September 18, 2018

Adam Palmer: How Liturgy Saved My Faith

How Liturgy Saved My Faith
by Adam Palmer

Here’s what you need to know about me: I was raised by Charismatic parents in a Charismatic church. The first Bible I ever bought for myself was the Spirit-Filled Life Bible, one that had an emphasis on all the scriptures that had to do with the gifts of the Holy Spirit and that had commentary from then-famous Charismatic preachers, often about how the Holy Spirit wanted to “have His way” among gathered believers.

In the church where I grew up, the order of service was tolerated as a suggestion, and if the Holy Spirit ever saw fit to disrupt that order, then all the better. That was always the unstated goal every Sunday morning, every Sunday evening, and every Wednesday night: make room for the Holy Spirit to “take over.”

I can’t count the number of times my small congregation would sing the same chorus over and over as the service gave way to spontaneous prayer for 10, 20, 30, 45 minutes. Or the number of times I would secretly hope to hear these words from our pastor: “Well, I was going to preach, but I guess the Holy Spirit had other plans, so I’ll have to save that sermon for another time.” I just couldn’t do a 45-minute sermon after all that Holy Spirit movement—after all, it was lunchtime.

My Charismatic upbringing led to a stint upon graduation at a Charismatic Christian university where our twice-weekly chapel services were often “interrupted” by a move of the Holy Spirit. I recall a specific instance where the hour-long service ran into a second and then third hour. I remember because I sat there, completely unaffected by the move of the Holy Spirit happening around me. Where once I would’ve lapped it up, would’ve participated with gusto and enthusiasm, I just sat, stone-still, thinking, “I must be some kind of sinner.”

In adulthood I shifted to a Spirit-filled megachurch that had less of an emphasis on the Holy Spirit and more on the authority of the preaching; I got married and my wife and I started leading worship in various contexts. From there we moved once more and spent more than a decade at a non-denominational, Spirit-filled church that was perpetually crouched in preparation to pounce at the slightest movement of the Holy Spirit.

I mostly loved it all. I had life-giving relationships in all these stops. I learned about Jesus and deepened my faith. Times weren’t all rosy, and there were reasons I wound up leaving these various churches, but as I look back, I can see various ways that God brought life, health, and vitality to me in the midst of them.

But I can also see how my faith became less about practice and more about a constant search for an emotional high. If I didn’t get that—if I didn’t feel the presence of the Lord on a Sunday morning—then I hadn’t “had church.”

As our musical opportunities grew and my wife and I began leading worship more, we put together a thick binder of all the songs we regularly sang at our church. And in the seasons when my cynicism sprouted and grew, I would jokingly refer to it as our “Big Book of Spells and Incantations for Summoning the Presence of God.” It sure felt like that, anyway.

Though I heard over and over that God had a created a beautifully ordered universe, my Sunday morning experiences were all about disrupting order as proof of a Real Encounter with the Lord. If someone on the pastoral staff wasn’t stepping on stage in the middle of a song with “a word” or if there wasn’t a time of prayer and healing at the end of the service, then we hadn’t truly “entered in.” I knew a service was authentic if I kept giving the “repeat” motion to the band so we could head into the bridge of “From The Inside Out” for the fourteenth time.

I spent some twenty years’ worth of church services oscillating from the hands-off “I must be some kind of sinner because I’m not feeling anything” to the hands-up “I need to try harder to feel something” to the hands-free “I’m feeling every possible feeling right now” and back around. And my faith suffered as a result. My life was chaotic already; I didn’t need the place where I was supposed to find peace to purposefully seek out Spirit-authored chaos, too.

And then along came liturgy.

My wife and I were in the running for a worship job with a Spirit-filled church that had gotten on the new wave of “neo-liturgical” churches that has begun to crest in the past few years. It’s a non-denominational church that incorporates aspects of liturgy to create order, to orient the weekly service in the context of the long line of weekly services that have been held before it for two thousand years.

We visited to check the place out. I’d always heard that liturgical churches were “dead,” but it’d been years’ worth of Sunday mornings since I’d felt this alive. We said the creeds together. We heard scripture proclaimed by someone who wasn’t paid to be there. We didn’t just greet people in the midst of service, we said and received a blessing of grace and peace. We participated in a responsive and collective prayer. We took communion, and it wasn’t even a Fifth Sunday!

And then we went back the next week and did all those things again (the repeated communion really threw me for a loop—I hadn’t ever taken communion on consecutive Sundays in my life). And then the next week, we did them again.

I started to feel at ease. I was always able to orient myself in the service. And the Holy Spirit ministered to me in the midst of it—He was in the words of the creeds, alive in ways I’d never known Him. He was in the handshake and the blessing of grace and peace. He was tangible in the bread and the cup that I took at the end of the service (after the preaching!).

It was a unique experience and for awhile it was fresh and new. Since then, that high has worn off but my faith has remained grounded, perhaps more than it’s ever been. I can’t imagine ever going back to disorder.

I am grateful for my upbringing and my history with the Charismatic church. I love the Holy Spirit. I still believe in the Holy Spirit (and I say as much every week when I say the Nicene Creed!). It shaped me and contributed to who I am today. I know plenty of people—some who are lifelong friends—who thrive in Interrupted Order churches.

But the structure of liturgy gave me a lifeline. Now, no matter how I feel when I arrive on Sunday morning, I know I’m going to confess my sin and receive absolution, I know I’m going to confess what I believe alongside my fellow believers, I know I’m going to pass and receive peace, and I know I’m going to partake of the body and blood of Christ at the table, surrounded by a community of believers. And I know the Holy Spirit is present in all those plans. And He is using the order and structure to change me, bit by bit, into something more like Him.

Comments

  1. Alan Morris says:

    Thanks for that Adam. I spent the first 10 years of my walk with God in the charismatic renewal in Denver. From 1969-80. It was then that I met an Episcopal Priest in a small mountain town, who introduced me to Liturgy and the historic church. And, ya know what I fell in Love with? It had history. I had spent the last 10 years in the company of those who were in the business of inventing everything we did from scratch. And, often that recipe didn’t bake up all that well. It blew me away to learn that we weren’t the first or the best. I was actually a small part of a great and historic worship and there was solid ground beneath my feet. Something that I could build upon.

    • Adam Palmer says:

      I didn’t have room for it in this piece, but I spent a good two years in the Episcopal church in the recent past, and it was extremely formative and informative for the beginnings of my understanding of the legacy of which I am a part.

  2. Damaris says:

    Well written and compelling, Adam — thanks. I hope your church continues to be a place of order and peace. I find liturgy to be like a leash, dragging my disobedient-beagle-mind back again and again to the Gospel.

  3. “Now, no matter how I feel when I arrive on Sunday morning, I know I’m going to confess my sin and receive absolution, I know I’m going to confess what I believe alongside my fellow believers, I know I’m going to pass and receive peace, and I know I’m going to partake of the body and blood of Christ at the table, surrounded by a community of believers. And I know the Holy Spirit is present in all those plans.”

    That pretty well sums it up. 🙂

  4. Rick Ro. says:

    Good to hear from you again, Adam, and thanks for sharing a glimpse of your personal journey. I’ve always kinda assumed most liturgical services were, as you once believed, “dead,” but during my own spiritual desert journey I found my evangelical Protestant church just as dead, especially in light of how everyone around me seemed filled with the Spirit while I wasn’t feeling a thing. That God/Spirit absence only seemed to compound my desert experience. During my desert journey, a children’s pastor was hired who had a great background in Jewish and Protestant tradition. He helped me see the reason for and the value in certain rituals and liturgical elements, and I saw them in a new light. Liturgy has a danger of becoming “dead,” yes, but only if it’s never explained to those who participate.

    He has since moved on. I’m still at the same church and still have my desert moments, and because of him (and articles like this) I wish we mixed some liturgical elements into our services, for many of the reasons that you find them valuable.

    Again, great to hear from you!

    • Adam Palmer says:

      Thank you for the kind words and for sharing your perspective. And yes, I agree that the liturgy explained is extremely powerful. I am a process kind of person and I love not just knowing WHAT we do but WHY we do it. It really opens things up when I can participate in the WHY.

  5. senecagriggs says:

    I attended an Anglican Church for a couple years not all that long ago [ they died – pastor/deacon conflicts]. I did enjoy the liturgical aspects.

    As an Evangelical, I’m sorry our services no longer sing the Doxology.

    Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
    Praise Him, all creatures here below;
    Praise Him above, ye heav’nly host;
    Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
    Amen

    • Rick Ro. says:

      I love the doxology, too, and wish we sang it every week!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        That was our entrance hymn this morning at St Boniface.
        All three verses.

        Though remember, we’re talking the Evangelical Circus here.
        “NO POPERY!”
        (Though with July 4th coming up, these days I half-expect the Evangelical version to go “Praise TRUMP From Whom All Blessings Flow…” Like the J.D.Rockefeller political cartoon that went “Praise Oil From Whom All Blessings Flow” but dead serious.)

    • Clay Crouch says:

      The Episcopal Church welcomes you!

      • Robert F says:

        But, but, but….liberal!!

        Clay, I could feel the breeze of the Spirit blowing this morning at my “liberal” ELCA parish, where there were only women, pastors, serving in the chancel. And what was the subject of the sermon? The miracles of Jesus as related in the second half of Mark 5.

        Oh, but “librul” Christians don’t believe in miracles!

        Oh, really???? Please….

  6. Liturgy = Deadness. That was what many of us came to believe and frankly it was not completely untrue and is not without truth as it applies to many today. Rote, repetitive expression can be heartless and mindless. On the other hand it can be liberating and healing. As always, it’s about what you bring.

    • Robert F says:

      Is it okay to bring nothing?

      • Rick Ro. says:

        As long as you’re willing to leave it! “I surrender all,” after all!!

        😉

        But in all seriosuness, I believe so, yes. Sometimes “nothing” is all many of us come with.

        One of my pastor’s used to say — and I LOATHED it in its passive/aggressiveness — “If you don’t feel close to God, guess who moved?!” Blah. I wanted to vomit every time he said it.

        • Robert F says:

          One should probably be aware of what one is coming with. It is easy for me to say that I come with nothing, but I admit that most (or perhaps all) of the time I’m carrying plenty of baggage, whether I’m able or willing to acknowledge it or not. “Know thyself and what thee bringeth (to the best of thy ability)” is probably the best way to go….

      • One thing only. Desire. You can have nothing, as in fact we all have nothing but like the man who said, “I believe, help my unbelief”, the only thing required is need and the recognition of it. If you’re going to services with no desire for anything then I would question, “Why bautha?”

        • Robert F says:

          One thing I always go to the Liturgy with is need(s), and the desire that that need (those needs) would be met. But, who doesn’t go to worship (to God) with the desire that their needs would be met? Are their really people who fail to do that?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      In my experience, Liturgy Provides Structure.

  7. Christiane says:

    I think of the liturgy as ‘the work of the people’ in that we pray TOGETHER and we often include prayers from the much earlier Church in our worship which connects us with members of the Body of Christ who have passed on.
    I find much beauty in the liturgy, and peacefulness. I like how it is structured to give meaning to the ‘Story’, the ‘whole’ Story.

    I like how the liturgy grounds us to the four Holy Gospels of Our Lord. Damaris explained it well.
    The repetition, the flow of the Church Year, all combines to give our people a familiarity with sacred Scripture that is so far from the notion that ‘c’atholics don’t ‘read the bible’. We are also, because of the Liturgical Calendar, able to see ‘connections’ in sacred Scripture: example is the reading of the prophet Isaiah prior to Christmas which ties in nicely with ALL of the Holy Gospels.

  8. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    I knew a service was authentic if I kept giving the “repeat” motion to the band so we could head into the bridge of “From The Inside Out” for the fourteenth time.

    All that’s missing is a sermon against “Vain Repetitions”…

  9. Robert F says:

    Nothing in traditional liturgical worship precludes experiencing and exhibiting strong emotion during worship — and nothing requires it as the only faithful response. Can the same be said for “Interrupted Order” worship?

  10. charlie says:

    Is it too late to comment?

    I have found liturgy extremely peaceful, love the structure, an d knowing what to expect is like being home…not that it’s comfortable, but it’s where the family gathers and the patterns are known.

    The other Sunday our pastor (ELCA) explained line by line through the program/liturgy why we do what we do – not an official Lutheran, so super helpful, and soooo meaningful …and soooooo different from evangelical services.

    Can it be dead? Yup.

    What i find fascinating is that evangelical churches are trying to integrate advent/lent in some way , and doing a crappy job of it.

    Thank you Adam !