning service,” agreed Rory Krieg, 17. “Friday night isn’t the best, but waddya gonna do? I feel like if a lot of kids would show up, they’d really like it. I’m definitely bringing some friends to the next one.”