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Woodstock, U2, and Sunday Worship

by Rick Chromey

Have you ever wondered how we got here?

Next Sunday, look around at the “concert.”  We’ve got worship pastors, bands, and backup singers.  We’ve got dark “houses” and lighted stages with lyrics projected on giant screens where audiences stand on cue to neatly planned and timed worship sets.

So how did we get here?  The answer might surprise.

The big bang of “concert culture” detonated February 9, 1964.  That’s when the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan to a viewing audience of 73 million people (mostly Boomers).  Soon the Liverpool lads were selling out American stadiums everywhere.  Five years later in upstate New York, a half million people gathered to experience Woodstock.  Thanks to the mammoth speakers, masses, and muck, it was standing room only.

Gen X was the first purely television generation.  So it’s not surprising Xers gravitated toward visual media, whether it was KISS theatrics, album art, or music videos.  Video truly killed the radio star. Michael Jackson proved an MTV thriller, but when U2 debuted ZooTV—a cornucopia of concert eye candy—another shift happened. U2 found what everyone was looking for: visual spiritual experiences.  So Bono preached, the band played, the giant screens blared, and nobody sat down.  This was better than church.

Consequently, Millennials dined upon audiovisual buffets: downloadable personalized playlists (sometimes unplugged); super-sized concerts; and open-sourced, multicultural, morally diverse tunes.  The “Selfie Generation” added one more twist: they tweeted, posted, and snapchatted concert experiences via social media.  Their world was flat and f-a-t:  fluid, accessible, and temporary (just like the “cloud” Millennials stored their stuff in).

For the past half century, church worship has dramatically evolved.  Anyone over 50 can recall steeple bells, hardback pews, hymnals, and responsive readings.  In my home church worship leaders were volunteer, organists were highly desired, and everyone sang in parts.  There were no sound systems, screens, or fog machines.  Most of the time we worshipped seated, quiet, and reverent in the “sanctuary.”

But that church is a dinosaur.

Today’s worship plays more like Woodstock or ZooTV or Snapchat.  I’ll let you debate the merits of such changes, but would offer these observations:

  1. Change happens. I remember well the worship wars of the 1980s.  Perhaps your church is still fighting them.  When the Boom “Jesus Movement” generation unleashed a new catalog of worship songs, it was only natural to sing them in church (using slide and overhead projectors).  Unfortunately, the older generations fiercely favored hymns.  Many churches answered with split services (traditional and contemporary).  Others just split.  Eventually Boomers won the war and the stage.  The problem now?  Woodstock worship is failing to engage younger generations.  Change is whistling…again.
  1. Experiences matter. It’s tragic that the least experiential place on the planet is Sunday morning church.  In a sensory-saturated culture where “eye-deas” abound and visual experiences dominate, the Church has lost traction.  Now I’m not saying church should look or feel like a U2 concert, but let’s not forget worship is a verb and more than just a song.  As Bono rightly sings:  “let me in the sound!”
  1. Relationships rule. A concert culture embraces interactivity.  They want to rub shoulders, high-five, mosh, and dance.  Our worship gatherings should be rich in relationships, soaked in interactive moments, and seasoned with friendship opportunities.  A primary reason people go to church?  Their friends.  A primary reason they don’t?  No friends.  If we must stand, let’s at least stand together.

A survey of recent music history reveals how we got the Sunday morning “concert.”  It’s why we stand to sing from screens and have bands, sound systems, and lights.

It’s really how we got here.


But now where do we go?

5 thoughts on “Woodstock, U2, and Sunday Worship

  1. Wow! I don’t know where to begin. You have relegated and resigned the most sacred expression of the church gathered, corporate worship, to the whims of culture. Not once did you mention the goal of worship. Not once did you mention the object of worship. Why would someone who is looking for a concert experience come to something inferior compared to U2, which is what the large majority of the churches in the US can offer?
    There is no longer any distinction between culture and church. We all should counstantly remind ourselves of those basic Biblical principles that govern who the church is and what it does when it is gathered. Seek out Scripture – isn’t this what should influence our worship, not culture?

    • Mark, thank you for your comment. And I wholeheartedly agree with you, friend. Sometimes when you are under deadline and word count, your words (as a writer) can sound hollow, incomplete and, consequently, can be misinterpreted. I fear that’s the case here.

      You are completely correct that the REASON we gather, corporately, as the Church is to celebrate, praise, appreciate and seek the One Who loves us and gives us Life. Personally, I believe the DNA of our worship gatherings is found in Acts 2:42. It describes a Church that gathered to learn the Apostle’s doctrine (discipleship), enjoy community (fellowship), pray and celebrate the Eucharist/Lords’ Supper (breaking of bread) through worship. Implied within this template is music and corporate songs, as we know this was a part of their gatherings, because Jesus modeled it (Matthew 26:30) and the early church employed it (I Cor 14:26; Eph 5:19; Col 3:16).

      The point of my blog was to show how the Church has recently shifted from a modern congregational hymn experience to a postmodern concert experience (especially in evangelical and megachurch expressions). I like to look at WHY something happens, not just HOW it happens. There is no doubt that we have a “concert” mentality in many churches today. And as I reflected on the history of Christian worship, particularly in the past 50 years, I exegeted culture to give a possible reason. That’s what I was speaking to. That was the point of my post. Ideally, I believe Christianity and the Church should LEAD culture, but in general, it has tended to imitate, mirror and model it. It is what it is.

      Nevertheless, I still want to thank you for reminding all of us who strive to “refresh the Church” that the “goal of worship” is a connection and communal experience with the Living God. We have much to celebrate, praise, appreciate and seek every Sunday morning (or whenever we gather to “church”).

  2. Appreciate your observations, Rick. Yet unlike other so-called dead & extinct by-gones, the church is alive – even the so-call dinosaur. A lot has changed, yet worshiping God, serving the community & enriching relationships broadly with Christ’s love extends far beyond a band-groupie “relationship nurtured in a church concert”. Perhaps the church at large has a harder time remembering that we don’t produce worship; it flows from our God who’s a seeking Father, a Present Son & Moving Spirit who enliven worship to pour out (gush forth) before the Holy Majesty.

    • Carl, thanks for writing and reading! Let me be clear. I never said the Church was a “dinosaur” but I do believe there’s enough evidence to state some expressions or wineskins have certainly seen their day. And I completely agree with you that “we don’t produce worship.”

      I wrote this piece as a way of understanding WHY and HOW we got to where we’re at. Every year, as part of my consultation and training work, I attend many different churches of different types and stripes (last Sunday I experienced a Roman Catholic mass). Like many others, I have seen Sunday morning worship become a concert event. One of my grad students (who was an associate pastor in one of America’s largest churches) said it even better: “It’s just a concert and a TedTalk every Sunday.”

      As I mentioned to another commenter, my words and thoughts in this particular piece are limited by word counts and deadlines. Perhaps I should’ve let it simmer a bit more, but even now as I re-read it, I’m comfortable with the questions, doubts and even criticisms it creates. Many church analysts struggle with the “concert and TedTalk” model, even though it was wildly successful with the Boomer generation in the 80s and 90s. I’m simply showing why this model was adopted and assimilated.

      The Boom, Gen X and Millennial have grown up in a “concert culture.” From Woodstock to stadium rock to U2, the Church has adopted and assimilated these tendencies, whether it’s a sound system or lighting scheme or video screen or a full band. That’s my overall analysis and general point.

      Thanks again for reading and writing, Carl. I pray blessings upon your ministry and church.

  3. Sam Loveall

    Rick, I believe you decided on your goal for this essay, and you hit it. Well done. Not every piece of writing about worship has to be a complete treatise on the theological nature and proper definitions of church worship. It would be tedious to read the same article again and again.

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Woodstock, U2, and Sunday Worship

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