U2 continued its sold out, worldwide “Vertigo Tour” in Dallas this past Saturday. Once again the biggest band on the planet proved that its unforgettable fire still has considerable heat, as well as light.

Frontman Bono, along with bandmates guitarist The Edge, drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. and bassist Adam Clayton, showed that even though it’s been 29 years since their first rehearsal in Mullen’s kitchen they have yet to discover autopilot. U2 is still the band with a head full of big ideas and its heart on its sleeve, but—as they reminded the audience as they closed the concert singing Psalm 40—their feet are on a rock and their footsteps are firm.

Grammy-winning record producer T-Bone Burnett said it best back in 1987: “A U2 concert is what church should be.” The passion, celebration and thoughtful reflection that U2’s live shows draw the audience toward is certainly what a church service aspires to be. A friend recently described a U2 concert as a “transcendent Holy Ghost-filled ring of Jesus fire.” When was the last time you hit the Sunday buffet line feeling like that?

But Burnett’s observation still rings true not only because of U2’s music, the message of hope it often communicates or Bono’s occasional impromptu sermons from the stage. A U2 concert is also what church should be because of whom it attracts.

I attended my first U2 concert in Dallas in 1983 and learned, as a young youth minister, how to pay attention to kids that wouldn’t normally darken the door of a church. The post-punk/new wave crowd that wore Mohawks, had safety pins in their noses and were among the first to discover U2’s music has now grown up.

Looking around the American Airlines Center Saturday it was remarkable to see how a U2 concert has become a multi-generational event. Many parents were there with their teenage kids—not as chaperones, but as fellow fans. Who would have ever thought a rock concert would become a family outing?

A U2 concert is instructive to the church because it breaks down walls between groups that otherwise are separated by age, culture and other barriers that the church seems to have a hard time bringing together.

While talking to dozens of fellow concertgoers before, during and after the show, there was a strong consensus that a U2 concert has a spiritual quality but isn’t in any way religious. As one 40-something mom told me, “I don’t go to church, and I don’t have a very good opinion of religion in general, but I can believe in the kind of God U2 believes in. In some ways this is my church.” A U2 concert is what church should be because it provides an encounter with the Holy for people aware of God but not interested in religion.

Another dimension of a U2 show that should challenge the church is its ability to talk about politics that matters, but in a way that brings people from different sides of the aisle together.

Since the release of their third album, 1983’s War, U2 has been known as a political band. But their last two albums and tours have demonstrated a level of maturity in terms of how political issues are addressed. 2001’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind and their most recent release, 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, along with Bono’s activism on behalf of Third World debt relief and issues affecting Africa, have brought together believers and unbelievers, conservatives and liberals, evangelicals and mainliners to make a difference for the least of these.

U2 has never fallen into the trap that plagues so many more explicitly “Christian bands”—the need to explain the “one true meaning” of their songs, just to make sure the audience gets it. Bono spoke to the audience often during the show last Saturday, but no one felt preached to.

A U2 show is what church should be because it challenges people to think and act without talking down to them and without watering down the message. It meets people where they are but doesn’t leave them there.

The lobbies of the American Airlines Center were filled with the typical lines of people waiting to buy everything from hot dogs to t-shirts. But there were also volunteers at tables passing out literature and getting concertgoers to sign petitions for the ONE Campaign, an umbrella organization so diverse that two of its principle spokesmen, George Clooney and Pat Robertson, have appeared together with Bono on ABC’s “Nightline” to promote the cause.

One of the show’s high points was when a fan threw what appeared to be a white towel on stage. Bono wore it as a headband as the band performed blistering renditions of “Love and Peace or Else,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Bullet the Blue Sky.” Written in large black letters on Bono’s headband and clearly visible to the crowd of 20,000 was the word “CoeXisT.”  The “C” was in the shape of the crescent moon of Islam, the “X” was the Star of David of Judaism and the “T” was in the shape of the cross.

As Bono pulled a 9-year-old boy out of the crowd and on stage, he reminded the audience that, “We are all sons of Abraham. This little boy will only have a future if we remember that.”

A U2 standard that’s played toward the end of each show (at the end of the first of three encores this past Saturday) is the anthemic song “One.” The last verse of the song says it best:

One love, one blood, one life, you got to do what you should.
One life with each other: sisters, brothers.
One life, but we’re not the same.
We get to carry each other, carry each other.
One, one.

The third encore and last three songs of the night were “All Because of You (I AM),” “Yahweh” and “40.”  And with that closing benediction, the band left the stage … and the congregation went forth to serve.

Tim Adams is a former pastor and freelance writer from San Antonio, Texas.

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