The Difference between a “chapel” and a “church”

I’m in the midst of Navy Chaplain’s Basic Leadership Course right now, and this past week we discussed “occasional services” that chaplains perform – things like weddings, funerals, graduation ceremonies, etc.  One of the things we discussed was the use of the Navy’s chapels.

By definition, Navy chapels are not churches.  They are government-owned buildings designated as places where religious practices can happen.  They are not “sacred” spaces as churches are…so what we say is that the chapel is a tool that helps chaplains do their job to provide the means for religious practice according to the faith tradition they represent, facilitate the free practice of religious expression for according to their tradition, care for all people, and advise on moral, ethical, morale, and spiritual matters to their superiors.

One example our teacher gave: while overseas in the Middle East, some of the marines in the command he was assigned to asked if they could use the chapel to hold a Halo tournament.  “You got those big screens in there Chaps….is ok if we do that in there?”  Of course, they were allowed to use the chapel, and use it in that manner….because it was caring for those marines who spent their days around going out patrols and going into harm’s way.

I have to ask… we think and use our churches that way?  It seems so often, our churches are “sacred spaces” which means we keep them neat and orderly, arranged just so, and we make sure the things that get done in them are appropriate, and by the appropriate people.  And in order to keep them sacred, we devise a whole bunch of rules to make sure they stay that way.  This notion of sacredness isn’t just the sanctuary either….it’s the whole building, and even the surrounding grounds.

But what if “sacred space” was a place where people were invited in and experienced the love, grace, and care of God?  What if we provided our spaces for that, for that moment to happen?  What if we worried a bit less about the desecration of our spaces…..and made a lot less rules?

What if we thought of our churches more like military “chapels?”  

And if we did, is it just possible that things like a Halo tournament in the Middle East might be a “sacred” moment that blesses our spaces….that blesses “our” church?


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Filed under Missional Thinking & The Church, Navy Chaplaincy

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