Chapel in the Time of COVID

In my second year of being the point person for coordinating chapels at the institution I work for, I finally felt like I was starting to get a handle on it. It’s a lot of work, but I have thoroughly enjoyed this role and consider it a blessing and a privilege to play a part in creating a space for others to encounter Christ. Demographically, our school is a very interesting mix of students. In some of the older grades, our international student population is as high as 45 percent, and it is not a guarantee that our students are necessarily from Christian families, let alone consistent church-attending families. This has implications for teaching and learning from a biblical Christian worldview because we cannot assume that all the students are biblically literate or have been in a church/chapel setting. Despite this, school chapels are a valuable opportunity to share what we believe to anyone who enters our doors, and our diversity makes our student life rich with opportunities for intercultural understanding. 

…school chapels are a valuable opportunity to share what we believe to anyone who enters our doors, and our diversity makes our student life rich with opportunities for intercultural understanding.

Now before I continue, I want to acknowledge my use of the first-person pronoun “I” in discussing chapels in Christian grade school settings. Ultimately, I am not the one changing hearts and minds toward the heavens, but it is God who changes the hearts of the students. I work to create space for the individuals within our community to encounter Jesus, and it is he who changes them. In this article, I will recount my past few years coordinating chapels at a K–12 Christian school, particularly the changes and rethinking about the nature of chapel that have come about because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prior to the pandemic, I was encouraged to see a growing consistency in the rhythm and flow of chapel and assemblies. When Friday mornings came, students generally knew what to expect and how to help setup chairs, the transitions from class to chapel were getting smoother, and assembly etiquette was a lot better. The number of students who served in the worship teams increased, in large part due to the efforts of our music teachers who led by example and put in many hours of work in inspiring the students to use their music and leadership capabilities to serve. And finally, a culture was emerging in which students were looking forward to the variety of speakers who would visit our school and share what they were passionate about and how God was working in their lives and in their ministry. It wasn’t perfect; not every student was necessarily engaged or even listening. Perhaps they were exhausted from studying or from other facets of school life, or perhaps they weren’t able to relate to this week’s speaker. It’s also an incredible logistical challenge setting up and transitioning a school gym to a chapel as a space to focus on God in a span of minutes. Nevertheless, it felt like growth, and it felt like God was slowly working through the students.

I remember a particular conversation I had with a student that challenged and frustrated me. In what I thought was going to be a ten-minute quick chat, this student spent forty-five minutes sharing about all the ways chapel at the school could be better. Some of the various critiques were that we should stop doing a particular song, we need more contemporary upbeat music, we should get this speaker, we need more time for that, it’s not exciting enough, and the older students don’t care or aren’t engaged. Looking back, I felt frustrated by it because it made me feel like I wasn’t doing a good enough job, and the standards being asked for felt unrealistic in a time-bound context of an educational institution. It was also frustrating to hear those critiques come from that student because I knew that the individual was active in their own church but wasn’t necessarily active in our school chapel. I asked the student how they were going to help improve chapel, and I never got a concrete answer. Needless to say, that conversation upset me, and I didn’t fully understand why. I left that conversation with the burden of a list of critiques rather than a hopeful takeaway. 

Nevertheless, the school chapels continued, and we were blessed with all sorts of speakers ranging from people who worked in various ministries to local youth pastors to our own staff sharing their life experiences. In year-end student life surveys, many students would comment that the most memorable chapel speakers were the teachers themselves, as they shared who they were as individuals beyond the confines of the classroom walls. I even remember a wonderful moment when we had a family worship band play for our entire K–12 school community, and at some point the grade 12 boys joined the band to do some of the actions. This gave permission for the rest of the students to let their guard down and take part with the actions, and so we saw this mixture of different kids of all different ages enjoying the music, dancing along in a celebratory atmosphere. 

And then on March 11, 2020, the announcement of the pandemic hit, and our school decided to close early for spring break. At the time, we held a hopeful optimism that the pandemic wouldn’t last too long; we didn’t realize we would have to completely shift the way we conducted school and, consequently, how we ran school chapels. Very quickly, and with little preparation, we had to adapt and use whatever technologies and skills we had available. 

At the Junior School (K–5), our principal started “Rudy and Friends.” Rudy and his friends Barclay, Penelope, and others are puppets. Our Junior School principal has ventriloquist and video editing skills, and so “Rudy and Friends” became a weekly video that featured chapel messages, worship music, skits with the puppets, and slideshows of what the different students were up to during quarantine. This was a hit with our Junior School students, and we kept it going into the following academic school year when we were able to have classes in person, albeit no cross-cohort gatherings. 

At the Senior School (grades 6–12), we initially ran chapel in a podcast format, and I edited different audio clips, piecing together worship music with interviews and messages from different staff and students about time during quarantine. I opted for an audio format because at the time it was easier to edit, especially in a time where everything was in limbo. But then in the new school year in September 2020, we switched to video for the Senior School. Every Friday, students in their cohort classes would watch chapel videos in classes together with built-in time for a discussion period to unpack the message. Because we were allowed to be in the building again with students, it was much easier to film students in person and feature them in videos than to get them to film themselves and coordinate a way to send files over the internet, and this opened opportunities for more creative chapel segments.

This is what we did in the past year and a half to keep chapel going at our schools, and it involved a lot of learning and trying new things. Content creation and editing unexpectedly became an unofficial part of my job description, and as many churches and schools can attest, it was a quick turnaround in adapting. While it was overwhelming taking on the technological side of things, it was an opportunity to be creative and to think outside the box, which I relished. I’d like to boil down this past year and a half of coordinating chapels in the COVID era into three takeaway lessons and share some examples of what went well.

Takeaway 1: The way in which we conduct chapel does not need to be limited to meeting together in a particular space. Because of the restrictions that were placed on mass gatherings, we had to rethink the nature of chapel. Prior to the pandemic, we had this formulaic way of conducting chapel for grades 6–12: settle in, sing corporate worship, listen to the speaker, pray, hear the announcements. However, switching to online chapels opened up opportunities to try different segments and different ways of delivering messages. A global event like the pandemic reminds us that chapel is not just a formulaic service, it’s ultimately a space for others to be encouraged and to discover who Jesus is. 

It’s ultimately a space for others to be encouraged and to discover who Jesus is.

One way this played out was a shift from listening to not just one voice but rather to multiple voices. In one of our chapel segments, during our message section, we tried a segment called “Coffee for Three,” in which another teacher and I had a conversation with one of our soon-to-be-retired teachers and asked him about his teaching career, how God has worked in his life, and words of encouragement that he had for our students. Unlike a traditional message, this was filmed as a casual conversation, and many students loved hearing the stories that the now-retired teacher shared about his life and the words of affirmation that he had for the students in our school. 

Another thing we tried was a “3×5,” where we filmed three student-leaders sharing for five minutes each on a specific topic. In particular, we had them talk about kindness in February, which coincided with Pink Shirt Day (an anti-bullying campaign in Canada). To share candidly on film about personal memories and experiences related to alienation and bullying was a nerve-wracking and vulnerable experience for these students, and there was needed guidance and coaching on speaking well. But nevertheless they did it, and it was meaningful for students to see their peers open up courageously. 

These are some examples of the well-received and encouraging formats that have emerged out of the need to be creative in how we conduct chapel. Even when we do return to a sense of normalcy, these are segments that we would like to continue.

Takeaway 2: Chapel is an opportunity to celebrate the people of the community

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Anthony is a teacher and the Student Life Coordinator at White Rock Christian Academy in Surrey, BC, Canada. He currently teaches IB DP Language & Literature 11 and 12. In his spare time he likes to play electric guitar or play pickup hoops at a local basketball court. IG: @aye.bigs