If a small, non-denominational, charismatic Christian church in Dublin had their way 31 years ago, U2 would now be a forgotten, long-defunct band.
During the very early years of U2 Bono (Paul Hewson), The Edge (David Evans), and Larry Mullen Jr. were members of the Shalom Fellowship. Adam Clayton remained a steadfast agnostic. One story goes that they met a member of Shalom in a Dublin McDonald’s where he was reading the Bible and being yelled at by a Hare Krishna devotee. The three musicians attended Bible study, fellowship meetings and revivals at the church, while working on their music.
There were many similar nondenominational groups in Ireland in the early ‘80s, and they were an attractive alternative to the Catholic-Protestant sectarian tension present in many communities and families (like Bono’s own). They strongly resembled the shepherding-discipleship groups like Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) that have evangelized on American college campuses for decades.
At some point during the recording of the band’s second album October a member of the Shalom Fellowship claimed to have had a prophetic vision from God about the band. God wanted the boys to give up the band as a sacrifice to Him and leave rock music altogether.
About half of the congregation, including, not surprisingly, pastor Chris Row, believed the vision and began pressuring the boys to submit to God’s supposed will. The other half didn’t believe that the vision was real and urged them to keep playing.
Although Bono, Mullen, and the Edge weren’t convinced about the prophecy, it still rattled them enough to make them doubt themselves. Bono and The Edge took a two week break from the band between tours to consider the matter.
The Edge later told journalist Bill Flanagan (quoted in One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God by Christian Scharen):
We were getting a lot of people in our ear saying: “This is impossible, you guys are Christians. You can’t be in a band. It’s a contradiction and you have to go one way or the other.’ Okay, it’s a contradiction for some, but it’s a contradiction I’m able to live with.
Bono was the first to return to the band. The Edge took more persuasion from the other band members and manager Paul McGuiness before he accepted that he could live a committed Christian life and still be in a band. Bono, the Edge and Mullen left the church in 1982, turned their backs on organized religion and carried on with U2. Despite hounding the three young men out of his congregation and accusing them of choosing rock and roll over the Bible, Reverent Row was nonetheless flown to Los Angeles to officiate at the wedding ceremony of Bono and his long-time girlfriend Alison Stewart in 1982
Bono told Beliefnet:
I often wonder if religion is the enemy of God. It’s almost like religion is what happens when the spirit has left the building.
Even today Christian leaders can’t figure out what to think of the band. They are torn between denouncing them as dangerous, liberal, fraudulent non-Christians (despite frankly spiritual lyrics and oh, thirty years of good deeds) or embracing Bono as a worship leader whose lyrics youth pastors should quote.
Christian blogger Cameron Hill said in his “Lauryn Hill Sings the Gospel” essay:
Imagine how much more impact [U2] would have had their church chosen to embrace them instead of reject them… They were forced to choose between the wishes of their sincere, yet misguided, congregation, and the passion that God put in their hearts to make music that would change the world. They chose the latter, and their church shunned them.
A young U2 playing “October” in West Berlin in 1981, below: