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Community Worship at Mustard Seed School

How can your Christian school design chapel services that connect with real life? Mustard Seed School in Hoboken, New Jersey, has formed a model called community worship. A feature story exploring worship in one small school in New Jersey.

No doubt second grade teachers elsewhere face the same challenge. Students eager to answer lean forward, strain one arm high, and wildly wave a hand. Too impatient to wait their turns, they butt in, interrupting classmates or the teacher.

You might expect a teacher of unruly youngsters to review polite manners or simply command the kids to zip their mouths. But when the second grade teacher at Mustard Seed School said, “This is a justice issue,” her students in Hoboken, New Jersey, knew what she was talking about.

That’s because justice was “a big-word theme” in what other Christian schools might call “chapel” but Mustard Seed calls “community worship.” Since it began in 1979, the urban school has intentionally planned daily worship that builds the community and flows through students’ and teachers’ lives.

The teacher asked the children how they could create a more just classroom, so that all members would have the time they need to speak. They decided to tally every time anyone interrupted. It was a class tally mark, with no names written on the board. Their goal was to decrease tally marks and have a more just classroom.

Community worship, not chapel

The just classroom story comes from Shanna Pargellis, who helped found the school and is Lower School coordinator and curriculum coordinator. She says that when Mustard Seed began, they chose to use the term “school family,” rather than “chapel.” “We wanted children and parents who come to feel like they were part of a bigger family, the family of God,” Pargellis says.

They began to notice, however, that on the yearly application, some parents were listing Mustard Seed School as their family’s place of worship. “If you say school family, it gets very focused on the school. Community worship is a more transferable term. For children who don’t come from a family of faith, we wanted to lay the groundwork for them to continue the worship experience in a church,” Pargellis says.

As the school website explains, “Celebration and worship are woven into the fabric of day-to-day life at Mustard Seed. Students' life and learning are rooted in the richness of knowing that God loves them, understands them and that they belong to God. As God's children, they learn to know and care for God's world and God's people.”

Daily worship lasts about 20 minutes. The Lower School, kindergarten through third grade, meets for worship first thing in the morning. The Upper School, fourth through eighth grades, meets near lunchtime. Community worship includes everyone in song, prayer, Bible reading, and interactive messages meant to deepen faith and encourage community.

Several times a year, the entire school meets for celebrations, annual traditions based on Jewish feasts and Christian liturgical seasons. Pargellis says that when teachers ask alumni for Mustard Seed memories, they often comment on worship. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, I loved Pentecost’ or ‘Passover was a great thing.’ ”

Intentional structure

Mustard Seed’s community worship uses repetition to build a common visual and spoken language of faith. When children and adults gather for community worship, the time might begin with teaching a new song or celebrating a birthday. “But before we start our first song and our responsive reading, we light a Christ candle,” says Christine Metzger, the head of school.

Pargellis adds that lighting the candle shifts people “into a different mode—being reflective, listening, and being present to God.”

Worshipers focus on a section of Scripture, printed on a prayer card, for a month. “That’s one way to get the Word into the heart,” Pargellis says. From day to day, worship leaders change how they use the prayer card for responsive readings:

  • A student reads a section and everyone responds.
  • The group is divided into side A and side B.
  • Only part of a passage is read on a given day.
  • One verse gets repeated as a response, such as the Advent reading from Isaiah, to which worshipers respond: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a branch will bear fruit” (Isaiah 11:1).

Every monthly theme includes a visual. During the justice theme, community worship focused on Micah 6:8. “We had a clothesline up front and added a phrase or a word or two every day. We built the whole verse and memorized the verse, but we also took it apart.

“For our hospitality theme, we set a tablecloth with beautiful place settings. Every day, when we heard a story from Scripture about hospitality, we would put place cards on the table with the names of people we were learning about. Whoever was leading worship could look at the table and reflect and remind ourselves of earlier stories before,” Metzger says.

In the Lower School, teachers end each day with a classroom reflection meeting that ties back to that morning’s community worship. “They might repeat a song or Bible verse. There may be a question posed earlier that the teacher picks up on. They talk about what went on in the classroom that day—what was good, what was hard, struggles they had. The day ends with a prayer,” Pargellis says.

Upper School classrooms often do an early morning recollection of the previous day’s community worship.

Different voices

Visuals, prayer cards, monthly themes, and the Christian year provide structure for Mustard Seed community worship. There’s also plenty of room for individual voices.

Lower School teachers rotate turns for planning and leading worship for a week at a time. Upper School teachers work in pairs to do a week of worship and get paired with a different partner for later weeks.

Teachers choose community worship music to match the theme. “We sing some traditional hymns of faith because the texts are so rich and it’s part of the heritage of the church. We sing what we call world music and often sing in different languages. We have a worship leader in the Lower School who’s Cuban and a great guitarist so we’re singing a lot of contemporary music,” Pargellis says.

Besides asking students to lead responsive readings and play instruments, teachers plan interactive segments of community worship. They may involve students in drama, interview students, or alternate small group discussions with reporting back to the larger group.

"Who We Want to Be": Linking community worship (school chapel) to life

Community is a key concept at Mustard Seed School in Hoboken, New Jersey—so much so that what other Christian schools might call “chapel” is called “community worship” at this interdenominational urban K-8 school.

As each school year begins, daily community worship focuses on “who we want to be as a people and how our Christian faith influences our life together,” explains Shanna Pargellis. She helped found the school and coordinates its Lower School and curriculum.

She and Christine Metzger say community worship helps Mustard Seed students connect faith to the classroom, playground, and life in their families, churches, and the world beyond.

Growing in faith at school

Children get age-appropriate experiences in community. “Forgiveness is part of the language here. We teach children very early on that you say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and the other person’s responsibility is to say, ‘I forgive you,’ ” Pargellis says.

Community happens in specific settings, which is why Mustard Seed recently used the theme of place in community worship. Upper School students, in fourth through eighth grades, usually sit together by class. During the place month, each student sat by kids from other grades. The leader would read Scripture related to place and have students interact.

“One day a leader read a passage about a place of refuge. She shared a place that was a refuge for her. She had students spend five minutes jotting down thoughts about places of refuge where they meet God.

“We gave them a few minutes to quickly share their place of refuge in small groups of three students from different age groups. We brought students back together and the leader asked people to share places—not something they’d written down but what they’d heard somebody else say,” Metzger says.

Students mentioned meeting God in school, the art room, at church, and in bedrooms. They shared freely because, as Pargellis notes, older kids often don’t want to focus on themselves.

Metzger says teachers “are very mindful in how to hook students on the worship topic.” Teachers often use props from classrooms, perhaps kindergarteners’ clothespin doll self-portraits or a towel or toy donated for a school service project. Teachers may ask students to re-enact a playground incident.

“We’ve used a student planner as the year begins to talk about how new it looks and how the year ahead is like a fresh slate. At the end of the school year, a community worship leader might borrow a student’s planner that’s a little beaten and has been used quite well. He’ll talk about how many pages are left and how far we’ve come.

“Our community prayers always include something for our school, a concern in our country or world, and prayers for people we care about who need prayer for their mind, body, or spirit. We end with the Lord’s Prayer,” Metzger says.

Families welcome

As do many Christian schools, Mustard Seed draws students and teachers from a range of churches. Some families choose the school more for its educational philosophy than its faith stance.

“We have families who do not come from a faith background. We’re very clear with them in the interview about how we claim what’s central to us—Christ and the Bible. We expect every family to come to a community worship time so they can experience fully that we pray in the name of Jesus. We read from the Bible. We sing our faith together. These are expectations for every student, not something you can be exempted from,” Pargellis says.

Family members are always welcome at community worship, and often up to 25 parents attend.

When Lower School students, kindergarten through third grade, focused on place, they looked at places in the Bible where people encountered God.

“We built up to the key truth that God is always with us wherever we are, whether it’s in a pig sty or, like Jonah, on a boat. We came back to the idea of place at the end of the year to ask how our sense of worship place had changed,” Pargellis says.

Teachers from various backgrounds talked about where they worshiped as children. They interviewed parents from different churches. An Egyptian parent from a Coptic Orthodox church brought icons and other worship materials. Parents read the benediction from Numbers 6 (“The Lord bless you and keep you…”) in their native language.

“We heard it in Chinese and Spanish and all sorts of languages,” Metzger says. “It let us bring diversity of faith into the school and yet use the key thing that holds us together, the Bible,” Pargellis adds.

Church and community synergy

Prayers and service projects link Mustard Seed community worship to the world beyond their walls. The sharing goes both ways between the school and metro Jersey/New York City community.

Mustard Seed’s annual Las Posadas celebration, based on a Mexican Christmas tradition, re-enacts Mary and Joseph’s trip to Bethlehem. Costumes, candles, and a mariachi band draw Hoboken residents outdoors in winter to a city park.

Because community worship at Mustard Seed is so child-centered, staff members rarely invite local pastors to give the message. “Instead of putting them on the spot and saying, ‘You’ve got 10 minutes to fill,’ we engage pastors in a conversation or interview. We set it up so they know their role. Often they bring something from their church,” Metzger says.

Local clergy do lead worship at staff meetings before and after the school year, during which every student is prayed for by name. “A staff member works alongside them, but they bring in their own liturgy and lead from their own tradition. It exposes us to different expressions of Christian tradition, which is helpful,” Pargellis says.

Metzger says that lighting a Christ candle and singing the alleluia before Scripture reading are community worship traditions imported from nearby churches.

Learn More

Read more about Mustard Seed School and its origins. A teaching manual, Building the Shared Space, explains the school’s educational philosophy written by Deirdre Mingey, a former MSS teacher. This press release details the school’s annual Las Posadas celebration, open to the public.

Want to make your chapel worship more global? Check out Global Songs for Worship.

Also find ideas and tips for planning worship with children.

Start a Discussion

  • On a scale of “tacked-onto-school-schedules” to “woven into school life,” how do students and staff at your Christian school experience chapel?
  • In what ways does your school’s chapel worship intersect with your students’ lives in the classroom, on the playground, or in their families, churches, or neighborhoods? Which ideas from these stories might you use to make a stronger connection?
  • Talk among yourselves—and consult staff, alumni, and parents—about what has changed and what has stayed the same about chapel in your Christian school.
  • How many students and staff are involved in planning and leading your school chapels? What changes do you dream of making along these lines? What prevents you from taking a first step toward change?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to improve chapel?

  • If you visited chapel services at area Christian schools, did you develop a template to help evaluate those visits and apply your findings to your own chapel worship? If so, would you share that with us?
  • What has worked best—or not worked well—in your efforts to involve more students and staff in planning and leading chapels? As you compare these observations with your peers at other Christian schools, what common themes emerge?
  • Can you share liturgical banner patterns, PowerPoint templates, or other visuals that help convey specific themes in your chapels?