A BBC News report on Monday, described the One Love Manchester concert as “a night of unity, healing and joy.”
It certainly felt like a deeply spiritual experience as we watched the television coverage at home. There were so many Godly characteristics and truths on display. What struck me most as I watched, was that 50,000 people would so willingly take part in and agree with what in so many ways were deeply Christian principles. The feeling of being in God’s presence evoked in me as I watched, was so like experiences I have had in church worship services. I couldn’t help wondering if this concert was a great expression of faith in the God I know, without many of the people there realising that the God they think they don’t believe in, stood with them. And it reminded me of the pioneer’s challenge to speak God into places where He has yet to be named.
Krish Kandiah has beaten me to it in terms of publishing his thoughts about the spiritual content of the concert. You can read his article here https://www.premierchristianity.com/Blog/6-hope-filled-ways-God-was-centre-stage-at-the-Manchester-benefit-gig but there are other observations I would like to make and questions I would like to raise.
2 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2 NIV
The sense of love, unity and equality at the One Love concert was palpable. Policemen and security guards were seen dancing and jumping with children as people of different ages, sexualities and backgrounds united in their shared grief and defiance against evil and celebration of love.
BBC news reported a couple of the survivors of the Manchester bombing who were at the concert saying,
“Everyone was so close, even if they didn’t know each other…It felt like everybody at the show had come together as a family.”
When Ariana Grande, held schoolgirl soloist Natasha Seth’s hand and hugged her tight as the emotion of the evening overtook, all I could see in my mind was my 14-year-old daughter, Hannah, and another young lady (like Ariana, also in her early 20s) who looks out for my daughter and helps her when she’s sad or anxious about life.
I wonder why we probably wouldn’t quickly call the first picture church, but the second picture, taken in a Methodist chapel not a sports stadium, would easily be classed as a strong image of what a church youth group should stand for? Are these not both pictures of God’s love at work in people’s hearts? Are these not both pictures of people carrying each other’s burdens and in this way fulfilling the law of Christ?
Belonging and Brokenness
“You’ve kept track of my every toss and turn through the sleepless nights, Each tear entered in your ledger, each ache written in your book.” Psalm 56:8 MSG
One Love Manchester gave people the opportunity to sit in the brokenness together, in a safe and loving atmosphere without any pressure to ‘fix it.’ There was so much honesty on display. Visible emotion and expressions of pain were allowed and respected. You didn’t have to have it altogether or pretend that the concert was making everything fine. There was very little stiff upper lip here.
There was solidarity and empathy and love amid the grief. Why haven’t I seen as much of that in church as I would have liked to? Why do people so often feel they should leave the worship space if they cry? Why don’t we know what to say to each other when that happens?
Why have I often felt the obligation in church to ‘stick a geranium in my hat and be happy!’ How we deal with mental health in church environments is a whole other topic, but at One Love Manchester, those at risk of post-traumatic stress symptoms were given a healthy outlet. And God was at work.
Awareness of Mortality and Belief in an Afterlife
“But though God has planted eternity in the hearts of men, even so, many cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.” Ecclesiastes 3:11 Living Bible
The people at the concert were surely keenly aware of the vulnerability and brevity of life. For those who had attended the previous concert at Manchester Arena thoughts that it could so easily have been themselves that were killed must have been high in their minds.
People in the audience held up cards saying, “For our Angels” referring to the 22 individuals who died in the bombing. These placards, Robbie William’s choice to sing his hit song, “Angels” and Ariana’s emotional rendition of her closing song of the night, “Somewhere over the Rainbow” were just some of the demonstrations of a corporate belief that loved ones live on somewhere else after death.
“But I will restore you to health and heal your wounds,’ declares the Lord…” Jeremiah 30:17 NIV
One of my daughter Hannah’s friends and her mum were at the bombing but thankfully escaped unscathed. As I watched One Love Manchester at home, I wondered how they were feeling as they faced the challenge of being at a concert amongst so many people again so soon. But as I watched, I saw how the positive and loving atmosphere was imprinting a positive, more recent memory to help heal their previous memory of an ominous loud bang at the end of a performance.
Hannah’s friend and her mum leaving the refuge centre the morning after the bombing. (This photo was used widely in the national press at the time.)
Hannah’s friend and her mum at One Love Manchester.
As the penultimate song at One Love Manchester, Ariana sang her hit “One Last Time”; a song she had sung as her encore just before the bomb went off at Manchester Arena. I’m sure that the sound of that song would have brought back difficult memories for many but to sing it again in a hopeful, loving context must have taken some of the power out of it. This is no easy fix. The work of grieving will go on. But the restoration and healing power of God was at work. This was beauty coming out of brokenness. This was redemption in action in public and plain sight.
Justin Bieber took on the sermon saying, “God is good in the midst of darkness. God is good in the midst of the evil. God is in the midst no matter what is happening in the world. God is in the midst and he loves you and he’s here for you.”
We may hold hands or hug other people in church as we say ‘the grace’ or in the Anglican tradition, share ‘the peace’. At the concert, Katy Perry asked the crowd to reach out and touch the person next to them and said, “Love conquers fear and love conquers hate. And this love that you choose will give you strength, and it’s our greatest power.”
Intercessory prayer was led by the Black-Eyed Peas performing their hit song ‘Where is the love?’
“People killing, people dying, children hurt and you hear them crying Can you practice what you preach? Or would you turn the other cheek? Father, Father, Father help us, send some guidance from above. These people got me, got me questioning, where is the love?”
Doubt and Questioning
Steve Aisthorpe notes that many Christians who have left the local church speak of “their frustration or disappointment with churches which neither encouraged or facilitated their doubts and questions” (p66 The Invisible Church, Steve Aisthorpe.)
But doubt and questioning stood alongside faith and hope at One Love Manchester. While Miley Cyrus sang, “How can we escape, all the fear, all the hate? Is anyone watching us down here?” there were people in the crowd wearing t-shirts declaring that good conquers evil, love is greater than hate. They were comfortable with the questioning and the paradox.
A popular church worship song by Rend Collective, includes the lyrics:
“Set your church on fire, win this nation back, change the atmosphere, build your kingdom here… We are Your church; we are the hope on earth”
And with my sometimes, I confess, cynical heart I wonder if what we’re really asking God to do when we sing “change the atmosphere” is ‘make everyone else come and join our version of church please’.
I was brought up in a conservative evangelical environment and the implication always seemed to be, that people who had prayed ‘the prayer of salvation’ had the monopoly on doing good. It bothers me that when we sing that “we are the church, we are the hope on earth” we’re not recognising God at work in those who do not believe the same things as us or practice their faith in the same way as us. One of the reasons I have left much of my conservative theological position behind is because, over time, I have seen a surprising amount of good, loving and godly actions coming out of people who rarely go to church or have a language for their beliefs and practices. At the same time I have also seen a devastating amount of pain caused by the actions of those who would class themselves ‘saved’ or ‘church members’.
An atmosphere of fear and violence in Manchester was certainly changed to one of hope and love at the concert. It was evident that the God of hope was filling that crowd with joy and peace, and that by the power of the Holy Spirit they were beginning to abound in hope.
And so my key question remains, why were 50000 people more than willing to stand and align themselves with clearly Christian values and beliefs so comfortably in this context and yet church attendance continues to decline? One Love Manchester shows me that the world wants what the church says we have to offer but they either don’t know we’re there; or we’re not actually offering what we say we are; or we are not reaching people in a way that feels relevant to them.
To badly quote Rend Collective, on Sunday 4th June 2017, the church was not the hope on earth, One Love Manchester was.