How to Hold a Church Service at Two of the World’s Busiest Airports
Chances are high that you have flown through one of Chicago’s two international airports. Odds are also good that you’ve sat through a layover or delay. But you’ve likely overlooked that O’Hare (ORD) and Midway (MDW) International Airports boast one of the largest airport chaplaincies in the world, Skyword Ministries—led by Wheaton alumni.
Skyword currently has 50 volunteer chaplains offering 18 weekly chapel services on the mezzanines of both O’Hare and Midway. Overseeing the effort is Dr. Hutz Hertzberg ’79, M.A. ’82, the newly appointed president of Christian Union, and Tom Johnston ’77, M.A. ’96, who currently serves at Midway as one of the only full-time Protestant airport chaplains nationwide. Here’s a peek behind the scenes at how and why they offer church services to more than 250,000 weary travelers and 60,000 employees a day.
1. CHAPPY K’S PREDECESSOR GOT WHEATON INVOLVED
Hutz, who served as Wheaton’s interim chaplain from 1988-89 and preceded Wheaton’s recently retired and longest-serving chaplain, Chaplain Emeritus Dr. Stephen Kellough ’70 (“Chappy K”), got a call in 1988 from O’Hare’s sole Protestant chaplain who was looking for help.
“I was thinking, ‘What in the world does a chaplain do at an airport? Hold the hands of passengers who are afraid to fly?’” says Hutz. “I had no context for ministry in airports.”
But when the Reformed Church in America pastor running the program “laid out the need of all the humanity that passes through the airport,” Hutz was inspired, got Wheaton involved, and was eventually asked to lead the ministry. Marty Kroeker ’70, Terry Lekberg M.A. ’73, and other Wheaties have also been involved over the years.
2. THE SETTING IS MORE SACRED THAN YOU’D EXPECT
Thanks to a 1990s renovation, O’Hare’s chapel moved out of the basement and into a “prime location” with a glass facility on the mezzanine of Terminal 2 that can hold 100 people. Midway’s chapel, remodeled in the 2000s, can hold 50.
Many airports don’t even have chapels. The fact that O’Hare and Midway do and that Skyword has the opportunity to conduct Protestant services in these dynamic airports is significant, says Hutz.
Skyword describes its services as offering “biblically based worship, Christ-centered teaching, Bibles, and quality Christian literature, discipleship, and intercessory prayer.”
“Many airports in the Bible Belt can’t even conduct religious services,” Hutz says. “But here in Chicago, we can conduct gospel-centered services 18 times a week in these mega-mission fields where the world comes through. We have full freedom to preach the gospel, pass out Bibles, and pray with people—and we do.”
“There’s no other airport I know of that comes close to what we’re doing,” says Hutz. “We are one of the most active airport chaplaincies in the world.”
3. WHAT HAPPENS
Each service begins with an announcement pledging to keep the service to 30 minutes sharp. The group stands for a call to worship (often Psalm 100), then they sing “How Great Thou Art” or another familiar hymn a capella. Following that they sit and take prayer requests, and the chaplain prays out loud for each one. They stand and say the Lord’s Prayer together. Next the chaplain reads the Scripture of the day and prays before giving a 12- to 17-minute Bible-based message. Finally there is a closing prayer and a benediction. The chaplain offers refreshments, and counsels visitors afterward if they’d like.
“It’s amazing how much you can do in a half hour if you are intentional,” says Hutz. “We’ve got it down to a science, and we’ve seen God work powerfully in so many lives over the years.”
4. MIDWAY HAS BIGGER SERVICES AND A FULL-TIME CHAPLAIN
While O’Hare has nearly four times as many passengers travel through, it’s Midway that has more people worship in its chapel. The main reason: O’Hare’s chapel is located outside of the security area, while the Midway chapel is inside security.
“People don’t want to be body searched to go to church,” says Hutz. “People are increasingly hesitant to exit security, but some do.”
And for the first time, Midway has a full-time chaplain in Tom, who conducts services at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. each weekday. He has encountered people seeking help from addictions or coping with a loved one’s suicide or affair. Tom recalls feeling prompted to preach his first-ever sermon on the Gospel of Mark’s account of Jesus and the unclean woman, and a woman was so moved that she literally placed all the money she had on her in the offering basket.
5. FAITHFULNESS, NOT SIZE, MATTERS
Chapel attendance varies from 1 to 50, and Tom says it’s “hard but amazing” preaching to an audience of one.
“I say, ‘I’ll hold a service just for you because Jesus says wherever two or three are gathered in his name, there he will be also.’”
Humorously, attendees will still sit all the way in the back.
Hutz says the small size of the chapels makes for one critical difference from normal church settings: People actually share prayer requests with him, and often serious ones at that.
“You’d be surprised how personal people are,” Hutz says. “Maybe it’s the small size or anonymity versus their regular church. Many people express appreciation, saying they’ve never been prayed for in public like that.”
Overall, it’s the world’s most unpredictable parish: Chaplains show up in the same room for each service, but it’s like attending an entirely different church each time. They never know what kind of an audience will assemble for a given service.
“I’ve had chapels where everyone was so full of the Lord, they were bursting with happiness to be worshiping at the airport,” says Tom. “Other chapels have been dark, and everyone feels so lost. Each service has its own personality.”
Ironically, the chapels are busiest on Easter and Christmas because they draw a larger share of travelers than ordinary days.
“People respect the holidays,” says Hutz. “And just like regular churches, people who normally wouldn’t attend a church feel a need or obligation to come.”
Skyword chaplains actually have two constituencies: travelers (about two-thirds of attendees), and airline and airport employees (the remaining third). For some of the 50,000 airline pilots, flight attendants, baggage handlers, TSA agents, concessionaires, and other employees at O’Hare—as well as the 16,000 at Midway— Skyword “becomes their de facto church,” says Hutz.
“Most passengers are usually a oneshot deal. We plant seeds, but 90 percent of them we never see again,” says Hutz. “We see employees repeatedly— especially those who have to work on Sundays.”
O’Hare, the busiest airport in the world when measured by takeoffs and landings, had more than 70 million travelers pass through last year. Another 21 million passengers flew through Midway. Both are international airports, and O’Hare is one of only eight airports worldwide to offer flights to more than 200 destinations. According to Hutz, about half of Skyword’s visitors are Christians thankful to be able to worship while traveling. The remainder are non-Christians.
“The mission field comes to us,” Hutz says. “People from around the world come in: Muslims, Catholics, lapsed Protestants, Fortune 500 CEOs, Ivy League professors, professional athletes, departing or returning soldiers… people who are curious, bored, or hurting. It’s a place for the gospel.”