By Kevin Greer
Lakeside Communications Manager
Chip Richter wasn’t asking for much. He just wanted to perform at Lakeside and show off his talents as a Christian singer/songwriter and guitarist. After all, he was a frequent guest with his family for more than a decade.
Richter got an offer to perform, but he got another one he wasn’t expecting.
Rewind to 1994 when Herb Goetz was Lakeside’s Director of Religion & Education. He received a press kit sent by Richter’s father-in-law, Russ Stryffeler, and liked what he heard. Goetz set up a meeting with Richter, but not just to talk about a singing gig. Goetz had started a new kids program called God Squad and thought Richter was the man for the job.
There was one small issue with Goetz’s proposition.
“I told him ‘I don’t do music for kids,’” Richter said. “But he told me ‘I know, but I think you’ll be great at it.’ He saw something that I didn’t see.”
Richter had a lot to think about. But his love for Lakeside and the fact he was going to get paid to play music were the main reasons he accepted the position. He also had a place to stay since he and his wife, Mary Beth, got the go-ahead to use her parents’ cottage for the summer.
But what about that ‘don’t play music for kids’ thing? Richter, who is an ordained minister, tried to solve that problem by attending family nights at his church and listening to kids’ music. The latter wasn’t working too well.
“As I listened, I said ‘ Oh my gosh, I don’t want to do this,’” Richter said. “I just decided that I’m not doing that. I’ll do the job, but I’m not going to sing songs like that.”
Richter had a different idea. He wanted to write music that kids would enjoy, as well as adults, so it could be accessible to more people.
The plan worked out just fine. After 27 years, Mr. Chip, as he’s known to the kids, is still singing “Hey There” to begin every God Squad class during the summer. There are two sessions at Bradley Temple every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday with an average of 125 kids attending per day. The first session is for ages 4-6 at 9 a.m. and the second for ages 7-9 at 10 a.m. He says the program is Christian and compares it to Vacation Bible School, only it lasts all summer instead of one week.
“We try to create an opportunity for kids to come and hear a really encouraging thought for the day,” Richter said. “You might hear a Scripture, or you might not. I will pray, but at times you might ask ‘did he just pray?’”
Richter wants God Squad to be a place where it’s “more fun than a kid should be allowed to have.” He doesn’t just want to entertain them, but also encourage them to think about deeper, spiritual things. He says there are serious, quiet and tender moments, but it doesn’t make it any less fun. Sometimes he learns as much or more from the kids as they do from him.
“As adults, we get caught up in ourselves and into what we’re doing, and we forget to look and see the wonder all around us,” Richter said. “It really is an amazing world and incredible life we have. It’s all a gift. Kids help me see that and it’s easy for me to have their lens and to see the world like that.”
Richter packs a lot of activities into each 45-minute session. He leads interactive songs with a lot of movement, most capturing the spirit of Lakeside, including “Ice Cream,” which was the first song Richter wrote when he started teaching God Squad, and “Riding My Bike.”
There are puppet characters and occasional visits from Prospector Pete, portrayed by Middle Grade Madness leader John Wilkie. He wears big beard, flannel shirt and work boots. He also brings Scripture and shares a nugget of truth but does it in a comical way that entertains the children.
With assistance from Mary Beth, there’s always a craft, mostly made from recycled items, to encourage kids with creativity and to think outside the box. Weather permitting, it’s done on the street in front of Bradley Temple. The street is blocked, almost like a little festival, and each participant gets a drink and snack.
“It’s a place where kids can come and just have fun,” Richter said. “Some kids come to both sessions.”
Richter is now teaching a second generation of kids in his classes. Some parents who were God Squaders are dropping off their children for classes.
“Chip is an icon here at Lakeside,” Senior Director of Religious Life & Pastoral Care Rev. Charlie Yoost said. “It’s easy to catch on a be a part of his program.”
Richter understands that some kids don’t necessarily have the patience to sit through a church service. So, after the opening prayer of the Chautauqua Community Worship Service on Sundays, children meet Richter for a procession from Hoover Auditorium to Bradley Temple for Children’s Church.
“I want to make it fun and make it feel like it’s the best place to be,” Richter said. “It doesn’t have to look like church to be church for me.”
Richter wants God Squad, Children’s Church and his music to be “spiritual, but not preachy.”
“Nobody wants to be preached at,” Richter said. “Some aspects of church feel forced and manipulative. In my own devotion, I felt less of a need to follow that path. What we really need to do is just encourage each other. Just be who you are because that’s what God made you to be.”
Since 2007, Richter has been performing on the Hoover stage with his band, The Munks. It’s a fun-filled concert with a lot of audience participation, dancing and there’s always the possibility a human chain could form. Their show is Wednesday, June 22 at 7:30 p.m.
“Chip is the pied piper of children’s ministry,” Director of Arts Programming Shirley Stary said. “When he’s doing God Squad or Children’s Church, he’s performing and connecting with kids. His Hoover show is a jam session. He’s up there on stage having a grand old time with his buddies. It’s kind of like rock and roll for him.”
Many adults get involved with his Hoover show and give him a lot of positive feedback.
“Parents will say how much they enjoy the music and listen to my CDs when kids aren’t around,” Richter said. “That’s a good thing for me to hear, because that means it’s working.”
When the summer ends, Richter continues to stay busy. He works in his home studio in Columbiana that used to be Russ’ veterinary office, in addition to booking shows at churches, schools and libraries. He’s no stranger to social media. He enjoys cooking, so he has a “Chip’s Cooking” Instagram page. He always wanted to do a TV show, so during the pandemic, he launched his own YouTube channel, “Lunch with Mr. Chip.”
“It was always a dream of mine to do a TV show, but it’s really expensive,” Richter said. “Technology has caught up to my dream and now I can do it myself.”
Richter started coming to Lakeside with Mary Beth, who is his college roommate’s sister, and her family since 1979. He says none of his success would’ve happened without Russ, who passed away a few years ago, and his mother-in-law Shirley, who still comes to Lakeside and turns 91 this summer. Richer says Shirley is one of his “biggest patrons.” Not only did they introduce him to Lakeside, but Russ sent out several press kits to get him noticed. He is certainly well-recognized in Lakeside because of their support.
“When I come to Lakeside, I feel such a spirit of God’s presence of peace,” Richter said. “There are so many things that are happening. I recognize all the traditions. It’s a unique place. I see my role as an encourager and cheerleader, not just to kids, but parents and grandparents, too. I’m also trying to encourage what is happening in Lakeside and being with your family. That’s where the real ministry is.”