The Boardwalk Chapel: Teaching through Reaching
by Allison Hill, OPC Short Term Missions Administrative Assistant
As each summer day comes to its end in Wildwood, New Jersey, the sun fades and is almost seamlessly replaced by twinkling fluorescent bulbs all along the boardwalk. Running the length of Wildwood beach, the boardwalk attracts vacationers with two-and-a-half miles of enticingly aromatic food, boisterous music, carnival games, and intriguing storefronts. Stepping out on the boardwalk ushers a tidal wave of sensational entertainment upon its entrant. Yet, situated in the midst of it all lies one storefront that does not fit in with the rest. Above its awning, a light shines on a simple sign that reads “Boardwalk Chapel”.
Each evening, as the boardwalk comes to life, the Chapel slowly fills with staff, volunteers, visitors, and eventually a few curious guests. Meanwhile, Chapel volunteers stand out on the boardwalk, striking up conversations with beach goers. One youth group strides in from their evening round of singing Amazing Grace, an attempt to draw intrigued guests from around the boardwalk. Before long, the room is full and exudes praises to the Lord as hymns and songs are heard from outside, clashing with the ongoing conversations and music. A dimly lit gathering joins in song, “High King of Heaven, my treasure Thou art,” followed by prayer, more worship in song, and the reading of God’s Word—all before the eyes of the onlooking world.
As the program comes to life, passers-by often turn to peer in with mild interest and simple curiosity. One man glances to investigate the event, prompting him to blurt out, “That is so cool,” only to continue strolling on. Later, another individual shouts profanities, directed at the gathering.
The Boardwalk Chapel maintains a unique presence on the beachfront strip. Originally called “The Gospel Pavilion,” the property’s purchase in 1945 was a controversial event which garnered the public’s attention. Although those who owned storefronts on the boardwalk had great opposition to OPC pastor Leslie Dunn purchasing such a property, the successful purchase only resulted in a greater display of God’s sovereign provision. That remains true to this day. In its 77 years, there have been many changes and tragedies within and around the walls of the Chapel—including a number of fires on and around the boardwalk, leaving the Chapel as the only building with original construction. However, a few things have stayed the same: the gospel is preached, and prayer is highly esteemed as a means to preserve and promote the ministry of the gospel. In recent years, there has been great success in maintaining the core values of the Chapel, as well as considerable forward progress in the development of its programs and goals.
According to Boardwalk Chapel director, Jim Zozzaro, the work of the Chapel can be summed up in three areas of emphasis: evangelism, apologetics, and prayer. In fact, the Chapel is even considered by some to be the premier apologetics training ground for lay people. With fathers of the church Cornelius Van Til, Ed Clowney, Richard Gaffin, and Meredith Kline as former Chapel teachers, the claim seems merited. What better place to live out your theology and prove your apologetic method than at a place so deeply committed to such a rich tradition of faithfully teaching Scripture? Today, with an unprecedented number of staff and renewed vision, the Chapel has grown not only as a place of considerable public evangelism, but also as an intensive training opportunity for both young and mature Christians. This is embodied in evangelism conferences that bookend the summer and extensive, daily hours-long trainings and group prayer during the season.
When discussing its purpose, it is helpful to view the Boardwalk Chapel as having two distinct but inseparable missions—to train both staff and youth groups for evangelism, and to evangelize the thousands of individuals on the boardwalk. This dual purpose fosters an extraordinary environment that not only fulfills the great commission, but also encourages young people to live a “great-commissional lifestyle,” says Pastor Jim.
In describing the work, Pastor Jim also says, “It’s changed from reaching to teaching—teaching through reaching, that is. We came to see that it is just as much an opportunity for discipleship as evangelism.” He continues, “The Chapel gives Christians a chance to use their gifts. It is a training ground, but it is not monastic; our purpose is to be accessible and visible to unbelievers.”
The hope of those in the Chapel’s leadership is that the “idyllic” setting of the Chapel, where non-believers are readily available and often willing to discuss spiritual matters, would be the springboard for Christians to grow in their ability to communicate the gospel in their own settings where the opportunities may not be as profuse. To this point, Pastor Jim says, “You should always be making disciples. Evangelism is a part of your sanctification.”
There is certainly no lack of evangelism or discipleship at the Chapel. It presents quite a starkly contrasted scene to the lights and sights, smells and noises of the rest of the popular vacation destination. The Word of God is faithfully proclaimed before the watching world, and offered free to all. As Pastor Jim aptly says, “We are the only place on the boardwalk that offers you something you actually need but you cannot buy.”
If you would like to know more about the Boardwalk Chapel, its ministry, and its history, please visit https://boardwalkchapel.org.