Student-Led Worship and Faith Formation

The bell rings for lunch, and the students stream out of their classrooms. As I make my way from my office to the staff lunch room, I am stopped by a student who asks, “When can I be in chapel again?” I chat with the student for a while, and continue on. Ten steps later, another student stops me. “I have a great song that I would love to sing in chapel.” I get the information from the student and continue to the lunch room. Although this scenario doesn’t happen every day, it happens far more times than I ever imagined. Students are excited to be involved in worship!

I expect most Christian educators would agree that worship plays a formative role in the faith development of our young people. In the book Shaped by God, Robbie Castleman writes, “Life is liturgy. Life has patterns that shape us more and for a lot longer than we ever realize. It is no wonder that liturgy – the pattern of corporate worship – shapes our faith formation more than we ever realize” (Keeley 72).

But what impact does worship have within our Christian schools, and do we have a vision for the role of corporate worship in our school communities? What are the implications of having students involved in leading worship and the time commitment involved? Is it worth the time, the money, and the effort?

At Unity Christian High School, maintaining a culture of worship is a significant part of our overall vision. Worship plays an important role in the faith formation of our students and we see firsthand that worship forms our school community. This has helped us affirm our commitment to worship. At our school, we meet for chapel four mornings a week—Monday through Thursday. Chapel is considered to be the second class period of our day. This daily schedule allows worship to be a part of the natural rhythm of our day. It is a healthy daily habit that shapes our lives and our school. More importantly, we have found that having students lead each other in corporate worship has proved to be enormously effective in maintaining a culture of worship in our school. Allowing and encouraging students to participate in leadership roles of worship has blessed our school and engaged our students in a way that has been transformative.

Recently, one of our Bible teachers conducted an informal survey with our junior class. Students were asked if they would like to have chapel less often during the week. Overwhelmingly, the students responded that they preferred to meet for chapel daily.  One of the biggest challenges of my job as chapel coordinator is to incorporate all the students who want to be involved. I also keep a file of the notes I have received from students over the years expressing appreciation for our worship and the impact chapel has had on student’s lives. This is further affirmation of the effect of corporate, student-led worship in the lives of our students.

Often we associate student involvement in worship with a praise band—playing the piano, guitar, or drums. While this is an excellent way to involve students in worship, our goal is to allow students to participate actively in all aspects of worship. Consider the worship experience in our churches. When we come together as God’s people, we listen to a call to worship, we praise, we confess, and we are given God’s assurance of forgiveness. We hear the word of the Lord spoken, and we respond to that word. We also receive God’s blessing. In our school, all of these aspects of worship are conducted by students. This has created a culture of worship where students are excited to come to chapel and to take on leadership responsibilities.

In order to enable students to be successful in these leadership roles, our school teaches our students about worship, including why we worship, how we worship, and the purpose of worship. Our spiritual leadership committee, comprised of senior students who meet every day during a class time, studies and plans worship. All of our student-led chapels are completely scripted, and students are mentored in leading their peers in a call to worship, an opening and closing prayer, a time of confession, the assurance of pardon, and the spoken word. Not every aspect of worship happens every day in chapel since the time we meet together is between fifteen and twenty minutes. But, aside from the sacraments, all aspects of worship do happen in chapel, and our students learn how to lead each other. The fifteen minutes or more that we spend in corporate worship is our time of family devotions in which we see the formation of a community of staff and students united in Christ through worship.

The process of involving students in all aspects of worship and leadership roles is time consuming and requires commitment from administrators and teachers. In the course of our school year, approximately 250 students are involved in chapel. Of the 130 chapels that occur during a typical school year, close to 100 are student led. Involving this many students in worship leadership requires tremendous commitment. Quality student-led worship takes much more than fifteen to twenty minutes of planning, and in many schools where budgetary and staffing cuts may be necessary, time for planning worship may seem impossible.

This begs the question: Is it worth it? Is it worth the time and money that go into the planning process of student involvement in worship? In our school the answer has been a resounding “yes!” Chapel and corporate worship is an integral part of our school. It affects our classrooms, our hallways, and our extracurricular activities. Likewise, what happens in our classrooms, our hallways, and our extracurricular activities affects what happens in chapel. This happens in several ways. For example, in an art class, students are encouraged to read an assigned portion of scripture, meditate on that scripture, and then make a visual depiction of some phrase or verse that was meaningful to them. The art students are also asked to write a reflection on their work. The artwork and the reflections are then shared in chapel. Artwork has also been shown while the orchestra plays a piece that is reflective. Once, a German class presented the story of the Christmas hymn, “Silent Night,” telling the origin of the song that beautifully tells of Christ’s birth. Members of a sports team were asked to share a particularly meaningful devotion that they had used with their teammates. These are just a few examples that show how worship gives focus to what is happening in all areas of our school.

In a Reformed Worship article entitled “Youth, Worship, and Faith Formation,” the authors state the following: “The most consistent predictor of youth’s religiosity was their experience leading worship by doing any of the following: singing or playing an instrument; participating in drama or pageants; leading the congregations in prayer or reading; serving as an acolyte or altar boy/girl; teaching a lesson or meditation or sermon; giving testimony; and serving as usher or greeter or collecting offerings. Youth who reported having done several of these activities also reported higher rates of church attendance, personal prayer, scripture reading, and volunteer work. In addition, they reported a greater influence of religious teachings on their ‘big decisions,’ a stronger commitment to their faith tradition, a stronger commitment to marry within their tradition, and a greater desire for others to know about their faith commitment.” The article also makes the following statement, “Churches are missing some obvious opportunities to foster faith in youth” (Beversluis 18).

Allowing students to experience leadership through worship is spiritually nurturing. It allows students to learn to articulate their faith and have a deeper understanding of and connection to their faith. Each year I encounter students who never thought they would be able to stand in front of seven hundred of their peers and talk about their faith. I see these students take the challenge, either by reading in chapel, sharing a personal testimony, or participating in some other way. I also see the joy and the affirmation of faith that the experience brings. Often these students have a deep desire to be involved in worship again.

Chapel is the one place where we are all together—teachers, students, administrators, and staff members. Leading each other in worship builds community with God and community with each other. We pray that our students will graduate from our school realizing that their educational experience was vastly different from a non-Christian education, and that they will be committed to Christian education for their children.

As Christian educators, it is our prayer that our schools will empower students to live for Christ, preparing leaders to advance God’s kingdom throughout the world. Enabling our students to become spiritual leaders by taking on worship leadership roles, giving students the opportunity to articulate their faith through worship, and mentoring students to plan and lead in worship is a critical step in that direction, and a step that has been a tremendous blessing in our school and in our community.

Works Cited 

  • Beversluis, Claudia, and Marjorie Gunnoe. “Youth, Worship, and Faith Formation.” Reformed Worship March 2009: 18.
  •  Keeley, Robert J. Shaped by God. Grand Rapids: Faith Alive, 2010.