Most of us are probably familiar with hospital chapels. You might not know about the many other types of chapels, however. Military installations and other government agencies, prisons, rehabilitation centers, police and fire departments, retirement centers and nursing homes, corporations, youth camps, tourist areas (e.g., Vegas drive-through weddings) and other unique ministries use this alternate venue for religious support.
What’s the common denominator? Each of these is a transient, high-stress, diverse community with a very specialized function. Even if you don’t attend a chapel or have any plans to do so in the near future, I believe you will find this article compelling and relevant to wherever you might worship – now or in the future.
Every day, especially in western cultures where we enjoy the many freedoms of democracy, we see advances and abuses in technology, spiking and spiraling economies, intensifying and widening ideologies between liberals and conservatives, and greater passion among their interest groups. Thus, our communities are becoming more transient, stressful, diverse and specialized. These dynamics, therefore, may eventually shape the content and purpose of worship and ministries in your area. I offer this article to prompt your critical-thinking for loving but bold decision-making ministry in chapels and local churches. For, unless the leaders of chapels and churches are intentional to articulate and impliment appropriately specific visions and strategies, they and their congregations will blindly adopt historic practices, the will of the current majority or whatever is easiest.
As a military Chaplain over the past 17 years, I have worked with most other types of chapels, too. The following seem to be nine of the common reasons many people choose this venue of worship over traditional churches. The list is not in any particular order.
* Attending a local church is too difficult or impossible. Prison inmates, basic trainees, hospital patients and others simply have no viable options. They are literally or virtually locked-down. Chapels provide a crucial resource for these men and women in unusually restrictive situations. If there was no chapel in their immediate area, they would be left with their great stresses but no opportunity for corporate worship, religious education, pastoral counseling or related religious care.
* The chapel system is the only worship community they’ve ever known. Especially Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines who first expressed their faith in a military chapel sometimes retire near a military installation and continue attending out of sense of affection or familiarity with that community. This pull can be particularly strong if they were stationed at the same place repeatedly or for several years at a time.
* Chapels teach basic and unifying themes, not deeper controversial subjects. Because their communities have very specialized functions but constituents from diverse religious backgrounds, Chaplains serving these chapels primarily focus on topics that assist the unique purpose of that community: courage and service for fire departments, psychological healing in rehab centers, basic faith in God at youth camps, etc. For the sake of the community’s unity toward its mission, this minimizes any radical calls for deeper, informed faith, personal change and congregational accountability. Can you imagine denominationally different Chaplains serving the same chapel service and each teaching what they considered deeper truths on speaking in tongues, dispensational vs. covenantal views of God’s work in the Old and New Testament, the definition and purpose of predestination, the role of women in the church, or the anti-Christ, the 1,000 year reign of Christ, the rapture and whether or not you can lose your salvation? Most Chaplains can’t imagine it either. Therefore, chapel attendees typically and appropriately receive only basic teachings that rarely make waves in the congregation.
* Chapel staff have specialized training to serve their unique community. Chaplains and other staff members for the police, nursing homes and rehab centers get it. They signed up to serve their particular community because (ideally) they were passionate for their unique hurts and hopes. Therefore, they have studied and continue to study how to care for their people as effectively as possible. And those who attend chapels come looking for ministers who truly understand the community in which they live and can offer relevant help.
* The great needs of the unique community draw others who want to help. Even if someone has never been in prison, served in the military or even been in a hospital, living near these specialized communities can familiarize you with some of the intense needs in their lives. This sympathy in the surrounding community often leads to a greater desire to serve their neighbors in their specialized community. Such external volunteers may be a welcome and valuable asset to intense communities that can sometimes burnout from within.
* Chapels are often externally funded and do not need the attendees’ money. Most chapels do not belong to a particular religious group or denomination. They are general services provided by the local, state or federal government, commercial corporation or broadly religious non-profit agency. As such, the higher headquarters provides and funds the facilities, salaries and all basic needs of the chapel. This can free attendees from any sense of financial or moral responsibility to give their own money toward chapel ministries.
* Chapel staff often rotate out, leaving long-term power with volunteers. Because most chapels are general services of larger, non-religious organizations, their Chaplains and other staff may be called to serve other States, installations or agencies every few years. Understanding this ongoing change, most Chaplains do not articulate and impliment a specific vision, strategies and related ministries that the new staff might or might not continue. This void of more pointed and assertive leadership creates a void of purpose and authority, freeing and enabling local volunteers to step into that void – rightly or wrongly. The result is strong volunteers with long histories of dedication to the choir, married and singles and children’s ministries, Bible studies, deaconate services and more – again, for good or for bad.
* Chapels do not and cannot grow beyond basic ministries. In a local church (or synogogue, mosque, temple, etc.) the primary mission is the religious faith and practice of its people. In a chapel, the primary concern is the function of the larger community: the corporation, prison, retirement center, etc. There is simply not enough time, money, personnel, facilities, etc. to resource religious activities that would take away those same resources from the main mission of the community. While this is frustrating to Chaplains and volunteers who want to help others grow in deeper faith and broader service, it is convenient to those who only want a minimal personal investment for a minimal essential return.
* Some chapel staff members recruit attendance to their particular services. It makes sense that – because most Chaplains and chapel staff (again, ideally) are passionate for their God and their people – they enthusiastically and repeatedly invite individuals and families to their chapel services. As with most other dynamics, however, this has potential pros and cons. Community constituents with unique wounds and needs can connect with passionate, skilled ministers who are custom-trained and positioned to care for them. But the same people might also connect with staff who are primarily passionate to point their supervisors to the growing numbers as a measure of their sucessful ministry. In other words, just as some church leaders are primarily interested in people as a means to pay their salaries, some chapel leaders are primarily interested in people as a means to justify higher ratings on their annual report cards. Sad but sometimes true.
So what should right look like?
Ideally, chapel staffs should articulate and impliment a vision and strategies toward the purpose for which they were created: to help their communities accomplish their unique functions as well as possible, while meeting the basic religious needs of individuals who cannot go elsewhere. In my opinion, Judges 5:1-3 outlines the four basic tiers of spiritual growth for any vision and strategies for the faith and service of individuals and corporate worship: 1) attending (coming/listening) to what God says is True and Good, and then 2) studying, 3) serving and 4) leading in the same. This is both descriptive of our experience and prescriptive for our growth.
This in no way precludes or opposes the work of the local church. In fact, chapels and churches must work together for at least two reasons: 1) each has a very different basic purpose and 2) each belongs to a larger community of families, neighbors, businesses and societies. The basic purpose of the chapel is the successful function of its unique community. The basic purpose of the church is the glory of God by the growth and joy of the individual’s and community’s faith and obedience to God. They are related but different.
On the other hand, chapels and churches can and do sometimes compete for attendance. But they do so at the expense of God’s good will, the ministers’ integrity and the attendees’ growth.
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