Can chapel work with a non-Christian audience? – Part One

What happens when you throw a bunch of experienced South Australian chaplains together with one tough question? Read on and find out.

ANDREW:

How do you approach chapel worship with a predominantly non-Christian audience? Statistically our schools may have more people of faith than the general population, but would still have a minority of Christian students. And even if students come from Christian families they are perfectly capable of saying, “well that’s what my parents think, it’s not what I think!”.

 I suspect it’s a thing that gets harder as you go up through the year levels

I suspect it’s a thing that gets harder as you go up through the year levels. I’m fortunate here in a junior setting that whilst there is a little bit of resistance when they get to year 6 or 7, the overall culture of the place, because they’re younger, is about participation, joining in and enjoying it. So even the year 6’s and 7’s are drawn up into that and are generally cooperative and positive. But those of you who are running chapels for Year 9’s or any of the older year levels might find some issues.

So what works? What doesn’t work? What challenges do you receive back from students about “why do we have to do this?”  Some of those sorts of challenges would be interesting to hear about.

Creating an environment that is accessible and inviting people in and meeting them where they’re at in their faith

DAVE:

I think what you said is really important. Actually acknowledging that even if kids come from a Christian family or go to church and profess a faith, especially as they get older, it’s appropriate that they take ownership and be thoughtful about what it is that they believe. Creating an environment that is accessible and inviting people in and meeting them where they’re at in their faith, I think that’s almost a universal principle of worship. I suppose we just have a fuzzier edge, or a bigger fuzz, than perhaps a church would have or a regular youth group would have.

I think for me it’s always about engaging fully in the different formats, in the different opportunities that the school offers. The way that I’d present in a seminar with my senior school students is probably a bit feistier and probably a bit more combative than what I would do in a chapel service. I think there’s an appropriateness in the corporate nature of a chapel service where when we’re declaring faith it’s what ‘we believe’ it’s not necessarily what ‘you’ or ‘you’ believe, but it’s what we corporately believe under the banner of our school. I think having those thoughts clear is really important. I think it’s helpful to be quite honest and open about that, saying: “I don’t expect you to be a Christian”.

I’ve learnt a lot from when I was at Bible College. We did a mission week and we did some Christian options programs in Government schools and just seeing the way that they worked and the language that they used. I use that all the time in framing reading from the bible. So for instance saying “this is what Christians believe”. In my sermons I’ll often say things like “as you pursue God… now you might not know what that means, you might not know who God is, that could be a good place to start and perhaps you should think about who God is and what that might mean for you. If you are a Christian well maybe this is what you need to think about…”

I’ll try and pitch my application quite broadly. But I think it’s about being honest as well and being really clear. There’s no expectation that you are a Christian because I think that’s dangerous when you start creating an environment where people feel like they have to ‘fudge it’,  whether that’s with your staff or with your students. As soon as people start thinking that, and they say “oh yeah, yeah, yeah, Christian stuff that’s good.” All conversations are dead! It’s useless, it’s absolutely useless.

St Margaret's Girls School Prospectus, Sharing Faith in the School Chapel

RUTH:

 I think there’s a very big difference between what you can do in a classroom or a seminar compared to a chapel service. And I find the conflicting expectations in a chapel service really, really difficult. I agree that in the sermon or the talk, perhaps even in the way the prayers are worded you might be able be more invitational, more respectful that people may not believe or might be on very different stages of the journey. But then when you sing together other forces within the school expect to hear good singing and the issue becomes about how well you sing and the kids might not want to sing. At the moment we’re learning the creed song “I Believe, I Believe”… they might actively not believe those things and feel that they don’t want to sing them. Also the responses for Eucharist, my Youth Chaplains were asking, “Can we cut them out?” and I’m thinking “well I don’t know… I know I don’t want to…but..”

 can I do that in a way that makes it comfortable for students to either opt in and participate, or to step back from it and still be present

DAVE:

Because then it doesn’t work! That’s the reality of it anyway. If you’re holding a chapel service, if you’re aiming at a non-Christian secular audience it’s no longer a Christian chapel service. It’s certainly not an Anglican liturgical service, because that does assume that a congregation believes and that’s what makes it tricky.

RUTH:

And I don’t know any way of doing a Eucharist that doesn’t assume that. I’m happy to run all sorts of other options of chapel in other ways, but when it comes to Eucharist, or a baptism for that matter, I don’t.

JOHN:

 It’s interesting you say that Ruth, because my background is non-liturgical and so if our College leadership asked me to provide a Eucharist service for students then I would happily and very comfortably do it in a non-liturgical way. But it still begs the question, can I do that in a way that makes it comfortable for students to either opt in and participate, or to step back from it and still be present but find something meaningful.

I guess that’s the challenge. There are those moments that are clearly opt in or opt out and you give students options; come forward, if you’d like to receive the bread put your hands out, if you’d like to receive a blessing keep your hands behind your back. Or otherwise wait patiently for the person in front of you to finish and then walk back to your seat. These are sort of opt in moments but I agree with you Ruth, what about that actual service part.

Being Christian is our point of difference but I think I am a bit apologetic about it at times only to find over and again how much the community truly appreciate my distinctiveness

MICHAEL:

 It was really interesting having a conversation with a parent at school recently, she wanted her son to be part of admission to communion and I thought to myself, “if parents don’t expect, than lots of things don’t happen; good manners, table manners, a whole lot of stuff”.

I was also reflecting that as a newly ordained person and a recent chaplain, I had pulled off an amazing Ash Wednesday service that had everyone involved, it involved confession and I realise as I look back on it two years later just how traditional and formal that confession was, yet the overwhelming feedback from the whole community was how meaningful and how worthwhile that was.  Being Christian is our point of difference but I think I am a bit apologetic about it at times only to find over and again how much the community truly appreciate my distinctiveness. There’s something in that gathered moment of community that transcends black and white mutual understanding and so providing opportunities for that experience of community is something that I found quite powerful. We do need parents to have the courage to say to their children “look I understand you are uncomfortable but I would like you to continue with this journey”.

 I don’t want you to play ‘Christian’ for 40 minutes – I want you to enter into this space in a respectful manner and engage as you feel comfortable

DAVE:

 I think it is a hard. Just two days ago we had students coming into chapel and one of the boys was just goofing off. Everyone else was coming in quietly and sensibly. He ended up tripping over and falling down and rolling around in the isles before the service and he got taken out. I said I’ll have a word with him afterwards and the teachers said “yeah good luck with that”. So I just sat next to him and had a really nice conversation with him. I said to him “what does this place mean to you” and he said “nothing” and I said “okay scale of 0 to 10 what do you rate it”, “2”, “what about what happens in this place”, “2”, “okay I get that, what about the people who perhaps are Christians or who think that this is important how do you think they would rate that”, “I don’t know an 8”, “okay cool so you can acknowledge that this is different for different people”. I said “I don’t expect for you to respect something you don’t believe in something you think is rubbish but please respect the people whom this is important and participate in that sense”. I talked to him about taking a school trip to Cambodia, we visited a Buddhist temple I’m not a Buddhist I don’t believe that stuff but when they said to please enter quietly and take your shoes off, I did because its respecting the people for whom that is really important and he really got that and he said “thank you that was really helpful”. So we need to be having those conversations with our students and our staff and educating them on expectations. I don’t want you to play ‘Christian’ for 40 minutes – I want you to enter into this space in a respectful manner and engage as you feel comfortable but I do insist you respect this time and space for the people whom this is important – and that’s my base line.

TPS Chapel Servers

RUTH:

I don’t think many of the students or staff feel the need to play at being Christian, I don’t think there’s that pressure. I think that’s changed and so many of our parents now don’t know the basics of Christian story. A reception teacher was telling me she was teaching her kids “If I were a butterfly” that has the words “thankyou father for making me, me” and she said to the kids “now when he says father who is that talking about” “father Christmas?” and I was thinking, “well of course they would what other context would they have?”

 probably for a lot of people, students as well, that is the only place they will ever see, take part in the Eucharist experience

JANE:

 When you were talking earlier Ruth about your liturgy community saying ‘do we have to do those bits’, I was thinking that at our school, and probably for a lot of people, students as well, that is the only place they will ever see, take part in the Eucharist experience. For me it has to be authentic. This is what it’s about, this is what we do, this is what believe and this is what we say. Stuart and Lyn have been fantastic and are also using it as a little bit of teaching experience so that when we do it, we talk to students about why we are doing what we’re doing. Not in a huge big lesson way, but just gently through the Eucharist. We’ve done it in small groups as opposed to big groups and the feedback we’ve had on the whole has been that students have been a lot more responsive or receptive. I think it’s important that we don’t dumb things down to the lowest common denominator because then were not actually being Christian were not being true to the faith.

THEO:

 I think being really authentic resonates with me.  We have a Eucharist for the whole senior school twice a year. Its only twice a year but it’s quite structured. We follow the prayer book, deliberately so. I guess we have trained the boys to respond and we expect them to respond, but I think they also respond to the authenticity of it. Likewise with my sermons, and I’ve said this a few times, I’ve said, “I’m not going to say anything in my sermons that I don’t actually believe” and I’ve said that out loud a few times and then I follow up on that. I don’t say anything in my sermons that I don’t actually think is true. There’s a few topics that I haven’t preached about or haven’t used certain phrases because I may not actually believe them and I think students do respond to that authenticity.

The other thing they respond to which both Ben and I try to do each time is a really engaging demonstration, it may just be a photo or a story. It’s not directly to do with God necessarily, but they can connect it up. They do respond to that, often those are the things they remember.

 I think it’s important that we don’t dumb things down to the lowest common denominator because then were not actually being Christian were not being true to the faith.  

JOHN:

I’d like to make a couple of comments about that, drawing on the secular culture. Our kids, particularly the teenagers, their whole world is music and entertainment. If you can bring some of that into a time of worship in a way that doesn’t push the Christian message and meaning to one side but actually shows that the Christian message has something to say it is important. Sometimes the secular content has something to say and they just don’t realise it. But it’s incredibly important, particularly for the teens that you don’t disrespect their culture. If you try to promote the Christian culture by dissing theirs, you basically better look for another job, because you’re not going to speak with any authority. They won’t respect you.

 

Contributors:

Andrew Mintern – Chaplain, St Peter’s Woodlands Grammar School

Dave MacGillivray – Co-ordinating chaplain, Trinity College

Ruth Mathieson – Chaplain, Trinity College

John Morton – Chaplain, Pedare Christian College

Michael Lane – Chaplain, Pulteney Grammar School

Jane Bailey – Director of Spirituality, St Columba College

Theo McCall – Chaplain, St Peter’s College

Stuart Langshaw – Acting Chaplain, St Columba College

Adelaide Chaplains

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