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Horizontal and Vertical Churches: Where’s the Balance?

Horizontal and Vertical Churches: Where’s the Balance? July 30, 2015

Horizontal and Vertical Churches: Where’s the Balance?

I visit a lot of churches. During my adult lifetime I have attended (more than one or two times) numerous churches of many denominations. And I read about churches. “Church life” is one of my strongest interests. (I served as consultant for two editions of Abingdon’s Handbook of Denominations and I will be giving lectures about denominationalism at a Christian college in November.) I have spoken at churches as diverse as Episcopal and “Church Under the Bridge.” I communicate regularly with friends about their church experiences.

Here is something I notice about churches: they tend to focus either on the “horizontal” or the “vertical” in terms of spirituality. By “horizontal” I mean relating to God through having healthy relationships with other human beings. This might be an emphasis on “koinonia,” fellowship, or social attitudes and actions, or just loving people. By “vertical” I mean relating to God more directly, personally (not necessarily only individually) through worship, spiritual practices focused on prayer, meditation, devotional life, etc.

How this difference plays out can appear very different. For example, in a liberal-leaning church the “horizontal” focus and emphasis might be sermons and songs and books read together in “life groups” that mostly encourage and facilitate having the right social attitudes towards the weak, the oppressed, minorities, etc. In a liberal-leaning church the “vertical” focus and emphasis might be sermons, songs and studies that mostly encourage inward spirituality: meditation, contemplation, use of tools such as the “Enneagram.”

For example, in a conservative-leaning church the “horizontal” focus and emphasis might be sermons and songs, etc., that mostly encourage accountability in discipleship, community in like-mindedness, etc. In a conservative-leaning church the “vertical” focus and emphasis might be sermons, songs, etc., that focus on glorifying God, giving God praise, extolling God’s greatness, etc.

My point is that I think I notice a tendency in most churches to lean one direction or the other—either toward the horizontal dimension of Christian spirituality or the vertical dimension of Christian spirituality. Sometimes there appears to be balance on the surface, but I seem to detect imbalance in the energy put into one dimension or the other.

What I think is the case is that pastoral staffs often develop a certain one-sidedness with regard to spirituality and discipleship such that, over time, either the horizontal or the vertical dimension, both of which are important in Scripture and Christian tradition, gets emphasized to the neglect of the other dimension.

Insofar as I’m right (and I’m sure many will disagree), what’s my proposed solution? Over the years I’ve noticed other types of “ruts” pastoral staffs (or a single pastor) tend to fall into. One hymn gets sung much more frequently than others. One theme dominates preaching. Etc.

Many years ago my wife and I attended a Presbyterian church. I was, in fact, part-time minister of youth and Christian education. The pastor, educated at Yale Divinity School, preached almost the same sermon every Sunday—with a different text and title. He followed the lectionary in terms of biblical texts, which were read as part of the liturgy, and his sermons had different titles, but the theme and main point of every sermon was the same: “You are of meaning and value to God.”

Most churches don’t fall into quite that deep a rut! But most I’ve gotten to know well do tend to fall into a rut of one-sidedly emphasizing either the horizontal or the vertical dimension of Christian spirituality and discipleship to the neglect of the other dimension.

One solution is for every pastor and pastoral staff to invite discerning members to form a “kitchen cabinet,” and advisory group, to meet with the pastor and staff once a quarter to give feedback about what is being over emphasized and what is being neglected in terms of the church’s ethos. And the people selected must not all be “yes people”—people the pastor and staff can count on to tell them what they want to hear.

In my experience, however, this is very rare. What I have observed, both as a church staff member, interim pastor, board member and just ordinary lay “pew sitter,” is that pastors (including pastoral staff) do not appreciate criticism—however gentle, appropriate and constructive it may be. In fact, what I have observed and experienced is that, often, anyone who criticizes, however appropriately, gently and constructively, is automatically and immediately labeled a trouble-maker by the pastor and staff and marginalized. Generally speaking, pastors and church staffs only want support and encouragement for whatever they decide to do.

Of course, this is not unique to church contexts; leaders of organizations in general want unquestioning support from those under them—including customers! It’s human nature. However, the Bible, which we Christians claim to follow, is filled with examples of the opposite—of people of little or no particular status correcting spiritual leaders. Think of Nathan and David, Jeremiah and the prophets and political leaders of Judah, Paul and Peter at Antioch, etc.

Every church staff needs to think about finding the balance between the horizontal and the vertical dimensions of Christian spirituality, worship and discipleship and beware of falling into a rut of promoting only or even mostly one dimension. Perhaps the only way to accomplish that in most churches is to have such a diverse group of constructive critics as I suggest above to advise the pastor and staff on a regular basis.

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