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Kevin J. Adams on the Gospel in a Handshake

Kevin Adams explores the beautiful gifts of framing words for worship—the “conversation of worship”—that are lifegiving and engaging.

See all episodes in Season 5

Episode Transcript:

Kevin Adams 00:00:03

… are beautiful gifts that with a word or two of framing, a word of two or introduction on occasion can be really not only lifegiving but really engaging, and they are treasures worth not only keeping, but highlighting. So this book really is kind of a narrative story version of that pilgrimage, if you will, from one way of thinking about worship to the other. 

Kristen Verhulst 00:00:30

Welcome to season five of Public Worship and the Christian Life, a podcast produced by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. This season highlights the new Worship and Witness book series by CICW and published through Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf & Stock. The Worship and Witness series seeks to foster a rich interdisciplinary conversation on the theology and practice of public worship, a conversation that will be integrative and expansive. CICW staff member Noel Snyder, also one of the series editors, and Kristen Verhulst talk with the authors of the first seven books in this series. We are pleased you've joined us in this conversation, and we look forward to sharing this learning with you.

Hi, everyone. Welcome to the Public Worship and the Christian Life podcast. I'm Kristen Verhulst from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. My guest today is Kevin Adams, founding and senior pastor of Granite Springs Church in the greater Sacramento area. He's the author of Living Under Water: Baptism as a Way of Life, 150: Finding Your Stories in the Psalms, and The Gospel in a Handshake: Framing Worship for Mission. And that last book is going to be the topic of our conversation today. Kevin, thanks so much for joining me. 

Kevin Adams 00:02:06

Well, Kristen, thanks for having me. It's always a delight to be in conversation together. I appreciate it so much.  

Kristen Verhulst 00:02:12

You're welcome. So take us to the story behind your book. Why did you write it? 

Kevin Adams 00:02:18

Sure. Well, we began our church thirty-plus years ago, and in that era, and I think in some other areas of church history, frankly, people had this idea that to attract people or to connect with people, to be community with people of all different sorts of faith backgrounds and people with a lot of questions of Christianity, the Christian faith, you need to go outside the tried-and-true historic liturgy and do something—well, pick your word: innovative, creative, compelling, engaging, something like that. No one ever proved that that was true. No one ever wrote a white paper arguing that was true. It was sort of in the water and in the air people breathed, that if you wanted to have your congregation connect missionally with your neighbors, connect relationally, the tried-and-true historic liturgy wouldn't work because it had been tried and found wanting. Now, we over time found that to be not the case at all. That was kind of a false narrative, but it was a narrative that people kind of assumed. So over the first ten or twelve years of our church, for football fans, we ran what we'd call the West Coast Offense of Covenant Reformed, because that's our background, worship style, worship pattern and practice. But over time, we more and more realize these tried-and-true elements—the prayer of confession, the blessing at the end of a service, that call to worship, songs of assurance, words of assurance—are just the gospel in the handshake–passing the peace—are beautiful gifts that with a word or two of framing, a word of two or introduction on occasion can be really not only life giving but really engaging. And they are treasures worth not only keeping, but highlighting. So this book really is kind of a narrative story version of that pilgrimage, if you will, from one way of thinking about worship to the other. 

Kristen Verhulst 00:04:20

It's beautiful. Your book has been out now a couple of years, and actually, as I recall, came out right at the beginning of the pandemic.

Kevin Adams 00:04:29

So ironically, you have a book about handshakes when nobody can handshake anymore. It was not perfect timing, but that's the way it was, right? 

Kristen Verhulst 00:04:36

That's the way it goes. But what have you been hearing from those that have picked up the book and engaged it

Kevin Adams 00:04:43

Thanks for asking. It's been really a wonderful series of conversations. Whenever you write a book, it's a way of starting a conversation or continuing a conversation. It's been interesting and fulfilling and rewarding to continue the conversation. I've heard from lots of different people. I have a church planter friend in Nepal who said it was just the thing he was looking for for his church planting network. I have a friend who's a Presbyterian Church of America pastor who trains his worship leaders with it. I have a friend at Baylor who trains worship interns with it. I have a friend who's an Orthodox priest who engages with it in different ways. So the wide sweep of conversation has been really fulfilling and interesting. And people, at least when they're talking to me, have been very appreciative and very grateful. I have one friend who's part of an Anglican church planning network. He started in Vineyard, that was his background, and then he switched to Anglican. And as he's making that switch, and others kind of in his network are as well, they found themselves on a similar journey to what we found ourselves [on] and then were grateful for people who had written some of that down.

Kristen Verhulst 00:05:57

In the beginning and the dedication part of the book you write to your community, to your folks there at Granite Springs, ”Thanks for exploring the art of framing worship for mission.” Talk a little bit more about that, the art of framing worship for mission. 

Kevin Adams 00:06:17

Well, I'm from the Reformed tradition. And so one of our slogans, if you will, for hundreds of years is the Reformed church is always reforming. And another favorite slogan is we go to the founts, to the beginning, to the early church, and learn that wisdom. And one of the things we've tried to engage our congregation with is this conversation with people who have gone before us and this conversation with people around the world is, well, it is kind of an art. It's not a script that someone hands to us ahead of time. Even today's news, and last month's news, and this year's, and as you referred to COVID, that kind of shifts a little bit how we think about things or how we might, in the words of the book, frame things. So rather than saying this will be a script we'll use forever and always, it's been kind of the art of conversation of worship, knowing the treasures, being able to understand them, and then maybe say a word or two that really kind of highlights their beauty or their depth or their … Even to introduce, for instance, the Apostles’ Creed, the Apostles’ Creed has become so formal, it could feel so well put together; it took three hundred years to do that, of course. But those are really a series of answers to questions. So the art of that conversation is kind of what we're talking about. And I'm so grateful for a church that says, “Let's go on this journey together. We don't have to have it all figured out ahead of time.” And this art image gives us a way of entering in and exploring together without having to have all the answers ahead of time. 

Kristen Verhulst 00:08:02

Yeah. I wonder if it's very much like we say: We shape worship, and yet also we are shaped in the process of worshiping together, right? It both forms us and in planning and stuff, we are forming it, but there is a very much a give and take in that formation. 

Kevin Adams 00:08:24

I think that's so wisely said, Kristen, so wisely said. It makes me think of a Winston Churchill quote that says, We shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us. And that's for sure true of worship too, isn't it?  

Kristen Verhulst 00:08:49

And of course your community, I know just a little bit about it. But I do know that the psalms have been very formative for your church over the years. So I wonder if you could just talk a bit about how did that come to be in those early years? And then what has your congregation, your worshiping community found so compelling about praying, preaching, singing the psalms? 

Kevin Adams 00:09:14

Thanks for that. Well, again, just to confess maybe a little bit at the beginning, we didn't think the psalms could carry the freight of conversation in Northern California, the land of high-tech people and cutting-edge technology and cutting-edge innovation and that sort of stuff. We thought, how do those folks relate to a shepherd, “the Lord is my shepherd” and different images? But it turns out that Thomas Merton, this wonderful monastic author from the late forties all the way to the mid-sixties, one of the things he wrote about the psalms was “We can never be more sure we are praying with the Holy Spirit than when we pray the psalms,” which is a beautiful way to say—and he would further articulate that—the Psalms are already inspired by the Holy Spirit. So we know when we pray them, we are following the Holy Spirit's lead. We kind of live in one of the suburbs of the Sacramento area, one of them, and it's tempting to appear all together. I think church folks, even if they've only been at church for a week or two, have the sense they should be all together before they get in the church. But the psalms remind us that's not really true, and that doesn't need to be true. You can step in a conversation with all your questions, with all your doubts, with all your raw and ragged feelings, and the psalms have been helpful as a way to give people permission to feel what they feel. 

Just a few weeks ago, maybe it's a couple of months now, we had a couple that started to come to our church and we found them weeping at the end of the service. And as we got to know them, we realized their adult child had committed suicide just in the month or so before. I mean, what a terrible, terrible thing. But rather than have only cheerful songs to have, then, a diet … We have a weekly psalm that we engage in and a psalm that we sing every week. To have that be accessible to them in their kind of raw, upside down, terrible grief has been a gift to them. And that's, of course, one example. This past week, I was at a funeral for my sister-in-law, actually, and I was struck by the fact that her grandson, who was born just a few days after she passed, and her son and family, and her five-year-old grandchildren, and, and, and—all the generations as we surrounded her grave were engaging in Psalm 23. So it's like the beginning, and it's the end, and it's everything in between, the gift of the psalms, right? And so our church has been reveling in that as well.  

Kristen Verhulst 00:12:06

The psalms remind us that we can really engage the full set of emotions, that’s part of life, right? And it's also part of Christian life. So you're right. We don't have to show up all put together. And yet it does strike me, it does seem like in almost every psalm there is this moment, though, where it's the pivot, right? Like we despair or we're angry, and yet that pivot moment turns us to a God or to a community where we can find hope. 

Kevin Adams 00:12:41

Right. That's really true, Kristen. People estimate that if there are a hundred and fifty psalms, there are maybe fifty laments, which gives you a wide tapestry of lamenting. All but one or two make the turn. Psalm 88 is one of the two, maybe, that don't make the turn. The last word is “darkness,” which is an interesting way to end a prayer. So I'm grateful—I think we are all grateful—that most of them make the turn. But I'm also I think we're all grateful that one or two do not, because sometimes it feels like we're not quite ready to make that turn, and if we're in between, that's OK too. John Calvin, following others like the Bishop of Alexandria, was known for this. Athanasius talked about the anatomy of the human soul. All our emotions are in the psalms, and that turns out to be pretty true. Bono, even—so you have older folks from ages ago, and then Bono, a contemporary musician, finds it the same way. So it's just kind of interesting, isn't it?   

Kristen Verhulst 00:13:49

So for someone who is inspired to pick up your book, what might be a good way to engage it? Maybe you could talk a little bit about how you laid out the format of the book.  

Kevin Adams 00:14:01

The main part of the book is shaped as a conversation between someone who is maybe further down the experience of life, maybe a pastor or somebody like that, a lay leader who's been involved in the church a long time, with someone who's just entering leadership of a church worship and music community. So the conversation begins, and then there's some kind of connection between our story and the book that I kind of make a pitch, or the person who is the mentor makes a pitch, if you will, makes an argument or a case, or maybe a better way to say it gives an invitation, to try these old, old beautiful ways. And then the rest of the book is that conversation over a wide variety of subjects. It at some point follows the liturgical year. So I start with imagining this person took over the worship music ministry in September, and then by December we're ready to talk about the liturgical year, which we do all through the year. And then there are some essays, if you will, that some friends encouraged me to write at the end where it's less narrative. I think the narrative approach works on the whole, but at the end there are some things on sincerity in worship, for instance, what people bring in terms of expectations to worship at the end. I hope that both/and, that conversational style will just allow a lot of people from a lot of different backgrounds to enter theconversation. And for those who say “I like essays,” there's a couple of those or three of those at the end as well.  

Kristen Verhulst 00:15:45

Great for if you have a worship team at your church, great for a worship committee to discuss in a small group. 

Kevin Adams 00:15:54

Yeah. In fact, like I said, this friend at Baylor uses them for interns that are coming and learning about worship. And our own congregation circled back; we studied the book a few years ago, and then our musicians and worship leaders studied it as well just this fall as our fall retreat kickoff. So it was very helpful. 

Kristen Verhulst 00:16:14

Wonderful. Well, I wonder, Kevin, as a way to wrap up, what words of encouragement might you have for someone maybe starting out, leading worship, planning worship, but still feeling a little unsure, perhaps, or wanting some good wisdom? 

Kevin Adams 00:16:36

I think the first thing I'd say is we wish you grace and joy in this task. It's rather daunting, really, to lead people in worship. The example I use is this couple that comes in grieving. Another person comes in just full of bouncy joy. Another person comes in with lots of questions. The tapestry of feelings is so wide, and then—well, in an essay at the end, I write about things we carry into worship. The expectations we carry into worship are so wide and sometimes conflicting. I think the first thing I'd say is, we pray for you that God would give you joy and a sense of being part of community together so you don't feel by yourself as you make these decisions. But you can enter into the tradition of the church not as obligation, but as conversation with people who've gone before and let them mentor you and your team, and let those conversations be a gift to you. I can't think of anything sweeter than leading people in worship. … One of our elders after we served communion at the end of service a few weeks ago, she said, “It never gets old, does it? It never gets old.” And I thought, she's exactly, exactly right. And I hope that journey would be lifegiving for whoever picks up the book or whoever is leading worship as well. 

Kristen Verhulst 00:18:06

Kevin Adams, thanks so much for talking with me today.  

Kevin Adams 00:18:10

Thanks, Kristin. It's been a gift, as always.