Imagine two hundred children, all under the age of twelve, attending chapel at eight o’clock in the morning, actively participating in worship and even paying attention to the homily. Sound like a Christian educator’s fantasy? No, it’s just a typical weekday in an Episcopal elementary school.
At the Episcopal School of Knoxville, the school day begins with music. At the grand piano is Dr. Deborah Sousa, school music teacher and a leader in the school’s daily chapel time. Children in kindergarten through fifth grade file into the school’s chapel each and every weekday, right after stashing backpacks into cubbies and checking in with classroom teachers. Even before the daily worship service begins, children sing songs by heart that they have already learned in their school music class.
Songs to start the day are upbeat, often accompanied by hand gestures or even dance moves. The processional might even be accompanied by a recording of a rock song, borrowed from a VBS program. The atmosphere is lively, positive, and worshipful as well. Coordinating with the school chaplain, the Rev. Josh Hill, Dr. Sousa leads the services with a variety of musical genres, including spirituals, Taize melodies, and African music accompanied by drums.
And what’s the secret to engaging two hundred children, almost all of whom sing, dance, and participate in the prayers? “Lead by example,” Dr. Sousa advises. “Kids will participate and pay attention if the teachers do.” She also cautions, “don’t over-plan.” Sousa often selects songs based on the theme of the homily. She often feels led to play certain songs, based on themes in the homily or what is said during worship. She may change planned songs to fit with other elements of the worship service. The chaplain has been known to get homily ideas from the music as well.
The daily chapel service is, as a result, a joyful experience bursting with youthful energy. Parents of the school’s students often stick around after morning drop-off to attend. In fact, the school’s chapel time is “church” for a number of the school’s families, Dr. Sousa says.
As we seek to engage children in worship and in church itself, Episcopal school chapel services may already have found ways of successfully meeting the next generation where they are. With lively, participatory worship, children in many of our Episcopal schools are learning both music and concepts that will stick with them for years to come.
By Cynthia Coe