Finding a Church, Part 1: The Military Chapel

Being a Christian in the military sometimes creates challenges in situations civilians take for granted.  For example, how do you find a church?  The concept of a “home church” and steady lifelong attendance takes on a whole new meaning when you move every two to four years.

As a military Christian, the single most important thing you can do when you arrive at a new assignment is establish your spiritual support, and finding a church is crucial to that end.  There are many options and no single correct answer.  Some people prefer the locale and access of the military chapel; others, the non-military feel of community churches.  Each option has its positives and negatives — the only ‘bad’ choice is to do nothing.

The Base Chapel

As a military Christian, when you arrive at a new assignment your first priority (short of eating) should be finding a church to attend.  (At some churches, your meal may be taken care of as well.)  This is a fundamental step in establishing a spiritual foundation at a new location.  Without establishing an “anchor” when you first arrive, you risk floundering — until you move on no better spiritually than when you arrived.

The first Sunday you’re at a new military base — even if you arrived only the night before — you should consider attending the base’s military chapel service.  If nothing else, this will keep you in the habit of going to church; if you roll over and go back to sleep because you haven’t decided where to go, it becomes progressively easier each consecutive week to come up with a reason not to find a church.  Besides helping to keep a routine, attending the chapel allows the opportunity to meet the base chaplains, with whom a Christian is certain to have some interaction over the length of his tour.

Most chapels today have Catholic as well as traditional, contemporary, and gospel forms of Protestant services.  Traditional tends to be more liturgical, with a scripted service and probably an integrated communion.  Contemporary tends to have the “modern” style of music and a somewhat more casual atmosphere.  Gospel services are, of course, oriented in the style of southern gospel.

Base chapels are a convenient starting point with familiar surroundings, though the quality of a base chapel is entirely dependent on the chaplains and the support of the congregation.  In some places, the service may be nothing more than “Christian light,” a watered down religiosity that is sure to offend no one.  In other chapels the preaching, teaching, and fellowship would rival even the most established, well-funded, and largest churches in the United States.

Attending the base chapel does have its advantages.  The chaplain is intimately familiar with the military lifestyle and will likely apply his teachings in an environment a military Christian will understand.  Also, when stresses like checkrides, inspections, and exercises are restricting your schedule, the location and military integration of the chapel will help both your continued attendance and pertinent spiritual application.  In addition, by attending the chapel that first day you may get lots of information on local fellowship opportunities, as many Bible studies and para-church groups meet new arrivals at the chapel.  Finally, the chapel is normally the first stop for those in the military who have felt, but may not understand, a hunger for God; by attending the chapel, you may see other squadron members seeking life’s answers.  

The military setting of the chapel program does have its disadvantages.  Some Chaplains may neutralize the Christian message to avoid offense.  Also, regardless of your personal church experiences, it is likely the chapel will expose you to things to which you’re not accustomed.  Counter to many denominational beliefs, there are female chaplains.  It is also likely that you may meet the local Muslim chaplain; in July of 2004 the Navy commissioned the first US military Buddhist chaplain.  It is not uncommon to see information on a Wiccan meeting — conducted under the auspices of the base chapel program — listed directly below the schedule of church services.

As a military Christian, you should seek God’s guidance as to where He would have you.  Whether you choose to attend the chapel or not is your personal preference; it has much to do with your spiritual maturity, needs, and desires.  For many new officers, adjusting to active duty life may provide enough of a challenge that you feel led to attend a church with strong teaching and fellowship.  If that is not the chapel, then so be it.  Conversely, if you are a spiritually strong and mature Christian, then the base chapel may actually be the best place to be, regardless, so you can have the greatest impact on the military community.  Prayerfully, it depends.  

In some cases, a military Christian might do well to attend the chapel solely as a means of outreach, even if it doesn’t afford depth of teaching or is weaker in other areas.  Officer’s Christian Fellowship (OCF) emphasizes support of the chapel program for this reason; as OCF considers itself a ministry to the military, the chapel provides a crucial means to that end.

As a military Christian your greatest potential ministry is to the military members that surround you, and the chapel can be a very effective channel to that goal.

Next time: Worshipping at Local Churches

This is an update to a prior article on Finding a Church.