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.