A Principled Approach to the Worship of God: The Vertical Principle


The Vertical Principle concerns both the orientation and the impact of the church at worship. It is important to note that those are two distinct yet united concepts. Because of what worship is, it should be thought of a fundamentally vertical act in its orientation; yet it is a vertical act with real horizontal impact. Worship can be defined as the act of giving honor and adoration to our God. This definition and the Biblical concepts behind it drive us to say that worship’s orientation is always fundamentally vertical. It is an act from us, to God. Therefore, the priorities in worship are not really my ideas, desires, expectations, and preferences. And they are not really the ideas, desires, expectations, and preferences of the world, culture, or traditions around me. The fundamental priorities of worship are God’s ideas, God’s desires, God’s expectations, and God’s preferences. One book on the topic states that:

Worship is for God and not for us. God is the audience of our worship, not unchurched seekers or even fellow believers. He alone is the one whom we are to please in our worship. Worship, then, is not chiefly about evangelism, nor is it a concert, lecture, or counseling session. All of those activities may be legitimate and worthwhile for Christians. But none of them constitutes public worship.”[1]

We need to have it completely clear that worship by definition orients toward God and God alone. Yet the fact that worship is a fundamentally vertical act should never be taken to mean that horizontal impact is irrelevant. The Vertical Principle of Worship (VPW), simply stated, is this:

Worship is a fundamentally vertical act with relevant horizontal impact.

So the first truth of the Vertical Principle is that the fundamental orientation of our worship is aimed, from earth, heavenward. The covenant people offer to their covenant God the vertical act of worship. It proceeds from us to Him as a vertical offering of praise. This is always our fundamental priority, but that doesn’t mean that there are no other legitimate realities or concerns when we worship.

The object of our worship is not a deaf and dumb deity in the silent heavens. He is not a mere Receiver, he is also a Giver. He has condescended to bind Himself to us in covenantal relationship. The concept of covenant is extensive and complex in the Scriptures, but it always presupposes some sort of interactive contact between the covenanted parties.

Something truly amazing happens when we show up to worship God in New Covenant Church worship. In an unexpected and astounding manner we find that the God to whom we offer up our worship unexpectedly has something to give to us as well. Contrary to all expectation, and by grace alone, the worship encounter is not a one-way street! God calls us to not only give worship to Him, but to also receive grace and blessing from His own sovereign hand. Here we begin to see more clearly why in the last post I called Church Worship the epicenter of worship on earth. God has uniquely (although not exclusively) promised to bless His Covenant people when they assemble together in corporate times of worship. God loves his people one by one, but he has a special love for his church assembled. It is not insignificant that this is the church which is called both the Body and Bride of Jesus Christ.

In the church, God has established a promised delivery system of spiritual blessing for his people. Think of Psalm 73, how Asaph was wandering listlessly and even despairing over the state of the world around him. But then, Asaph goes into the sanctuary of God, that place of covenant worship and he is, as it were, transported to a place of heavenly blessing. It is there that he learns to utter those immortal words,

Whom have I in heaven but you? And in earth there is nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:25-26)

Asaph not only gave in worship, he received something as well! Remember, our Covenant God is the one who wipes away the tears from the eyes of those who draw near to Him in worship (Isaiah 25:8.). It is a beautiful and gracious truth that our God has ordained a sort of worship encounter wherein he also has blessings for us as well. The praises we offer to Him are amazingly means of his grace flowing to us. We may think of prayer. Prayer is, of course, fundamentally oriented to God. But consider all that prayer does for you, and thank God for this means of grace. The authors of the above quote also comment

The means of grace God provides in worship are sustenance for believers. They are what keep us going through the wilderness of our pilgrimage and warfare. If we avoid them or take them for granted, we foolishly ignore God’s gracious and wise provision.[2]

Praise God! But let me now introduce another element of the VPW. I want to quickly add two more dimensions concerning the horizontal impact of this vertical act. The first is that in the act of New Covenant Church Worship, we actually have a role to play to one another as well.. This horizontal ministry of mutual edification, in which all worshipers have a role to play, is described in Colossians 3:16:

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

That text is a masterful expression of both the essential vertical orientation and the real horizontal impact of the church at worship. We offer thankfulness vertically to God, yet at the same time we minister to one another in very real and relevant horizontal ways.

But there is still a missing dimension on the horizontal level. The church at worship is not removed from the mission statement of the church itself, which we often call the Great Commission. Yes, worship is fundamentally a vertical act of honor and adoration to God, but it does also have evangelistic concerns as well. This reality can be defended first by the Great Commission mandate of the church which is at the heart of its very identity, but is also established through the concerns expressed in a text like 1 Corinthians 14:23-25:

If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.

Leaving aside for the moment the more sticky issue of sorting out the tongues and prophecy described in this text, there is certainly a principle in those verses that transcends those specific circumstances. The principle is that we are to have a concern for unbelievers who walk into our church worship services, and for what we are presenting to them. This is a point that requires delicate nuance. I am not writing in a vacuum, and I am not ashamed to say that the evangelical church in our day has taken a truth in that principle and blown it into something the Bible simply never supports. It is very temping to take a text like that and make it say that the tastes and sensibilities of non-Christians should be determinative in the church’s worship. As well intentioned as such a thought may be, it simply is not true, and would be a complete violation of the VPW.

But the solution to such wrong thinking is not to overreact in the other direction! The church at worship must be reasonably accessible. We must be culturally intelligible. We should strive to be as winsome and charitable as we can be, yet we need to be very careful to not let that horizontal concern grow into a fundamental orientation issue. The fundamental concern of the church at worship is not the man on the street; it is the Lord in heaven.

Worship is giving honor and adoration to our God. If we get this mixed up then we start to be unduly driven by horizontal concerns. That error must be avoided, and yet we must recognize that God in His grace has set this up in such a way that these horizontal impacts, concerns, and benefits are real and also do bear our consideration.

May we all commit to the Vertical Principle of Worship, namely that:

Worship is a fundamentally vertical act with relevant horizontal impact.

(By: Nicolas Alford)

[1] Hart and Muether, Reverence and Awe, p. 133.

[2] Hart and Muether, Reverence and Awe, p. 137.

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8 thoughts on “A Principled Approach to the Worship of God: The Vertical Principle

  1. I think you express well the tension between our responsibilities to know God and to make Him known. One thing that impresses me more and more is the extent to which God works through people, and especially through believers gathered together to accomplish His purposes. Simply being together, imbibing of the Spirit of the Living God dwelling in one another, is absolutely essential to our well-being (though of course different people require different quantities of this “soul food.”) “jk

  2. Great post… and I’m looking forward to reading through the rest of this blog series since my wife and I are doing a study on the theology of worship later on this month.

  3. You are so far off base that I don’t know where to start. You make several false assumptions, the first of which is that assembly = worship. Find any passage in the NT that says that we are to assemble to worship. It’s not there. Stop. You’re already making an assumption that I don’t think we are supposed to assemble. We are told to assemble. Why? To encourage EACH OTHER. That is the ONLY reason given in the entire NT to assemble. Just like the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, assemblies are for MAN, not God. We should be worshipping God every day, and it’s not inappropriate to worship when we assemble, but that is not its purpose. Your entire article rests on assumptions. You really should learn what the scriptures teach before trying to teach others.

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