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Increasing Participation in High School Chapel Services

How well do your Christian high school chapels, liturgies, or all-school worship times help students grow in faith? Are your staff and faculty planning chapels for or with students?

Nearly every Christian high school in North America has what it calls chapel, liturgy, or all-school worship. Chapel planners believe their work is vital, yet wonder how to engage students.

As the website of Episcopal High School in Bellaire, Texas, puts it, “Worship is where we find value in ourselves, in others, and in God. We go to chapel every day. It is the one time when all of our Episcopal family is together. Students may sometimes squirm in chapel, but many alumni are now returning to be married and to have their babies baptized, so we know that chapel does take; students do get it!”

The best thing you can do to deepen and renew worship in your Christian high school is to make chapel planning more collaborative. That was the take-home message from the Calvin Symposium on Worship 2012 all-day seminar for students, staff, and teachers who plan chapels at twelve Christian high schools in the U.S. and Canada.

Worship as dialogue

Seminar participants talked about how to notice and explain what their school community does in worship…and why, starting with defining worship.

“At our chapel team retreat, we had a huge sheet of paper that said in the middle ‘Worship is.’ We kept coming back to fill it out. It was awesome to see how deep we can go, how worship comes into our lives and branches out. Worship is a lifestyle, not just something we do in chapel or church,” said Imani Johnson, a student at Ontario Christian High in Ontario, California.

A student from Lexington Christian Academy (LCA) in Lexington, Massachusetts, told Jeremy Alexander that the symposium was expanding his categories of worship. “He’s from an Assemblies of God background and had associated heartfelt worship with groups like Jesus Culture or Hillsong. He’s realized that the passion of worship comes from being rooted in Christ, not in a preferred style of music,” says Alexander, LCA chaplain and Bible instructor.

Several schools now describe worship as a dialogue between God and gathered people. Their chapels use relational words called vertical habits. This language can help all of us practice giving ourselves to God and receiving the Spirit’s power to become more like Christ. Saying “I’m sorry” to God prepares us to apologize to people we’ve snapped at. Saying “Thank you” to God keeps us from hogging all the credit for successes. Passing the peace in chapel helps us find grace to shake hands with sports teams that trounce us.

“The vertical habits made a significant impact on chapel. It was eye-opening to see that our school was really good at praising, but not so much at lamenting, confessing, being assured of forgiveness, or saying, ‘Help me, Lord,’” said Sharon Veltema, who teaches spiritual growth and math at Unity Christian High School in Hudsonville, Michigan.

Scripted chapels

Unity Christian has chapel four mornings a week for 15 minutes, and the spiritual life committee meets daily with Veltema for one period. They completely write out their chapels so everyone knows the details and sequence of reading, singing, playing, acting, praying, or running a PowerPoint or sound.

Senior Hannah Huisman told symposium guests, “Our chapels are mostly student-led. Occasionally we have outside speakers. Our chapels come from ideas in class and from the student body. Chapel is respected because it’s planned by seniors. We have a lot of student testimonies. It’s made chapel a really open and honest place. People feel they can share and be supported.”

Students work through several drafts with Veltema before presenting their testimonies. Advance planning helps create balanced worship so that, over time, worshipers practice every vertical habit. It also gives more students a chance to lead worship successfully.

“We have 720 students, and over 250 students are involved in leading worship each year. These are students who may not be excellent public speakers, but have a desire to lead in worship. Scripting chapel makes them more comfortable and confident when they get up in front of chapel to lead their peers,” Veltema says.

While brainstorming a monthly “community of relationships” theme, she dumped a pile of Legos on the committee’s conference table. Students built with Legos and described how their creations depicted a significant relationship. It went so well that they photographed their creations, wrote out reflections, and put together a chapel that spoke about relationships with each other and God.

Open-ended chapels

Timothy Christian High in Elmhurst, Illinois, has chapel twice a week for 25 minutes. It always begins with the liturgical “The Lord be with you…and also with you.” Chapels often focus on particular elements of worship, such as hearing the Word, singing, or prayers of confession, thanksgiving, or petition.

Bible teacher Mac Wiener plans chapel with a group of seniors and juniors who meet during lunch. “Worship response is something we intentionally think about and plan for,” he says. Often students are invited to leave their seats to respond, whether to move forward for singing, gather in small groups for prayer, or worship God by meeting global needs.

Senior Kyle Groters told symposium guests that open-ended chapels are often memorable. He recalled a chapel when students texted questions to a counselor, youth pastor, and granddad on stage. Students asked how to trust God, talk with a drug-using friend, and set physical boundaries on dates.

“Every couple months, we have an open mic after prayer and singing. That engages students, because we hear what’s going on in each others’ lives,” Groters said.

Wiener acknowledged that offering an open mic for thanks or petitions does carry “the risk of inappropriate sharing. The strengths are that it gives students ownership of chapel, builds community, encourages faith, and provides opportunity for surprising moments of the Spirit working.”

Featured Links

Best practices of high school chapel planners
Chapel planning seminar
Chapel planning process that engages students

Learn More

Don’t miss the conversations with Ben Dykhouse on a chapel planning process that really works and Hannah Huisman about teens planning and leading church worship.

This excellent Christian Educators Journal article summarizes best practices of high school chapel planners across North America. Read Reformed Journal for ideas on planning chapel services for Maundy Thursday and Holy Week. Learn from students’ reports about the first chapel planning course (p. 12) at Whitinsville Christian High School in Whitinsville, Massachusetts.

Listen to the chapel planning seminar from Calvin Symposium on Worship 2012.

Use the vertical habits to help your school develop a relational language for talking with God and growing in faith. your s

Watch videos of chapels at Bellevue Christian High School in Clyde Hill, Washington; Ontario Christian High School in Ontario, California; and Wisconsin Lutheran High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Browse related stories on seminary chapels and worship at Mustard Seed School.

Start a Discussion

Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your faculty or chapel team meeting or in religion class. These questions will help your group talk about why you do what you do in chapel.

  • It’s evident from their websites that Christian high schools aren’t always sure how worshiping together fits into their mission. Links for academics, admission, and athletics dominate school home pages, but chapel information is often buried in sub-menus or findable only through a site search. What does your school’s website reveal about worshiping as a school community?
  • What’s the difference between learning about the Christian life in chapel or practicing Christian life together in chapel?
  • What first step could you take so students, staff, and teachers can more easily link all-school worship to their lives?