Let Us Pray, Drum and YouTube

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Let Us Pray, Drum and YouTube

“Let us pray, drum and YouTube.”

So went the recent headline in the London Telegraph.

According to Religious Affairs Correspondent Jonathan Wynne-Jones, “Christian services that feature DJs, songs by the Irish band U2 and prayers for the chief executives of Google and Wal-Mart are being promoted by the Church of England.”  Initiated by Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to appeal to the younger generation, the ideas aim to increase church attendance with more relevant and exciting services.

With only 7% of the country “churched,” one can appreciate the attempt.

One Holy Communion service begins with the congregation being shown a video clip from YouTube about a United Nations anti-poverty campaign.  Once worshippers are told that “our planet is messed up” and that “things are not right,” they are encouraged to approach the altar and rub sea salt on their fingers to represent tears before walking around and meditating at eight “prayer stations” representing themes such as “gender equality” and “environmental sustainability.”

A psalm is recited in “beat poetry” style, accompanied by African Djembe drums, as prayers are said “for the corporate world, for influential CEOs who oversee billion-dollar industries.”  Because of their “commitments to justice,” John Chambers of Cisco Systems, Bill Gates of Microsoft, Eric Schmidt of Google, and H. Lee Scott, Jr., of Wal-Mart are included.

There are “U2charists” which are services in which the congregation receives communion but sings the songs of U2 instead of hymns, including Mysterious Ways, One, and I Still haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.

There is also an event called “Transcendence” in which traditional Latin chant is set by DJs to hip hop or ambient dance music.

Before you assess such efforts on the grounds of whether they are walking across a needed bridge into a fallen culture, or stepping off a cliff into cultural compromise, consider making your assessment from a different angle.

Does the Church of England know why they are doing these things?

This is not only a pressing question for the Archbishop, but for every church leader as they grapple with mission, strategy, and method in light of reaching out to an increasingly post-Christian culture.  There is a myth that churches are successful because they do certain things; in truth, churches are successful because they know why they do certain things.  In other words, there is a clear missional target on the wall.

This is why the most effective churches lead the way for innovation, and those who borrow their innovations get frustrated when the church they copied drops what they copied for something even more innovative.   

This is far from original with me.

Bestselling business author Jim Collins, whose previous works Built to Last and Good to Great charted how the mighty rose, has recently come out with a book titled How the Mighty Fall.  What perplexed his naturally curious mind was a simple but profound question:  If you were in organizational decline, what would be the signs?  What made the question more pressing was Collin’s early sense, later confirmed through his research, that decline is analogous to a disease, perhaps like a cancer, that can grow on the inside while you still look strong and healthy on the outside.

He calls it “the silent creep of impending doom.”

One of the earliest signs is companies saying “We’re successful because we do these specific things,” as opposed to the more penetrating understanding and insight:  “We’re successful because we understand why we do these specific things and under what conditions they would not longer work.”

This is the foundation for any and all innovation; otherwise you are simply gathering an assortment of tactics independent of a mission.  Biblical fidelity is, hopefully, a given, but once you are confident you are working within those parameters, you must then determine why it is you do anything:  What is the foundational nature of your mission?  What are you trying to accomplish?  Who are you trying to reach?  

If you know why you are doing something, you know whether it is effective, and are quick to discard things that no longer work.  If you are attempting to evangelize the unchurched, you are not attracted to any and all innovation, or even innovation that may reflect the culture of the unchurched; instead, you are after innovation that is effective at evangelizing the unchurched.  

I have never experienced a “U2charist.”  I have no idea whether it is an effective bridge into the culture that presents the message of the sacrament in ways that transform lives through a fresh confrontation with the claims of Christ.  Or whether it is “pointless,” “shallow,” and “embarrassing” (as suggested by its critics).

But I do know that the answer for the Church of England, or any other church, is not simply the incorporation of the music of U2.

It is the Church of England, and any other church, knowing why they would be interested in music at all.  

Then we can determine whether it should be U2.

James Emery White


“Let us pray, drum and YouTube,” Jonathan Wynne-Jones, The Sunday Telegraph, June 14, 2009, p. 14.

Jim Collins, How the Mighty Fall (New York: Harper Collins, 2009).


Let Us Pray, Drum and YouTube