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Vertical Habits: Relational words that expand worship language

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.

Have you experienced this frustration? Maybe it was with a toddler...or a parent who’d just had a stroke…or a refugee who doesn’t share your language.

There was so much emotion, so much you both wanted to say. But you didn’t have the words.

Too often worship is like that. We may feel comfortable singing praise to God or asking for things in prayer. Yet we don’t have the words—and so can’t teach our children—to bring every part of ourselves to God and to enjoy God’s full message to us.

Vertical habits is a framework that pairs relational words with worship habits, such as “I love you” with praise or “I’m listening” with illumination.

Churches and schools that use vertical habits say it helps their communities develop worship habits that deepen their relationship with God and affect every part of their lives. See how their experiences can help enrich worship at your church or school.

Words of relationship

Churches and Christian schools don’t have to use vertical habits to worship well. Nor will every faith community apply the concept in the same way.

Yet the framework offers a common metaphor for worship that helps worshipers understand why they gather. It sparks conversations about worship as a dialogue between God and people.

Some churches use the familiar ACTS acronym to focus on four habits:

  • I love you (adoration or praise)
  • I’m sorry (confession)
  • Thank you (thanksgiving)
  • Help! (supplication or petition)

Many churches add four more habits:

  • Why? (lament)
  • I’m listening (illumination)
  • What can I do? (service)
  • Bless you (blessing)

And others add a ninth vertical habit, Here I stand (creedal statement). The Church of the Good Samaritan, a small mission congregation in metro Cincinnati, used this habit to make Episcopal worship accessible to their community, according to Tom Long, director/writer of the Christian drama group Friends of the Groom.

“They wanted their creedal statements in worship to be personal, understandable, and authentic. They decided to have individuals tell brief stories about God's action in their lives, with each story separated by the refrain of a song that proclaims belief.

“We had each planning team member think of a time when God acted in his or her life. They tried to write that story in three sentences, with a beginning, middle, and end. When the results were read aloud in the planning meeting, the accounts had a kind of simple, concise elegance that was very powerful—almost like ‘testimony haiku,’ ” Long says.

Vertical habits expand worship

Mike Cosper, pastor of worship arts at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky, says most members grew up in mainstream contemporary evangelical churches. “For them, learning to pray prayers of confession, lament, and mourning didn’t come naturally.

“Learning that these expressions were not only permissible but helpful to living out our faith has taken much repetition, practice, and prayer. In particular, it helped us to rely almost 100 percent on the language of the psalms,” he says.

Vertical habits fit well within a larger worship trend.

“Worship is generally shifting towards more balance. A few years ago, the contemporary mainstream lacked songs of confession and lament (amongst others). The faithful work of many in the church has brought more balance. Even in the stuff coming out of Nashville, there is more theological depth and more balance of expression than before,” Cosper explains.

Tom Long notes that vertical habits engage more people in worship planning. Friends of the Groom helps churches use the same three steps—reflection, brainstorming, and presentation—to express each worship relationship.

At Milford First United Methodist, the youth group had studied the Seven Deadly Sins. So when it was their turn to plan a youth service called “The Ride,” they thought of the vertical habit “I’m sorry.”

Long explains, “In the service, youth reflected on their own sins in light of 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. It was a great way for youth to connect their Christian education with worship and their lives.

Long and Friends of the Groom helped five churches apply vertical habits. “I was amazed at how excited planning teams got when they began to think ‘outside the pew’ and asked, ‘What are all the ways we could embody this idea in our worship?’” he says.

Worship vocabulary shapes lives

Likewise, Mike Cosper says he was amazed by how quickly vertical habits caught on with Sojourn worship leaders.

Long-time worship leaders who’d never understood liturgical concepts “suddenly understood the rhythm of it when introduced to the simple language of vertical habits. The visual artists, especially, seemed to grasp the connection to everyday life. I think meditating on the concept while developing their pieces helped deepen their understanding,” he says.

Though relational words helped Sojourn worshipers understand liturgical concepts, they didn’t want to replace historic terms. “Many members hunger for a sense of connection to something historic. The vertical habits language bridges the gap between them and historic liturgy, but has not replaced the language of adoration, confession, or prayer of illumination liturgy. Instead, it serves to inform that language and make it more conversational,” Cosper says.

Michael Winters, who oversaw Sojourn’s visual arts application of vertical habits, says the project “helped cement” ideas that its pastors have always preached. “Our whole lives must be changed by the gospel. Thankfully, we often hear people talking about confessing sins to one another and reminding each other how the gospel affects our work, school, family life, relationships of all kinds.”

Using Vertical Habits to Plan School Chapel Services

Two Michigan schools—Unity Christian High in Hudsonville and Muskegon Christian Elementary and Middle in Muskegon—used vertical habits to plan a year-long chapel series. The vertical habits framework pairs relational words with worship habits, such as “I love you” with praise or “I’m listening” with illumination.

Tara Macias, development director at Muskegon, chose the overall theme “Go Vertical,” while Unity math teacher and chapel planner Sharon Veltema went with “Created for Worship.” Both devoted a month to each vertical habit.

“In church worship, you have to reach young children through senior citizens. Our high school group is teens and teachers, so you can be very specific in how you teach.

“As churches have discovered, vertical habits is an intentional way of worshiping and looking at language used in worship. We have just 15 minutes for chapel but have it four days a week. So while we can’t do a complete worship service, we can concentrate our family devotional time on confession or another habit,” Veltema says.

Worship words that build unity

Tara Macias wrote monthly packets—with suggested Scripture, songs, visuals, classroom activities, and more—to help teachers reinforce vertical habits themes learned in Friday praise services. Macias appreciated how vertical habits helped Muskegon Christian School students and teachers see and say what they have in common.

“Our kids come from so many racial, family, and economic backgrounds that we often concentrate on differences and challenges. Vertical habits gave us a common ground to have discussions about our living faith. It let us surpass our differences and challenged us all to look at our unity more than our contrasts,” she says.

Macias says that when “Go Vertical” began, most understood that worship includes giving thanks and adoration.

“However, teachers said that ‘I’m sorry’ and ’Why, Lord?’ really stretched the understanding of our students. We do not normally think of confession or lamentation as ways we praise God. The teachers helped students realize that questioning God’s reasoning recognizes his sovereignty. His ways will be proven right even if it is difficult to understand now,” Macias says.

For “I’m sorry,” each class received bags of sand, symbolizing sin. Students carried them as they participated in normal activities. “Classes talked about how sin weighs them down and inhibits their lives. In a Friday praise time, fifth-grade teacher Dawn Rotman explained how confession means laying down our sins. Then her students placed their ‘burden bags’ at the cross,” Macias says.

One teacher told Macias that vertical habits helped students see they can’t always be praising God or asking for help and never listening or serving. Another described how vertical habits gave students a worship language that spilled over into academics. During a reading lesson, one student commented, “The girl in that story is not practicing the vertical habit of forgiveness.”

Learning through teaching

Developing devotional packets, school banners, and chapel services helped Macias “really latch on to the idea of living a life of worship,” she says.

Macias gave students the same chance to learn through teaching. Eighth grader Morgan Boersma, who has studied ballet, point, tap, and jazz dance since first grade, created and taught a liturgical dance that fourth and fifth graders offered in chapel.

“It was for ‘Why, Lord?’ on the theme of lamentation. I asked my cousin for song suggestions. She’s a dancer, too. We chose ‘If You Want Me To’ by Ginny Owens.

“We started out sitting, with our hands over our hearts for ‘But just because you love me the way you do.’ And for the next line, ‘I will go through the valley if you want me to,’ we stood up, made a shield with our hands to show how hard it is, then raised our hands to show trust in God,” Boersma explains.

She says dancing helps her express what she’s feeling and remember what she’s learned. “The habit I remember most is ‘What can I do, Lord?’ We have to remember God is our king and we need to always be asking how we can show his love and share the gospel,” she adds.

Surprising discoveries

Sharon Veltema has planned hundreds of chapels for Unity Christian High. Still, she says, “Some vertical habits that were most meaningful were phrases I never expected.”

One student had planned to do a “Help me” testimony on how God had answered prayers for healing her sister’s leukemia. Then the sister relapsed. The student told Veltema, “I don’t think I can do this. I’m feeling all that anger towards God again.” Veltema talked with her about how God totally understands our anger and hurt. The student later told her story during ‘Why, Lord?”

“That was an incredible month of personal testimonies, of crying out to God in chapel. It really came across to students that it’s okay to wonder, to question why. God is big enough to handle our frustrations, our angers, whatever is going on in our life.

“I realized we often allow our students to express ‘I love you’ or ‘Thank you.’ It’s very rare in high school chapels that you have time to express ‘Why?’ or I’m sorry,’ ” Veltema says.

The month devoted to “What can I do?” took a surprising twist. “Although we started out highlighting service, we ended up the month saying, ‘Okay it’s not just what you do, it’s being able to speak your faith,’ ” Veltema says.

Students stood up and told about being with friends who asked “Why do you go to a Christian school?” and “Are you a Christian?” Having never been asked these questions, the students said they realized they needed to be prepared to talk about their faith—which made for a natural segue into Unity’s final month devoted to “Here I stand.”

Learn More

Discuss recent Reformed Worship stories on vertical habits, including this excellent overviewapplying vertical habits at home, and worship service plan ideas for a vertical habits series.

Listen to Calvin Symposium on Worship presentations on vertical habits

Read how Daybreak Community Church (Valparaiso, Indiana) applied vertical habits.

Start a Discussion

Talk about vertical habits:

  • Which of the vertical habits phrases get expressed most often in your church or school worship?
  • Does this frequency have anything to do with your liturgical tradition, cultural context, or faith community demographics?
  • Do any phrases make you uncomfortable? If so, why?
  • Which vertical habits would you especially like to introduce? What first steps will you take to do this?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to introduce vertical habits?

  • Did you create a vertical habits series that is especially multisensory or interactive? If so, will you share your materials with us?
  • If you worked with other churches or schools in learning vertical habits, which were you most and least successful projects? Which habit did you have the hardest time finding resources for? How did you overcome that lack?