Adapting Vertical Habits to Your Church or School

Focusing on simple phrases helps develop worship habits that affect our whole lives. Vertical habits expand how people talk with God during church worship and school chapels. A feature story exploring relational words that expand worship language.

As you learn about creative ways that other churches and schools have taught vertical habits, you might feel inspired. Or maybe you’ll just feel overwhelmed, wondering whether your group has what it takes to do a credible vertical habits series.

You know what? You probably have everything you need. Because the vertical habits framework is easy to understand and talk about. And there are as many ways of teaching it as there are faith communities.

Use your congregation’s gifts

Start by looking at who has which gifts in your congregation. Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky, has lots of members interested in the arts. Mike Cosper, pastor of worship arts, brought several together to create music and devotional texts. Michael Winters brainstormed vertical habits visuals with artists.

For a service on “I’m listening,” the vertical habit paired with praying for illumination, Cosper’s group wrote a devotional and a song, “We Are Listening.” You can listen to it here.

“The song provides a context to practice the habit of listening (or prayer of illumination). We wrote songs and a devotional that spends a few days on each habit, seeking to make the connection between the habit as practiced in corporate worship and the habit as daily practice,” Cosper says.

Sojourn Community continues to perform its vertical habits songs in worship. It also released them on CD. People in new member classes receive the CD and devotionals “in a session that orients people to the rhythm of our liturgy,” Cosper explains.

Meanwhile, Winters and his artist group discussed how to illustrate each vertical habit. “Through conversation, we decided that a prayer of assurance could be illustrated by showing our hearts connecting with the larger heart of God.

“We have assurance because God promises to come and dwell within us, and we can dwell in him. Talking these ideas out, and figuring out how to visually depict them, helped us understand the habit more deeply. We hope that extending these images to the congregation, along with devotional texts, will help them live these habits more deeply,” Winters says.

Other churches or schools teach vertical habits through drama, PowerPoint presentations, children’s messages, sermons, or simple activities.

Consider your context

Tom Long, director/writer of the Christian drama group Friends of the Groom, worked with five metro Cincinnati churches on vertical habits.

He reports that congregations approached the same habits differently, depending on their theological traditions and congregational makeup. To teach worshipers about “I’m sorry,” and confession, Methodist youth used matches, Episcopalians distributed soiled cloths, and the Salvation Army held an agape service.

The youth planning an alternative service at Milford First United Methodist mulled over their own sins—which they’d recently thought about during a church school series on the Seven Deadly Sins.

“They wrote their confessions on flash paper, sold by magic supply houses. The slips were collected and, as the words of pardon were pronounced, a match was dropped on the papers.

“Flash paper burns with an impressive flare and leaves virtually no ash—a perfect symbol for God's total forgiveness. How they handled ‘I’m sorry’ reflected their age. It made such an impact that when the time came to plan another habit, they immediate thought of another way to use pyrotechnics,” Long says. (He steered them in another direction.)

The Church of the Good Samaritan wove confession into their Episcopal Eucharist. Each member received a soiled cloth as the service began.

“At the time of confession, the celebrant drew the comparison between the cloth and personal sinfulness. At communion, congregants placed their cloths in a bowl of water on the altar. The water had been specially treated to remove the stains on the cloth, and, at the end of the service, each person got back their piece of cloth in spotless condition,” Long says.

Finneytown Salvation Army Corps drew on a traditional, though rarely used, agape ceremony during their time of confession. Long says they began with a choral reading that included Scripture, hymn lines, and statements of confession. After the reading, worship leaders modeled washing their hands and invited the congregation to come forward and wash, too.

Do what you can

There are many ways to get your vertical habits message across. And your method doesn’t have to be complicated or require a lot of people or rehearsal.

Tom Long and Friends of the Groom perform and sell scripts that dramatize particular vertical habits, such as “I love you.”

Worship leaders at Drayton Christian Reformed Church in Drayton, Ontario, found a simpler way to help worshipers think about what it means to love as God does. The New Testament reading was Paul’s famous passage on love, 1 Corinthians 13:1-8.

The reader then mused aloud to the congregation that she could never meet the “love never fails” standard. She reread verses 4 through 8 inserting her own name… “Yvonne is patient, Yvonne is kind.” Next she put a page on the overhead with blanks in place of the words “Love” and “It.” She invited worshipers to put themselves into the passage. Finally, to show God’s lavish love, she read the passage using Jesus’ name.

Help people see the big picture

Any church or school can remind worshipers of the entire vertical habits framework, so each habit builds on the next.

When Third Christian Reformed Church in Zeeland, Michigan, did their vertical habit series, they listed all eight habits, along with corresponding sermon passages and dates, in the bulletin. People could easily tell which habit they were on, because the bulletin shaded the relevant line each week.

Schools could do the same thing in the home bulletin or in a projected image at the beginning of chapel.

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