One of the most challenging aspects of providing online Christian education is the work of reimagining “chapel”. In fact, in the early days of the pandemic, we offered an Online Chapel Training for leaders from various schools to talk about how to do this. At one point an associate head of school from a program in Atlanta, Georgia asked, “But so how do we take our chapel and put it online?” To which our OC Online chaplain responded,
“Well, maybe you don’t do that. Or maybe you do but think about this first: What is the purpose of chapel? Spiritual formation, right? That’s what you need to bring online. Let go of the idea that the only way to do that is to transfer what you currently do to the internet.”
In our own case we have developed a very different way of thinking about what takes place in our online chapels. In exchange for the awesome power of the corporate leader/participant model that we often see in brick and mortar chapels, we combine some principles of flipped learning and experiential worship to offer a different kind of personalized spiritual formation for students. Generally our live classes for JIMS (Jesus in Middle School) and Spiritual Life (high school) are more interactive than a brick and mortar chapel; students are doing things the whole time. They are answering polls, dissecting scripture, adding to prayer boards, hopping into breakout rooms and many other things that keep their contributions as the center of the chapel experience.
Music, then, plays a different role for us. In a traditional brick and mortar chapel service, songs are often the most interactive component. Set apart from the other liturgical elements of the service (scripture readings, sermons, prayers, etc) this is a student’s chance to stand up, open their mouth, and sing along. In our model, however, songs are the opposite: they are perhaps the only part of the chapel where they are not actively engaging. Music is a moment of passivity rather than action, a chance for the nutrients of the lesson to be absorbed in stillness. Music is where students are recipients rather than agents of the experience.
This means, of course, that song selection is extremely important in a different way. Instead of a massive cache of songs, we know that students will only hear a handful or two from us in a whole year. In the spirit of ‘less is more’ these songs need to carry a heavy theological and affective load and they need to strictly align with the year’s theme. This year, for example, we directed our attention to God’s hospitality, so our worship songs for the year reflected this biblical theme and its practice in contemporary discipleship.
Moreover, we hope that the songs carry into students’ lives outside of chapel so that the inspiration of that year’s Spiritual Life theme continues to ripple into their lives. Often in follow up discussions to chapels we give students opportunities to continue reflecting on songs they have heard in chapel. Sometimes this even looks like students learning the song for themselves and sharing their version with their classmates. For example, in September a middle school student who loves to sing chose to learn “Come to the Table” which was played in a Jesus in Middle School session. You can watch a clip of it here:
Music is also one of the ways students make the connection between the spiritual formation they are experiencing at school and in their local church community. While listening to a song in our online chapel, churched students will often share times they’ve encountered this song before—especially in worship services or at youth group.
Most recently in our Easter chapel held on April 13, 2022, a student heard a live performance of the song “I See an Empty Grave” and asked to stay after class to chat about how she might be able to integrate this song into her family’s worshipping community in Alaska for their sunrise Easter service. While the church ended up requesting a different song set for the morning, the student still learned the song and enjoys using it for her own worship practice.
Here is a clip from our online Easter chapel:
And here is the student singing the song:
These are just a few of the adventures we’ve had in online spiritual formation. How about you? Have you been able to experience meaningful worship online? We’d love to know your story! Online@oakschristian.org