The church, U2 and Taylor Swift

January 6th, 2015

Back in September, U2 released its new album digitally to all iTunes Store customers at no cost. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time. If you're Apple, why not accompany the announcement of your new iPhone by giving away the world's biggest rock band (arguably) for free? And if you're U2, why not reach new and younger fans by coupling with the unveiling of the iPhone 6? More people hearing your music is never a bad thing.

Except everything went wrong. Oh, so wrong. The majority of the backlash (and there was lots of it) was over how the free album was given: It was automatically uploaded to everyone's iTunes accounts whether they wanted it or not. Things got so bad, Apple not only had to release a program to remove the U2 album, they also had to upload a webpage whose sole purpose was to provide step-by-step instructions on how get rid of it. Apple released a statement claiming that 33 million people had "experienced" the U2 album, meaning that they had listened to some or all of it. Apple says it has 500 million iTunes customers. 33 million is a lot of people, but that's only 6.7% of Apple's iTunes customers who gave the album a whirl.

Perhaps U2 thought they could rely on their fame, their history, their previous record sales, their prominence, their aura, Bono's personality — to woo new and younger fans. But both Apple and U2 miscalculated. One critic wrote that U2 album's was worse than any kind of spam.

Maybe it's because people younger than me have no idea who U2 is and U2 isn't doing much to be known by younger fans. They seem distant and unapproachable. And with this misstep, they also seem out of touch. They don't seem as cool as they once were.

What it really felt like, for me a U2 fan, was the middle aged man wearing Ed Hardy shirts and saying things like "cray cray" or "YOLO" — basically trying way too hard to be "hip" — and failing.

There was another album that was released in October that became the best selling album of 2014: “1989” by Taylor Swift. According to NPR, no album released in 2014 sold over a million copies. Swift did it in one week. And according to SoundScan, which started tracking weekly albums sales in 1991, there have been a total of 19 albums to sell over a million copies within their debut weeks. Three of Taylor's albums are on that list, all since 2010.

Turns out Taylor tries very hard to remain personable and approachable. In anticipation of the release of “1989,” she invited loyal fans to her various homes throughout the country (and the U.K.) — even picked them up on a bus — to have a listening party for “1989.” She baked cookies for them, danced with them and posed for pictures with them. There are countless stories out there of Taylor interacting personally and personably with her fans. And the fans continue to respond to her; the numbers prove that.

And while Bono and U2 do great things for humanity, they never seem approachable. They seem like the rock gods that you should worship and revere — from afar.

I bring this up because I often feel the local church being more like U2 than Taylor. Sometimes we embarrassingly try to imitate the "cool" things that the local megachurch or young folks do. But it never feels authentic.

And two things: First, by trying to be "cool," we end up being far from it and two, we shouldn't really be in the business of being cool and hip. The gospel is irresistible not because it's cool but because it offers life. But what we can't do is just sit around and assume people will realize they need the church and they need to hear the gospel and just come to church on their own. We can't just rely on our history, our tradition, our (possibly waning) role and influence in our community and/or the personality of our pastor/staff (to name a few). Doing so makes us seem aloof, distant and unapproachable.

While I really hesitated comparing U2 and Taylor Swift to the church (I also hate myself for comparing U2 to Taylor Swift), the one thing that I can't deny about Taylor is she really tries to reach out to her fans. U2 often feels like they're too big to do that. Good and strong relationships are catalysts for health and growth (and record sales, if you're Ms. Swift).

Many of our churches do have good and strong relationships — but only with folks within the walls of the church building. We'd be more effective if we became less isolated and more willing to integrate ourselves with our neighbors. That may mean that we drop all of our pretentious notions of who belongs and who does not and that we strive to be good and loving neighbors to everyone, even if the favor is never returned; it may mean that we make ourselves vulnerable by taking a risk in love and reaching out. For me, Jesus always seemed approachable — no matter where you found yourself in life. Even more, it was Jesus who approached those in need.

I think it would be wise for us to do the same.

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