Wellington – It started one Sunday when Deacon Charles Cannon noticed the iPods and Sidekicks coming out in church.
“I realized pretty quickly that the kids were disconnected during the service,” Cannon said of the teenagers in his youth group at St. David’s Episcopal Church. “I learned they didn’t know what was going on in the service and the music didn’t reach them.”
So on Aug. 19, Cannon brought in Bono to lead worship and made Where the Streets Have No Name the offertory song at St. David’s. It was the first U2charist at an Episcopal church in Palm Beach County.
The services are Eucharists sprinkled with U2’s music, and, like U2 frontman Bono, they carry a strong social justice message. They collect money to support developing countries and fight problems such as poverty and AIDS.
U2charists have popped up in churches around the United States, the United Kingdom and Ireland. Rock bands and loud music in church services is nothing new in some Christian circles. But for the Episcopal Church, heavily steeped in tradition, the U2charists offer a way for it to experiment with contemporary worship. And many of them find the services invigorate younger members and draw people who might not normally attend church.
“We love our tradition, and we love the fact we love our tradition. It’s a big part of our identity,” said the Rev. Paige Blair, the rector at St. George’s Episcopal Church in York Harbor, Maine, which popularized the U2charists. “It’s a safe way for Episcopalians to try these 21st-century ways to worship.”
That’s what’s happened since Blair’s church started spreading the word about U2charists in 2005. In the last year, churches across Florida in places as different as Fort Walton Beach, Tampa and Pompano Beach have held U2charists.
At St. David’s, David Hietapelto, a dad with shoulder-length hair and a rock-star stance, filled in for Bono, and Pride, One and Mysterious Ways replaced traditional hymns. About 120 people filled the pews; after the Sunday night service finished, most of them said they enjoyed it, including the very teenagers Cannon was trying to reach.
“When you have the rock music there, the church becomes more personal. It’s music they like,” said Edwin Morlu, 16, one of the church’s members.
“They can hear it while still being able to hear the message and spread it in a more fun and enjoyable way.”
The teenagers weren’t the only ones connecting with the songs. Two 10-year-old girls, one of them Hietapelto’s daughter, threw their bodies into full-on dancing. Laura Thornton, 38, sang along with each song, her eyes pressed shut and face pointed heavenward.
“It’s music that resonates with someone my age,” she said after the service. “While I might hear a song from Bach, it doesn’t resonate the same way, even though it’s as gorgeous and beautiful as something I grew up watching, seeing and listening to.”
But it’s more than just any rock music. U2’s lyrics have long addressed spiritual issues, and most of the band’s members are Christians. The band’s song 40 is a version of Psalms 40, and some have interpreted Where the Streets Have No Name to be about heaven. Blair said U2 fed her spiritually as a teenager when she wasn’t involved in church.
“People who are in church now and people who aren’t will say going to a U2 concert is a spiritual experience,” she said.
Despite the Christian undertones, many of the churches, including St. David’s, were a bit nervous initially about playing rock music.
The Rev. Bill Richter at St. Simon’s on the Sound Episcopal Church in Fort Walton Beach said he held his first U2charist on a Saturday night rather than a Sunday morning because he worried it might not go over well. But 90 people showed up, a big turnout, and 40 percent of them weren’t connected to the church.
“It was powerful. Just to see the kids excited about being at church was wonderful,” said Richter, whose church is planning another U2charist. “I think it’s a good way to appeal to a different segment of the community that like what we’re doing but are a little off-put by the formality.”
Cannon had to enlist the help of the St. David’s priest, the Rev. Steven Thomas, in order to serve communion at the U2charist. He was nervous, despite having already held three contemporary services during the past year, including one featuring Bob Marley’s music.
“I was really afraid the priest wasn’t going to go for it. He said, ‘Why would I play that kind of music in church?'” Cannon said. “I said, ‘If you read the lyrics of the songs, they all speak about the mystical experience of God.'”
Thomas said he thought the U2charist was a good way to focus the church on social justice. St. David’s collected money for Play Pumps International, a nonprofit group that builds water pumps in Africa.
“The music’s not for everybody,” Thomas said. “I told the congregation it’s extreme liturgy.”
– Source: Stephanie Horvath, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Sep. 9, 2007