vertical vs. horizontal

A useful distinction to consider is “vertical” worship vs. “horizontal” worship. ”

“Vertical” worship makes a connection between the individual and the holy – from you to God, so to speak.

“Horizontal” worship makes a connection between the individual and everything and everyone. From you to everyone else to God.

Contemporary worship tends to be horizontal, building on community and actively engaging everyone in community acts (singing, clapping, holding hands). Songs that are used in horizontal worship don’t talk about “you” or “me”, they talk about “we” and “us”. The holy is not treated as an abstraction to be sought by each individual, but as a manifestation of our hearts in community.

Think of your favorite hymn. Is its focus vertical or horizontal? If it’s vertical, what would it take to change it to horizontal? Aside from the unfamiliarity of new words, how does it feel to sing it now?

It’s hard to imagine how a UU preacher would react to shouts of “amen!” or “that’s right!” during a sermon. But it would sure be interesting to find out, wouldn’t it?

Note: Please see the comments for more interesting (and challenging) views on “horizontal” worship!

About liberalreligiongetsloud

Contemporary Music and Worship Director (retired), First Unitarian, Albuquerque NM
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12 Responses to vertical vs. horizontal

  1. While searching for this topic online, it’s interesting to note that there are a lot of sites lamenting that Christian worship has become too horizontal, and admonishing that the core of Christian worship should be vertical.

    What do you think UU worship should be, in the absence of an anthropomorphic Deity with whom one cultivates a personal relationship?

  2. David says:

    In Xn traditions (at least, during the 15 years I spent studying them), “horizontal worship” is usually a pretty judgmental phrase–it implies not, as you suggest, a connection “from you to everyone else to God,” but more an absence of any spiritual depth. (“This song makes me feel happy, and that’s all I care about.”)

    My first thought on reading your post was, “UU’s tend to me more focused on ‘this-world’ practice and relationship than in achieving spiritual ‘height,’ climbing to God.”

    But then I realized that good UU worship (again, in my experience), while it doesn’t usually turn its metaphorical eyes “upward,” does seek depth. It’s definitely a vertical component–just going toward our center, rather than to an external, otherworldly ideal.

    Or something. 😉

    • Kurt says:

      David, I have to agree w/ you on this one. If you ever get a chance, read “Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity” by Bruce Bawer. When I think of “horizontal” spirituality, I think of Aimee Semple McPherson and the so-called “prosperity gospel”: a preoccupation with wealth, fame, status and success as proof of g*d’s favor, whereas “vertical” brings thoughts of the real transcendence that people of good faith–ANY faith–strive for every day.

      • David says:


        If you ever get a chance, read “Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity”

        One of my all-time favorite books, and authors. 🙂

  3. What? It’s hard for you to imagine how a UU minister would react to shouts of “amen” or “that’s right”? Come to my church & find out, or to any number of other UU congregations. For the record, most ministers like having their sermons affirmed by the congregation rather than having to wonder if anyone is even listening.
    Someone told me recently that it is an old Protestant tradition for the congregation to sit silently — even bite their tongues to keep from laughing. Such B.S.

  4. Thanks for the additional comments about the negative connotations of “horizontal” worship. I think it would be interesting to know where the condemnation of is coming from. So-called “mainline” Protestants? Non-denominationals? Liberals or fundamentalists? KJV literalists?

    I first got the term, and the positive connotation, from Terri McLean’s New Harmonies: Choosing Contemporary Music for Worship(1). On page 57, she wrote

    A song with a “we/us” orientation has a horizontal quality. It highlights the connection of all gathered for worship and the importance of community in our worship expression. It connects us to our neighbors in a worship and makes the song a public event. … It is important that songs of faith not be sung from the exclusive orientation of the individual to God, turning worship into a “Jesus and me” event.

    McLean does not advocate only having horizontal songs, but that’s my leaning because, in my theology, the divine is not found in a personal relationship with a personal God, but in the manifestation of God’s love in community. I suspect this is closer to most UUs’ theology. But I’m sure I’ll find out, if not!

    McLean, Terri Bocklund. New Harmonies: Choosing Contemporary Music for Worship. (Alban Institute. 1998)

  5. This isn’t a response to this one post so much but to your blog overall, which I’ve just run across. I’ll look forward to reading it as it unfolds.

    A couple of disconnected observations:

    1) The Presbyterian DairyStateMom very much prefers traditional church music in her tradition and left one church where there was a unilateral shift to a contemporary “praise music” aesthetic (she didn’t leave only, or even mostly, because of that, but it did play a role and it did, by her account, divide the church at least for a time). I think she’ll find it interesting that these debates go on in our UU contexts, too. As a further aside, we’ve found anecdotally that the traditional music seems to correlate with social and doctrinal liberalism — her current church, very musically traditional, like the one to which she belonged immediately previously, is at the forefront of the effort to open ordination in the Presbyterian church to gays and lesbians in committed relationships. Before those two churches, she belonged to the church she quit; as noted, not because it moved to contemporary music, but because, during the same period of time, it staked out a position supporting language of exclusion in ordination.

    I am emphatically NOT saying that there’s any causation or mandatory linkage here. And I also know that there have been interesting experiments with contemporary stylings in progressive congregations.

    2) The UU congregation to which I belong, while its core musical aesthetic is drawn from Singing the Living Tradition (and we have a pipe organ), is eclectic in some of its musical choices, both for congregational singing and for choir performance. But I think we would benefit from a broader palate, as you suggest. (We have, of late, been getting a young adult influx; I’m not sure how the music we offer is or isn’t relating to or putting off our newcomers.)

    3) And yeah, we’re boomer-heavy and need to grow beyond that. But guess what the 8th graders picked for their opening hymn on Affirmation Sunday a month ago?

    That boomer ballad… Stairway to Heaven.

  6. Yes, the 14-year-olds know “Stairway”, but does anyone on the board know Lady Gaga, or The Streets, or the Black-Eyed Peas? What would they program if they had a Reaffirmation Sunday?

    Now that I think on it, that pretty much reaffirms my main point here: the younger generations have had easy access to an unimaginable range (to a boomer) of music. They know the Beatles, Zep and Pink Floyd, but they also listen to rap and reggae and obscure genres of electronica that we are totally ignorant of, for the most part.

    And so, when they come into our worship services and hear — pardon me — a collection of dull melodies with obscurely worded lyrics, they are not enthralled.

  7. Paul Oakley says:

    Okay, a question here. What percentage of our Sunday services attendance consists of these hypothetical 14-year-olds? (Or teens, generally…) Don’t a large portion of our congregations conduct RE classes at the same time as worship? By default, that becomes, then, ADULT worship.

    When we move RE to a different hour than worship, then we have a different dynamic to consider. But why hypothesize about 14-year-olds and worship styles when “we” exclude them from worship much of the time?

    It seems to me a far bigger issue than worship styles is age-segregated worship. And if we can’t find a way to integrate our services, then why don’t we institute a teen worship service (from which most adults are similarly banned) for the hour after the segregationist adults clear out of the sanctuary? Or, alternatively, on Saturday or Sunday evenings…

    But that aside, “dull melodies with obscurely worded lyrics”? Some congregations may sometimes have lackluster singing, but when they do it is generally the congregation not the music that has fallen short.

  8. I don’t think it’s the 14-year-olds we’re aiming for (even if they do like “Stairway to Heaven).

    But the same issues apply to the demographic who come looking for a spiritual community: the 25- to 35-year-olds. Those people were listening to REM, Tool, U2, etc. Their musical tastes are, emphatically, far far removed from German organ tunes and four-square hymns. (Even farther than from, say, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”!)

    Excellent singing certainly helps, but really there’s no way to make “Old Hundred” anything but what it is: a plodding, strange-sounding melody that does not speak to anyone who didn’t grow up hearing it.

    On the positive side, our version of it is vaguely horizontal, in stark opposition to the Trinitarian version.

  9. Paul Oakley says:

    Maybe we should be “aiming for” the 14-year-olds. After all, we are constantly hearing how we lose such a large percent of those raised UU. If we’re staying even with our numbers on the back of conversions, wouldn’t hanging onto those we’ve got result in growth? 🙂

  10. I don’t know. Christians lose a comparable number of their youth. I think if you have freedom of choice, you have to expect people to make different choices when they grow up. Some are cradle-to-grave UUs, some drift away and come back, some just drift away, and some feel like they are coming home when they come in. If we’re not indoctrinating them that their eternal soul (or their earthly existence, for that matter) depends on following the One True Way, we should expect that.

    When adults come looking for something to transform their lives, however, we should be paying attention!

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