Chapel or Church?

“Chapel” is not a bad word. Read on, and see my latest reflection on how much I MISS that chapel!!!

In 2008 my family and I started attending a church that I think is really a “chapel.”

It’s primary mission seems to be to provide worship on Sunday -offering to God, and renewing our faith for the week ahead, with very little programming or groups otherwise. Hence, my designation of it as a “chapel.” It has a very modest Christian education effort and modest mission effort. At least, that’s what it APPEARS to have -from someone who’s only been attending there for 5 months. And so far, it seems to be a very good “chapel.”

But the question I’ve been mulling over is this: Is it OK to be “just a good chapel” -rather than a “go get’em” church by Midwestern standards?

I’m defining “church” here by a 1970’s standard… the kind of church which many congregations today are trying to find their way back to:  the program church with a full staff,  full set of committees, a full calendar and budget. But let’s be honest: for most congregations, such a church is a mirage, -a vision in the desert that is UNattainable -no matter how hard you scramble to get to it.

Or worse… It’s a stick that leaders beat their congregational horses with (and themselves). The fruits of this labor have often been DYSFUNCTION  and frustration.  And the target of the frustration is often the pastor who was trained to lead chapel and pastor, not to be Joan of Arc.

And so far, my answer is, “Yes, it is OK to be a chapel instead of a church.”  This is especially true of a church which fails to be a quality church, leaving members frustrating and depleted. In the Chapel, the emphasis is on YOU, not on the church’s needs. It feels more like a congregation that’s just happy to be together, -where you don’t have to dress up (both literally and figuratively). And the message from the pulpit is not a drumbeating “what can you do for us here?”  But, “what are you doing out there?”

A few years ago I read an article about a different kind of congregation. It was fecetiously titled “The Church of the Unchurched.”   Predictably, the letters to the editor hated it.  I loved it. It was challenging.

The article described a church that did not schedule a lot of “events.” It didn’t have committees coming out the wazoo. Was not over-staffed. Wasn’t constantly asking for money. And didn’t track it’s members’ giving or attendance for that matter. It focuses on worship, and doing a few things well.

It’s a vision of a church that has FEWER expectations of its corporate life, but RENEWING expectations for its members’ personal lives beyond the church walls.

The Chapel eschews the idea of the “high-participation-church is the center of my life” model, -which many if not most churches secretly, if not openly, aspire towards. It replaces that with a church defined by what its members do “the other 6 days of the week”  in their various walks of life, -in their family, at work, in the community organizations and political causes they work in. And in their inner life.

The message of the Chapel is, “here we are… here’s the message. Yes, it’s good to be together -and we hope that we rub off on you, but you’re not a child, and we are not your parents.”

The Chapel church proof texts itself “reason for being” with scripture about the individual’s inner life and outward ethics. It believes as did Paul that we are each responsible for working out our own salvation. It uses the words of Jesus when he speaks about outward appearances, and suggests that the Sabbath was made for man and not the other way around (the church is made for the needs of its members, whereas many churches have that backwards).

Whereas, the “Church” proof texts itself with the book of Acts where you have old men in charge of you, and you may indeed drop dead in the congregation if you withhold anything!  🙂

Both models have their weaknesses. But there are forces at work in some churches that make the “CHAPEL MODEL” a better choice for some.

Geography is one big force at work. People in the ‘chapel’ where I attend don’t live near each other. They come from different communities to gather on Sunday. The congregation has a large number of snowbirds. The “chapel” is not the neighborhood church.

Our chapel is also not necessarily attractive to young families (if they are looking for family ministry and a super-duper CE experience). It’s mostly people in their 40’s and up. We have different needs than the young baby crowd does. And in fact, there simply aren’t that many young families around where I live, and where the church is located. And older folks with older kids and grandkids -while they enjoy fellowship, don’t need it as much. They/we tend to have our “friends” already set and aren’t attracted so much by “program.”

Our chapel is also in a resort area which creates an interesting dynamic.

The Chapel may also not be  “seeker’s” church. It probably isn’t a great first-church for those who don’t know Christ. Then again, it is probably a great place for those turned off by those who THINK they know Christ so well! And it’s a good place for people who are not great “joiners.” …ie, 40% of the average people in your congregation who feel inadequate about their membership.

The Chapel church isn’t perfect, or right for everyone. But one of the APPARENT beneifts of being a chapel -which I’m happy to see after 10 years in a previous dysfunctional church, –is that you avoid many of the DYSFUNCTIONS that plague congregations still trying to REGAIN their former glory as a high-expectation churches.

Things I believe the “Chapel” church should do better…

  • Provide one-on-one spiritual guiding. The pastor in the Chapel church really needs to be a pastor to the individual, rather than the leader of a program.
  • Provide a way to highlight how members of the Chapel are living out the Gospel in their daily lives. More talk about that please!
  • Communicate better with it’s members. Provide think pieces and reading material.

I have asked myself the following questions in every congregation I’ve been part of:

“Why has God brought me here?  What does God want to show me here?”
“What am I here to learn?”  “What can I do to help?”

We moved from that area in 2012 and no longer attend the “chapel.”  But we miss those people and that pastor all the time. It was low-key and uncomplicated. We started going to a traditional program/committee church and after 3 years REALLY missed our little chapel!

God is not done stretching me, …or you.

<>< Neil

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2 Responses to Chapel or Church?

  1. charlie cropper says:

    just surfing and came to the site to see what new stuff your team had dreamed up. I needed some motivation. We had a National Night Out event, some neighborhood attendance. Parents asking about Sunday School classes for preschool and early elem. Yes I know I can pull it off if any show. But why bother if I don’t get any help except family? Church leaning toward a chapel.

  2. Neil says:

    Hi Charlie.
    Without knowing details, one thing I can say is this: A church that doesn’t recognize its problems or dysfunctions is truly in trouble. In fact, “dysfunction” is the biggest problem facing most congregations today, even growing ones can have the seedlings of dysfunction growing right along side the wheat.

    When complaining about the church, I have also taught myself to first ask “what am I doing that’s contributing to the problem?”

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