Planning Great High School Chapels

As Christian school families are learning from their kids and grand kids, high school chapel services are a lot different than they used to be--and often more appreciated as well. A feature story exploring high school chapels.

The scene happens to be Lynden Christian High school in a small Washington town but could be anywhere…Yet again chaplain Ben de Regt hears students complain, “Oh, man! We gotta go to chapel again and sit in assigned seats.”

Fast forward two years to a day so snowy that school begins an hour late. The principal announces over the intercom that because of the delay there will be no chapel. Kids look at each and groan. “Oh, man! You mean we gotta miss chapel?”

Christian high school chapel planners across North America are reporting similar situations. The key? Rethinking the purpose of chapel and finding new ways to involve students and staff in planning and leading chapel.

We are people on a journey

You may know the simple song from Nicaragua that begins: “We are people on a journey; pain is with us all the way. Joyfully we come together at the holy feast of God.”

The song sums up a growing awareness among Christian high school chapel planners that, although each student and teacher is at a different stage of faith development, all are on a journey to God.

In fact, chaplain Mark Kuiper and his chapel planning committee chose “Our Journey” as a school year theme for chapels at Grand Rapids Christian High in Michigan. When well-loved principal Jim Stapert died suddenly during the first month of school, the journey theme provided a framework. “We all die. It’s part of our life journey. But we don’t know when our end will come,” Kuiper says.

He and students invited the Stapert family to a memorial chapel at which several teachers spoke about their colleague. “It was good for kids to see teachers grieving and in pain. Talking about our grief and the hope we have in Jesus Christ gave a sense of closure and peace,” Kuiper says.

Become a worshiping community

As has been true for years, whether they have chapel once, twice, or four times a week, most schools require chapel attendance. But recently more chapel planners are helping students and staff see why they come together.

Ben de Regt in Lynden says that the purpose of chapel is to build biblical community.

Mark Kuiper agrees. “Chapel is the only time we erase barriers between grades. The challenge is to make our worship school-related…but not school.”

In metro Chicago, Timothy Christian High School replaced the term “chapel” with “worship.” Matt Pechiano, who teaches Bible and helps plan worship, explains that the new term helps students and staff “better appreciate a sense of reverence and purpose when we gather twice weekly. Also, there is a corporate sense of participation rather than a ‘presentation’ mentality.”

Dave Voss, a senior who co-chairs Timothy’s student worship planning committee, says leaders often invite people assigned to their auditorium’s upper level to come on down to lower-level aisles or the stage. “You get more of a community feel when there’s a chance to squeeze in close to a friend and worship together,” he says.

Schools are buying into a “for the community by the community” approach to chapel. Most still occasionally book speakers or musicians that travel the country on a circuit. But it’s growing rarer for chapels to feature someone no one has any connection to.

Involve students and staff

“Before we created a structure modeled on Calvin College’s worship apprentice team, our chapels were mix and match. We had chapel as often as now but would quick pull together some teachers and students to make each one happen,” de Regt says. Now he works with eight student worship apprentices who meet weekly to plan, prepare for, and pray about corporate worship chapels.

Schools typically offer several levels of participation. A core committee plans annual and monthly themes. The core group may break into smaller groups and recruit other students and staff to help with a specific task (music, message or testimony, logistics, drama, projected technology) or type of chapel (prayer and praise, Holy Week).

There are many ways for students to use their gifts in chapel. “I’m not real creative so I’ve learned to delegate. I am organized, though. I can facilitate meetings and help people sort out what we can really do and what’s far fetched. I like to listen to ideas, so other students come to me with feedback about how to make things better,” Dave Voss says.

At Unity Christian High in Hudsonville, Michigan, student Tara Kloostra plans a monthly singing chapel. She gathers song suggestions and chooses four or five to fit a theme. “I choose a mix of contemporary Christian songs, like from WOW Worship books, and traditional hymns. I sometimes put different chords, note values, or a strong drum beat on hymns. Every once in a while we do a new song and repeat it the next time so it becomes more familiar,” she says.

From a list of students who’ve expressed an interest, Kloostra recruits a praise team of singers and musicians and gives them music in advance, so they can rehearse together. She also chooses how many verses to sing and plans musical introductions and transitions.

Another member of Unity’s Spiritual Leadership Committee organizes Bible readings, spoken transitions, prayer, and projected lyrics for the singing chapel.

“As more students lead chapel and we have fewer outside speakers, there’s a greater sense of ownership. Three years ago we had 15 students sign up to participate in chapel. This year over 100 signed up,” says Sharon Veltema, Unity’s staff member in charge of chapel.

Putting on four chapels a week, most student-led, is a tremendous challenge requiring major cooperation among students and staff. “Not all students are at the same level spiritually. These chapels create an atmosphere where students feel safe to ask questions, share, learn, and grow in their faith,” Veltema says.

Recognize differences

Chapel planners realize that, not only are students at different places spiritually, they also come from varied worship traditions.

Steve Winkle, who coordinates chapels at South Christian High in Cutlerville, Michigan, says their recent Reformation Day chapel was especially fun and celebrative. “For the first time, our small but significant Lutheran student population led the service from start to finish,” he explains.

At Lynden Christian, one worship apprentice comes from a Pentecostal tradition, so often spontaneously calls out names of God during a musical number or asks a group to keep playing beyond what was planned.

Meanwhile, another worship apprentice is introducing songs meaningful in his Living Streams house church tradition. “They’re far more hymn-like, more doctrinal and theological than many contemporary praise songs are,” de Regt says.

Several schools invite international and exchange students to offer prayers or read Scripture in their own language or share songs from their home churches.

Pray more

A huge reason for better chapels is something not necessarily visible to the average chapel-goer. But it’s quite simple. “Prayer,” Winkle explains.

Every Wednesday morning, he and other intercessors gather to pray for South Christian chapel services and other school needs. Winkle also prepares classroom devotionals so teachers can reinforce chapel themes through homeroom devotions and prayers.

Students join Unity’s Spiritual Leadership Committee knowing that prayer will be a big part. During autumn, each member sends about 25 personal notes to let freshmen and transfer students know the committee is praying they’ll feel welcome. Throughout the year, members regularly pray for each other and specific people and needs in the school community.

Lynden’s worship apprentices go on a fall retreat and meet weekly to plan and pray. But there’s also another important committee—the Student Christian Leadership Team—that meets twice a week “to be Christ and be Jesus to the ‘orphans and widows’ of our school. And every chapel, a couple of these kids are in the back or in the balcony or behind the curtain specifically praying for the speakers and asking God to till the ‘soul soil,’ ” de Regt says.

“After all,” he explains, “if we’re going to minister, we need to minister out of community. That means praying with and for each other.” 

Learn More

Schools with strong chapel traditions include Wesleyan and Catholic schools in Illinois and Michigan. (The end of this weblog has more on spiritual life at St. Clare of Montefalco.)

Go ahead. Swipe these great ideas for worship renewal and planning 30-minute weekday worship services. Many strategies for planning worship in dorms, including this weblog entry, also work for high school chapels. Discover movie clips relevant to religious themes. Watch video clips about choosing a complete menu of music for your chapels.

If you’d like to be more intentional about using students to plan and lead chapel, then check out how Calvin College uses worship apprentices and what worship apprentices say about their experiences. Also read up on high school chapel planning workshops held in 2004 and 2005 (Watch video clips from 2005).

Learn from your peers. Follow Steve Winkle’s method of producing homeroom devotions that reinforce monthly chapel themes. Adapt the chapel that Unity Christian High did on helping students understand what chapel is for. See a Thanksgiving chapel plan and listen to an audio interview about what made the chapel work well.

Inviting chapel-goers to do simple movements often works surprisingly well. We’re talking really simple, like:

  • passing the peace to each other
  • asking people to rest their hands, palms down, hand open to God, during a prayer
  • using ash to mark the sign of the cross on people’s foreheads during Holy Week
  • passing out cards for people to anonymously list worries or sins, then collecting and burning the cards in a bowl to symbolize God taking away our fears and sins
  • singing “Koinonia”, which begins “How can I say that I love the Lord,” as you turn and shake hands with people around you. (“Koinonia,” #579 in African American Heritage Hymnal, is available through GIA’s HymnPrint service.)

Lynden Christian High sometimes uses short DVD clips from Nooma. For example, after opening chapel with the clip Rain, they led into the song “Blessed Be Your Name,” which Matt Redman wrote after 9/11. Then chapel leaders talked about how we respond to God when life doesn’t go as we expect. Book Ben de Regt to speak about prayer or building community in chapels at your next school convention or church retreat.

Chapel planners say they get ideas, words, and songs from Sunday Morning LiveThe Worship Sourcebook, and Sing! A New Creation. Since high schoolers are often full of angst, it’s important to sing songs that cover a wide range of emotions, which hymns do. Kevin Twit, a campus pastor, explains why thepostmodern generation is embracing hymns, especially hymns with updated music. Listen to the original “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say,” compared to Twit’s version.

As you expand your musical repertoire for chapel, stick to Emily Cooper’s excellent advice on music copyrights and permissions.

Browse related stories on contemporary worship musiccollege chapel services, developing a faith vocabulary, and equipping worship leaders

Start a Discussion

  • What’s the difference between worshiping as a school or as a church community? In what ways might both groups learn from or enrich each other’s worship?
  • Talk among yourselves—and consult staff, alumni, and parents—about what has changed and what has stayed the same about chapel in your Christian high school.
  • How many students and staff are involved in planning and leading your high school chapels? What changes do you dream of making along these lines? What prevents you from taking a first step toward change?
  • High school is not “the best time of your life” for every student. How might you plan chapels more sensitive to the teens who don’t come to chapel ready to praise God and aren’t so sure that Jesus is relevant to their lives—or even exists? 

Share Your Wisdom

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

  • If you visited chapel services at area Christian high schools and colleges, 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 high schools, what common themes emerge?
  • Can you share liturgical banner patterns, PowerPoint templates, or other visuals that help convey specific themes in your chapels?

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