What is Chapel?
I wrote this paper some years ago to help me (and others) think about the structure of chapel. What follows is neither technical nor comprehensive in its exegetical or theological comments. It is written to briefly reflect on the nature and purpose of Chapel in a Junior School setting and what considerations might be important regarding its structure and shape. The paper begins with a consideration of ‘Church’ and suggests that chapel is not church, even though the activities of the two are similar. Following this, the positive arguments for both a Combined Chapel (CC - i.e. all students from K-6 in attendance) or a Split Chapel (SC i.e. some form of age based division) are outlined.
What is Church?
The word translated ‘church’ in the New Testament (ekklēsia) typically means a public gathering or assembly. The word itself is not ‘religious’ or special to Christianity. What makes the Christian gathering ‘Church’, is that it is Christian. A simple, biblical definition of ‘church’ then is that it is a gathering by God of his people around himself. It is the end goal of God’s mighty plans and purposes for his creation. The significance of people gathered around God is seen in the life of the nation of Israel, gathered at Mt Sinai after the great rescue event of the Exodus. Immediately following the constitution of Israel as God’s people (through the giving of the Law), the life of the nation is one that is gathered around God, represented first by the Tabernacle and then by the Temple. In the incarnation of the Son of God, we see God’s people gathered around him in the flesh (John 1:14; Col 1:19); the shadow of the Temple is no longer necessary, for the reality has come (Heb 10:1). Following Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the present reality for all believers is that we are spiritually gathered around God, in Christ, in the heavenly realms (Col 3:1-4). We wait for the consummation of this as a physical reality (for our bodies to catch up, so to speak) which will happen when Christ returns. At which point, God will fulfil his promise of a new creation where he will dwell with his people in the new heavens and the new earth forever (Rev 21:1-8).
‘Church’ then, is essentially the gathering of God’s people around himself. It may be spoken of as the Universal Church which refers to believers across the world and throughout time, but the spiritual reality is most wonderfully expressed in the physical reality of the local church. The local gathering of believers is referred to in the New Testament as the body of Christ (Col 1:18), the family of God (1 Tim 3:5) and the household of God (1 Tim 3:15). The head of the Church is Christ (Col 1:18) who has appointed and apportioned various gifts to his people for the equipping of his body (1 Cor 12-14; Eph 4). Typically, the local gathering is cared for by a pastor-teacher, an under-shepherd, who is appointed and given responsibility over the congregation for the good order of God’s people (see the Pastoral Epistles, Hebrews 13, 1 Peter 5). While believers are encouraged to meet with one another, they are not commanded to do so … such a command would be superfluous! The local church is the natural and right expression of what God is doing in this world: to gather with one’s spiritual family on a regular basis is as obvious and beneficial for the believer, as family time is for any healthy family.
The New Testament provides instruction to elders regarding what is important for the gathered people of God (see, for example, Paul’s instructions to Timothy and Titus) as well as descriptive accounts of what the early church did when they met together (see for example, Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 11). In the context of a Christian school, where there are a variety of forms of ‘churchmanship’, it is worth noting that much of what we think about how the gathering of God’s people should ‘look and feel’ is driven by our experiences and personal preferences. There is very little in Scripture about the ‘form’ of gathering (other than that it should be ordered, 1 Cor 14), but there is a lot about the ‘content’ that should concern God’s people when they are gathered. This is also reflected in Article XIX of the 39 Articles of Religion (the formularies of the Anglican Church) which states: "The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men [and women], in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same."
Before moving on to whether Chapel in a Junior School context is ‘Church’ it is important to articulate what ‘Church’ is not. Church is not a building; the location of God’s people gathered is of no significance. Sadly, we can give the wrong impression to children, because of the constraints of the English language, when we refer to certain buildings as ‘the church’. Similarly, church is not a set of rituals or liturgies. This is not to say that there is no value in liturgy (Thomas Cranmer, the architect of the Anglican Church clearly knew the importance of form as the vehicle of content). However, while robust and Scripturally-informed liturgies are useful teaching tools, their presence or absence has no bearing on the nature of church.
So, is Chapel church?
It is the suggestion of this paper that Chapel is not church. While the New Testament acknowledges that the church will often (if not always) have those who are not yet believers present in the gathering (1 Corinthians 12-14), the character of the gathering is that it is primarily one of believers. In contrast, Chapel is a compulsory activity in an educational context, where the majority of those in attendance are not (currently) disciples of Christ. Chapel is not a gathering of believers as a local and physical expression of our spiritual reality around the throne of God, even though believers are gathered.
Furthermore, the nature of the relationship between those who teach at Chapel and those who gather is not the paradigm of the local church (that of under-shepherd and flock/ pastor-teacher and congregation) but one of an educational institution, teachers and students. Regarding the activities of Chapel, while some of them reflect the activities of the local church (such as faithfully explaining the word of God), we do not undertake all the activities of the body of Christ gathered, for example, it would be inappropriate to administer the sacraments. On these three points – the composition of those gathered, the authority relationships of those gathered and the activity of the gathering – Chapel appears distinct from the New Testament’s understanding of church.
If Chapel is not church, what, then, is it?
Chapel is an opportunity! Even though Chapel is not church, because it in some ways reflects church, it is first an opportunity to serve our Christian brothers and sisters, and secondly, it is an opportunity to engage the school body (and potentially the wider school community) with the gospel of Christ. While Chapel is involuntary and mostly a gathering of ‘not-yet’ believers, it is still an opportunity for Christians, in the school community, to come together around God. This is true regardless of age groupings or the size of the gathering. It is an opportunity for the Christian students to learn how to follow Christ as they listen to and imitate Christian teachers. For some students, Chapel is the closest approximation to Church they can have at present, as they (rightly) submit themselves to the wishes of non-believing parents. As Chapel undertakes some of the activities of a local church, so children learn the habits of Christians gathered around God: we listen to God, we pray, we sing God’s praises, we teach each other through word and song (Col 3:16). Chapel is an opportunity for children to experience, and learn through experience, the habits of Christian gatherings. (As an aside: John & Noel Piper make an interesting argument for keeping children in the local church gathering with their parents. This is an idea worth reflecting on if your only church experience has been where children are sent out to children’s church for most of the meeting time. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-family-together-in-gods-presence).
The biblical evidence is remarkably free of instruction regarding where, when or even how God’s people should gather. That they do gather is important. What they do when they gather is also important: they listen to God through his word publicly read and explained, they pray, they sing, and they share life (often food) together. There is then, no exegetical or theological argument for the structure of Chapel. We are free. Given this freedom, the decision for how Chapel is structured is one of wisdom, which may, depending on circumstances, look different from time to time.
The following section outlines the positive arguments for both a Combined Chapel (CC) and a Split Chapel (SC) scenario. In both scenarios the arguments are grouped under three headings: educational, logistical and cultural reasons.
Arguments for a Combined Chapel
The educational reasons that support a CC must be acknowledged as long-term. It cannot be denied that in a CC setting, students at the centre of the age range (Years 3-4) are likely to be the ones who most comfortably participate in and understand Chapel. This however, does not mean that all students do not learn. In a CC setting, students learn the pattern of corporate fellowship and worship. Over 7 years students hear a breadth of Scripture – from the ‘full’ text, as opposed to Bible stories for children – read and explained and they ‘grow into’ an understanding of it, under God’s hand. That a Kindergarten student does not understanding everything in CC is not something that is inherently problematic. Likewise, older students do well to see younger ones accommodated for, both as an act of loving service, but also because truth simply taught is still truth.
Logistically CC ensures some significant foundations for corporate Christianity in school life. Timetabling and staffing is more straightforward, and a location is regularly secured as a priority. As it involves the entire school, it is an activity of priority: regardless of other school activities (camp, technical rehearsals, excursions and parent-teacher interview days) CC is always on. The planning (talk series and song choices) and preparation (prayers, slide preparation, speaker liaison, talk writing and training aspects) involved in Chapel is considerable and constant, and depending on staff provisions a CC enables this to be practically efficient.
The cultural benefits of a CC are essentially related to the benefits of students from K-6 and staff gathering together to sit under God’s word once a week. Everyone hears the same passage, the same talk. Everyone learns the same songs and the same actions. This lends the community a common language and experience, every week of the school year, which is beneficial.
Arguments for a Split Chapel
Unsurprisingly, the arguments for a SC tend to address the weaknesses and challenges of a CC. A SC would allow the teaching time (both the talk and the songs) to be more appropriately directed at age and stage specific learning. SC would also allow for increased student involvement during Chapel. In a K-2 Chapel, the younger students would (most likely) be involved in leading corporate prayers and singing, which they are currently not involved with in CC. A SC would possibly require a greater contribution from classroom teaching staff and thus would provide additional opportunities for staff to develop as communicators and organisers in a larger context. While I suspect the ‘flavour’ of a Primary Chapel would be like the current CC, perhaps the strongest argument for an Infants Chapel is that it would have scope for a more interactive teaching time, thereby engaging younger students at an appropriate educational level. Likewise, the implications of the gospel could be explored with greater age specificity in a SC context, particularly for upper Primary aged students.
The cultural benefit of a SC lies with an increased visibility of Christian staff actively living out their faith with their students. Students benefit from seeing their class teacher explain what they believe, to the larger gathering.
Clearly, both scenarios have positive arguments supporting them. Any decision carries a cost, namely, that you miss out on the positive aspects of the alternative structure. Nevertheless, a decision needs to be made for one structure over the other, and different structures will be appropriate for different times and practical constraints. The delight of school Chapel is that, we are free to proclaim the gospel to many souls every week! That proclamation will always be understood by some and not by others; but take heart, God knows those who are his and neither my (nor your) stumbling words, nor the exhaustion of Kindergarten, nor the youthful confidence of Year 6 will stop him from calling his people to himself!
To God be the glory!