Chapel Planning and Leading: What We Are Learning from Christian Schools

In the unique setting of Christian schools, how do children and young people learn to worship? In what ways do they connect their weekday worshiping experience with their school community and their participation in Sunday worship with their church community? How do we guide young people to move beyond what they “like” or “don’t like” about worship to questions that explore the deeper meaning and purpose of worship? These are a few of the questions that guide the work of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship as we interact with Christian school worshiping communities.

In the rich heritage of Christian schools, gathering as a school community for worship or chapel has been a regular practice for tens of thousands of students and educators throughout North America. These chapel services differ across school contexts but generally include the basic movements of worship: gathering as a body, listening to God’s word and instruction, responding to God in prayer and song, and sending students and teachers back to the classroom for learning and service in God’s world. At the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, we are grateful for the numerous ways we have connected with Christian schools across North America­ over the past decade —particularly high schools—to listen and learn from them concerning the needs, opportunities, and challenges in planning thoughtful, engaging chapel services. In many cases, we have been able to respond with published resources that promote collaborative worship planning and leading. We have also sponsored training events for students and teachers. And several schools have participated in a process of learning through the Worship Renewal Grants Program (see

This article identifies some insights about worship that influence our work with Christian schools and shares what we are learning from students and teachers through their experiences of chapel planning and leading. All the comments come directly from feedback we have collected. This collective wisdom is presented in the form of proverbs—wise sayings, or words of advice—in the hope that this will encourage learning over time and across contexts, and spark conversation and further thinking on these topics.

1.  Wise is the worshiping community called the Christian school that embraces and encourages full, active, and conscious participation of all worshipers, especially students.

Sometimes Christian school leaders get caught up in questions of style or format as they plan their chapels (What will keep the students’ attention? What songs are popular now?), and neglect the deeper, formative aspects of gathering and worshiping together. Full participation in worship involves giving ourselves to God and receiving from God the Holy Spirit, who transforms us and shapes our identity as children of God. In Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith suggests the goal of Christian education is the same goal as Christian worship: “to form radical disciples of Jesus and citizens of the baptismal city” and “the formation of a peculiar people.” He further insists that the task of Christian education “needs to be reconnected to the thick [deeply rooted and entwined] practices of the church” (220). In order to fully realize this shared goal, school and church leaders need to provide the teaching and training for young people so they come to know what we do in worship and why. This connects directly to the second proverb:

2.  Wise are Christian educators who train their students in worship by teaching them about the deep meaning and purpose of worship.

Active and conscious participation in worship develops as teachers engage with students about what it is we do in worship and why. This learning comes both from discussing and reading about worship (understanding the content of worship), but also from practicing or “doing” worship regularly (learning through experience). How significant that these students practice worship not only in church, but also in school in their chapel services. Over time, this learning about the meaning and purpose of worship equips students (and teachers) to better reflect on what constitutes a “successful” chapel service. One teacher noted that defining worship at their school is critical: “we have one hundred different congregations represented in our school, so it is often hard for the student leaders to assume what is known by the student body.” Developing a definition of worship for your school community is a helpful exercise to cultivate learning about worship and prompt conscious participation in worship by the full community.

3.  Wise is the Christian school that includes students in planning and leading chapel.

We observe there are several chapel planning models in practice at schools across North America, such as the “outside speaker” model, the “student team” model, and the “chapel coordinator/staff” model, to name a few. Each model comes with its pros and cons. What we are learning from many schools is that even though the time and energy investment is high, the benefits of including students in the planning process are life-changing. One teacher wrote, “the kids seem to most want the opportunity to really share among themselves and be encouraged and challenged and learn from one another.”

In Growing in the Life of Faith: Education and Christian Practices, Christian educator Craig Dykstra writes, “an essential task of education in faith is to teach all the basic practices of the Christian faith … be drawn into participation in them, learn to do them with increasingly deepened understanding and skill, learn to extend them more broadly and fully in their own lives and into their world, and learn to correct them, strengthen them, and improve them” (71). Note how strongly this ties to the instructive words of 2 Timothy 3:16. One of the best means of instructing young people is to involve them in the process of learning and give them opportunities to practice with their peers and learn from that process through the wise guidance of their teachers.

Worship Institute colleague Kathy Smith notes:

“Good leadership is not about having the right people with the right traits (research has not supported trait theory), but about having a [school] context and situations in which effective leadership can happen. And in order to have such a situation you need good leaders and good followers—a system that works effectively. Leadership is actually a reciprocal process. The followers are as responsible for the quality and effectiveness of leadership as are the leaders” (Smith).

This perspective on leadership in a school context provides a sturdy framework for growth and a capacity for correction when necessary.

One teacher expressed it this way: the school wants to “provide a framework for the student leaders to plan and have some accountability to making sure it [chapel] has direction (praising God), purpose (our worship), evaluation (correct errors), and community development (fruits of the Spirit).” And we also know from schools that work toward this student-teacher reciprocal leadership model that it is challenging to implement.

One school explained, “We have two staff members and usually from four to six students who come and plan. We try to meet on Fridays during a study hall when it works with schedules. Actually being able to meet is a challenge. We are able to ask quite a few other students to participate. I would guess we have had about twelve to fifteen students involved in leading chapel in some way out of our seventy-six-member student body.”

We are convinced, however, that this model of collaborative, cross-generational planning allows school communities to form worshipers more deeply and intentionally. It also prepares young people for leadership in Sunday worship and other areas of church life. We are convinced this model builds capacity for and contributes toward a holistic approach to learning and worship in a school community that starts from the deep meaning and purpose of worship and incorporates the back-and-forth rhythm of Sunday worship and weekday living. Theologian Gail Ramshaw writes in the delightful children’s book Every Day and Sunday, Too, “One of the basic questions we can never stop asking is this: What does it mean to be a Christian today? … Christians gather to learn again and again the actions of Christ, so that we might be Christ every day and Sunday, too.”

4.  Happy and wise are school leaders that build capacity for healthy evaluation processes and implement appropriate change over time.

Schools we engage with acknowledge that adapting to change in chapel programs comes slowly and is not without challenges. Several teachers commented:

“We’re making the changes slowly. We’ve tried to be more forthright about it, but the effort went nowhere. We’re trying to bring it in slower now.”
“First of all, change is slow. This is my fourth year as chapel coordinator, and I’ve worked to incorporate more than just music and speakers in chapel. We use drama, dramatic readings, art, and symbolic acts as part of our worship. Chapels used to be very predictable: music and a speaker. We’re still working to bring more variety to our worship, but each year is better than the previous one!”

Another teacher formed it as a question: it’s “the generation of change … How can teens be empowered to lead and sustain change?”

Change over time based on healthy and careful evaluation (the feedback depends on asking the right questions!) is far more sustainable and much better received by the community than forging ahead with change for the sake of change.

5.  Blessed are the school communities that share learning and encourage one another.

Over the past three years, fifty-five Christian schools across North America have sent student-teacher teams to participate in the Calvin Symposium on Worship. The feedback from these schools overwhelmingly supports this proverb. The opportunity to gather together and share practices is a significant point of learning and encouragement in their common work. The teachers and administrators offered these comments when asked, “What was the best aspect of the conference?”:

  • Talking with other high schools students and teachers … and hearing their ideas.
  • Sharing ideas with other schools, seeing and hearing what they are doing. It was encouraging to hear that they struggle with some of the same issues as we do and to hear how they have addressed some of those issues.
  • Meeting different students and teachers and being able to talk about chapel.
  • We had a chance to talk with other students and chapel organizers about the chapels in our schools. We would have liked to have more time talking about what really works and frustrations we have in our school.
  • We really appreciated, as teachers, being able to meet and chat with teachers and leaders from other schools.

And it blessed us to read this student comment, “To be honest, the most educating part of my time there was when I spoke with other students about issues, ideas, and suggestions about their way of worship. It was also encouraging to speak to them!”

Educator Robert Keeley reminds us that helping our children grow in faith is the most important task we do as a community of faith. And we need to find ways to achieve community or “family” to nurture this growth. He contends that children and youth flourish when they can make “connections” with “the people with whom they interact” (35).

If you school is not sure where to start to create a community of learning, consider trying one of these ideas:

  1. At your regional Christian educators’ convention, organize a roundtable discussion on chapel planning and leading. Invite teachers and administrators to share ideas and make connections.
  2. Initiate a chapel “exchange,” where you invite a team of students and teachers from an area school to worship with you and vice versa. Afterward, gather together to share observations and reflections about the worship experience.
  3. As a school community, create a worship statement. How does your school define chapel or worship time? As part of the homework, have students bring in the worship statements from their own churches.
  4. Attend the Christian high school chapel planning and leading seminar at the next Symposium on Worship, January 26–28, 2012. Details at

Please send reflections or additional proverbs to Kristen at

Works Cited

  • Dykstra, Craig. Growing in the Life of Faith: Education and Christian Practices, 2nd ed. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.
  • Keeley, Robert J. Helping Our Children Grow in Faith: How the Church Can Nurture the Spiritual Development of Kids. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2008.
  • Ramshaw, Gail. Every Day and Sunday, Too. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1996.
  • Smith, James K.A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.
  • Smith, Kathy. “Effective Leadership for Worship Renewal.”Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Web. Accessed 5 Aug. 2011. <>.