PROVIDENCE, R.I. –As the electric guitar in a U2 anthem faded from four speakers, the Rev. Robert Brooks welcomed worshippers to Grace Episcopal Church with an unusual suggestion: He warned them to protect their hearing.
“If the sound’s an issue, we do have earplugs available,” he said.
Ushers handed out complementary ear plugs and fluorescent glow sticks for this “U2 Eucharist,” a communion service punctuated by the Irish band’s rock music. In Episcopal parishes from California to Maine, believers are weaving U2‘s Biblically laced music into the denomination’s traditionally formal liturgy.
Multicolor streamers flew over worshippers’ heads at this service. Children danced by the altar. Plasma-screen TVs illuminated the gothic sanctuary. Some people sang and clapped. A few looked puzzled.
Brooks said the special service is part of an effort to reinvigorate his congregation by infusing it with young people and those interested in social activism. The service included an offering for local charities and enlisted volunteers for the One Campaign, an effort to alleviate global poverty that’s backed by U2’s lead singer, Bono.
“We absolutely need to grow in order to survive,” Brooks said.
Weeks before the service, church members conducted what Brooks called “guerrilla marketing,” posting fliers at coffee and sandwich shops, bars and colleges. About 130 people showed up for the Friday night service, roughly the same turnout as a Sunday morning.
A similar U2 Eucharist in November proved popular at All Saints’ Church in Atlanta. Organizer Laurie Haynes Burlington said she and her husband planned on 300 worshippers. About 500 showed up.
“We totally ran out of bulletins,” she said.
U2 Eucharists appear to have been limited so far to Episcopal churches. No one tracks how many parishes have put them on, but the service in Providence was based on a playlist created by the Rev. Paige Blair, a parish priest in York Harbor, Maine.
Her format has spread by word-of-mouth and on clergy e-mail lists. She’s received calls from more than a dozen interested churches and helped put on the service in Providence.
Christian Scharen, 39, a Lutheran pastor and professor at Yale Divinity School, said he’s often argued to older colleagues that U2 is heavily influenced by Christianity. He wrote a book on the subject out this year, “One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God,” and says it doesn’t surprise him that churches have caught on to U2.
“People who have these liturgical resonances in their bones, they go to a U2 concert and they just get it,” Scharen said. “In some sense, I think it was just a matter of time before this started happening.”
Bono has told interviewers that he worships God through music. He once belonged to an ascetic Christian community. The band’s early tapes were sold in religious bookstores. In February, Bono spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast.
But band members also swear, drink and sing about sex, all anathema to conservative denominations, Scharen said. He believes Episcopal churches are experimenting with U2 because the denomination encourages members to look for the divine in the worldly.
“They don’t make the stark divide between heaven and earth, between the church and the world,” he said.
It’s not known whether U2’s band members would endorse such services: Blair said she received permission from U2’s publishing company to use the band’s music, but never talked to the band. Representatives for U2 did not return phone calls seeking comment.
At the Providence service, Blair delivered a homily to pitch the One Campaign, which the Episcopal Church supports. She ticked off statistics about poverty and infant mortality in Africa, underscoring her points with equal parts Bono and Bible.
“If you’re a Bono fan, you know the next line: Where you live should not determine whether you live or die,” she said, then borrowed from the Gospels. “What divides the goats from the sheep, those that take up the cross and follow him, is whether they took care of those in need.”
The service attracted several curious, including Andera Soracco, 51, a U2 fan who’s Eastern Orthodox.
“This is a way of bringing the outside world into the church itself,” he said.
The opening hymn was one of the band’s earliest hits, “Pride (In the Name of Love).” As the music played, pictures of famous believers including Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. flashed on a 10-by-14 foot screen set up behind the church’s altar.
Several songs included in the service sound more like angry lamentations than hymns of praise. “Peace on Earth,” inspired by a deadly bombing in Northern Ireland, questions why God won’t halt human suffering.
“Jesus can you take the time to throw a drowning man a line,” Bono sings.
Some Christians might not be able to relate to the shades of doubt and anger, but Blair said that struggle is evident in the Bible.
For example, Bono echoes the 40th Psalm in the opening lines of the band’s song “40,” belting out “I waited patiently for the Lord. He inclined and heard my cry.”
While U2 has conquered the Top 40 charts, it hasn’t won a place in the Episcopal church’s authorized hymnal, yet.
“I seriously think the day will come,” Blair said. “There’s a gift they have in speaking to the human soul.”