Vertical Habits

Practical Wisdom for Teaching Worship

When children are young, they learn words that build relationships. Some come easily: “Help!” “Why?” Parents and grandparents persistently teach them to say to others: “Thank you.” “I’m sorry.” We celebrate as these words become habits. When a child without prompting tells her brother, “I’m sorry,” we know that these words are beginning to shape her life and her relationships.

These same words shape our relationship with God. The psalms are filled with beautiful words that tell God “thank you” and “I’m sorry” or ask “why?” Looking at the order of worship in most churches, we discover a connection between these words and the actions in worship. (See sidebar.)

Bruce Gritter and Karen Wilk (of The River Community in Edmonton, Alberta) asked, “If we teach new believers about these words of relationship with God, will it help them better understand what we do on Sunday? Will it help them grow in their relationship with God during the week? Will it shape their relationships with others?” To answer these questions, they focused on a specific word each Sunday for eight weeks. They called this series “Vertical Habits”; and they discovered that it made a difference.

At the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship we wondered, Would Vertical Habits help lifelong worshipers engage more deeply in worship? Would it provide a framework to connect young people to God and to the congregation? Might it help all of us to confess more honestly, listen attentively, and lament the brokenness around us? Might it lead us to more joyful lives of service?

Twenty-three congregations and schools accepted our invitation to teach Vertical Habits, share their resources with us, and give honest feedback. They set aside time to study Scripture and explore how they could teach each of these words to help people of all ages grow in their relationship with God. Some churches chose to do this during Lent. Others discovered that they wanted to spend a month on each word. They crafted sermons, created visual art (see RW 82, p. 31), composed music, prepared daily devotions, developed children’s materials, engaged young people, and discovered that as they prepared to teach others, they themselves grew in their relationship with God.

Sharon Veltema, who plans chapel with high school students at Unity Christian High School in Hudsonville, Michigan, reported:

The Vertical Habits project made us realize that we leave very little time in chapel for confession. . . . In November we incorporated thanksgiving with confession, which helped all of us address the deeper issues for which we are grateful. We also realized that we leave even less time for lament. We try to be sensitive to students who are going through hard times—the loss of a parent, divorce, serious illness. We have become aware that we are doing students a disservice when we lead them to believe that worship is only about praising without dealing with issues such as asking God, “Why?”

These schools and churches discovered that people long to express these emotions to God but they lack the vocabulary and sometimes the permission. They also found that resources for some words are abundant but for others are almost impossible to find.

As they began to understand that all these emotions can be expressed in a healthy relationship, and that all these emotions are integral to the psalmists’ relationship with God, worshipers who engaged in Vertical Habits expressed eagerness to learn more.

“It makes a difference when you take people by the hand and lead them step by step into worship. We assume too much about people’s knowledge and frame of mind when they enter into worship,” reported Rev. Kris Vos of Crossroads Community Church in Schererville, Indiana. He explained that they planned worship to help people understand. “This is why we do this. . . . This is what this word means. . . . This is where this song takes us. . . . This is how God calls us to speak to him. . . . When you experience this in life, here is how you respond to God.” Most worship leaders take for granted that people know these things.

Vertical Habits helped both adults and children grow in their relationship with God. Young Kim of Cornerstone Christian Reformed Church in Ann Arbor observed, “We have learned so much from our children who have contributed drawings and devotional entries on various Vertical Habits. I am truly amazed at the simultaneous profundity and simplicity of their understanding of these habits as they relate to God. Their very honest and very real responses to the Vertical Habits have challenged many of us to approach God with a child-like heart.”

Those who taught Vertical Habits discovered that it profoundly impacted their own relationship to God and to others. “I have found a new commitment to really helping my students build their relationships with God. I find myself less willing to rush through devotion time. . . . I have a new commitment to putting thought into what it is that I want my students to learn or know about their Father. This has made me reflect more deeply on my own worship habits as well,” said a fifth-grade teacher after focusing on Vertical Habits with her students. “Many times we claim we are worshiping, but really we are not in an active relationship with God. My relationship with God is one that I tend to neglect or treat more as a one-way street rather than a two-way connection,” reported this teacher.

Focusing on what we do in worship helps remove attention from preferences of style. One church reported that for two years they had been in the midst of considerable congregational discord, which contributed to a loss of many young families. There was a critical need to rebuild trust between various factions within the church, as well as a need to renew worship in a manner that reached out to children, youth, and their parents. This church reported, “Vertical Habits is bringing a fresh element to worship by focusing on the purpose behind worship, rather than engaging in a debate about the style of worship. It has helped us emphasize the elements of worship that draw us together as one body.”

Congregations and schools that used the Vertical Habits framework discovered that it helped link worship on Sunday with daily living the rest of the week. Dave Vander Woude of Daybreak Community Church in Valparaiso, Indiana, reported, “We are going through a restructuring process as we keep our eyes on the future of this church. We can have a lot of good programs and wonderful ideas, but if the connection between corporate worship and daily lifestyle is not made, growth in Christ and evangelism will be limited at best!”

Frank Rothfuss of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, observed, “The mission of the church is to make disciples—people of faith who respond to an encounter or experience with God through worship and service. Vertical Habits is helping our people understand that the appropriate response to God’s revelation is both worship and service.”

The concepts of Vertical Habits may at first appear simplistic. Yet the churches who have taken time to learn and teach these concepts have found them both challenging and profound. Marc Nelesen, who pastored the congregation at Third Christian Reformed Church in Zeeland, Michigan, noted, “In a day where true, intimate communication is breaking down, even these simple, pithy words become incredibly complex and difficult. The Word that became flesh should be easier than all these other words that we have.”

Several churches who focused on Vertical Habits have told us that it led to closer examination of all words used in worship. Recognizing that the time in worship is very limited, they more carefully select the words for music, transitions, and even announcements.

Vertical Habits is a concept in progress. We are eager to learn from those who choose to use it in their congregations. If you would like resources to help you teach Vertical Habits in your congregation, visit or contact the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. It is our prayer that the framework of Vertical Habits may help all of us grow in our relationships with God and with each other.



Vertical Habits: Worship and Our Faith Vocabulary

Faithful speech is central to the Christian life. God is not just interested in having us contemplate or appease him. God is interested in the dynamics of life together, shaped by good communication. Just as words form our habits in relationships with other people, the words of worship can form the habits of our relationship with God and the way we live out our faith. Consider these eight parallels:

Relational Words / Worship Words

I love You. / Praise
I'm sorry. / Confession
Why? / Lament
I'm listening. / Illumination
Help. / Petition
Thank you. / Thanksgiving
What can I do? / Service
Bless you. / Blessing

For additional material from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, click here.

Reformed Worship 84 © June 2007, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.