There are many aspects and implications that come with having a required chapel system. Before diving in, it is important for me to stress the importance of the chapel program here at Northwestern. I believe that NW’s commitment to spiritual formation is one of its most important core tenets and that it should not be abandoned. The purpose of this article is not to criticize the chapel program; it is simply an opportunity to look at some effects that come along with requiring chapel.
Chapel should not be required for the same reason church is not required. Throughout history, states that have forced their populations to abide by one faith have only succeeded in driving those people away from the faith. The church is meant to be a place where a community of believers comes together to worship God, and no one should be forced to attend church. In George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London,” he discusses a time when he was poor and went to the church for food. The church forced him to attend a service to receive its meal, which shaped his attitude toward the church so much that he did not return, even for the free food.
It is evident that chapel is not exactly like church, but there are many similarities. I believe chapel and church have the same chief goal: being a place where people can come together to grow closer to God and worship. Accountability is an important piece in any body of believers, and some have said the requirement of attendance is a way of holding ourselves accountable to our goal of spiritual growth. However, I would argue that accountability should come from the body of believers and from within oneself, and accountability enforced from a power over someone will not lead to genuine participation in chapel or spiritual growth.
Another potential problem with requiring chapel is shifting the focus of the program. A chapel program’s chief focus should be providing students with an opportunity to grow closer to God and worship with one another. The primary focus should not be on filling the seats of the chapel each day a service is offered. If spiritual formation is the chief goal, students who feel the program achieves this goal will continue to show up because it is making an impact on their lives. If attendance is pursued as the chief goal, the focus on spiritual formation may be sacrificed to make the message more appealing to a general audience, less challenging or simply misguided. Aiming to get as many students to come to chapel is not a problem, but pursuing attendance for attendance’s sake does not guarantee a quality chapel experience. However, pursuing spiritual formation as the primary goal will ensure that students who are truly affected by what is offered at chapel will continue to attend.
A few practical problems also arise with requiring chapel. First and most importantly, required events have a different atmosphere and change people’s attitudes toward them. If something is required, it generally will lead people to become jaded to the activity, even if it is something they enjoyed doing originally. An easy example of this is reading. Many of us enjoy reading for pleasure in our spare time, but reading that is required for class almost always seems like a chore. This brings up an important consideration: should we require chapel in the same way a coach of a great team will force his or her players to come to practice every day? I would answer that a truly great team would be made up of players that would come to practice even if it was not required because they strive to succeed. This translates to chapel. The goal is to have a program where students are driven to know God better and want to go to chapel to help them in their faith walk.
Another way to observe how requiring something changes people’s attitudes is to compare Praise and Worship to chapel. While they are different events at their core, they hold many similarities and it is still valuable to compare the two. The atmosphere of P&W is electric. Everyone in attendance wants to be there and ambitiously praises with one another. This is in part because everyone at P&W has chosen to be there, and students feel comfortable to let go and not care what others around them think. Contrast this with chapel, where there is a percentage of the students who clearly do not want to be attending, and the atmosphere completely changes into one that seems flat.
Another potential problem with required attendance is that it leaves no metric for success. If students are required to attend, it will be difficult to tell if the message presented in chapel is resonating with students because they will be in the pews regardless. A completely voluntary attendance system allows leaders to see what is working and causing students to come back, as well as what is not working. I previously discussed that the focus of chapel should not be on attendance, and this is still true. However, a successful program will have students in attendance every week, and with a requirement it is difficult to discern how many of the students in attendance are actually resonating with the message.
I have always thought it is pointless for someone to point out problems with a system without offering any solutions. While I don’t claim to have all of the answers, I have an idea of what I believe a flourishing chapel program would look like, and I think the type of chapel I will describe below is the program we should be striving for at NW.
The vision for chapel I have is a program where chapel is not required. A place where NW students choose to come together to worship, learn more about God and grow closer to him. I imagine services that challenge students by discussing the difficulties of the Christian faith, messages that are rooted in Scripture and are not afraid to discuss theological and ethical questions that believers in the world today will need to formulate opinions on and maybe even plans of action. I think these chapels should happen once a week so they can be treated like big events, similar to how P&W is treated now. I also imagine that this community of believers would hold each other accountable to continually growing spiritually, whether that be through chapel or other ways.
I admit that NW is not ready for the radical change that would be necessary for a system like this to come into being. This may be discouraging to some, and probably surprising to hear for others with whom I have already discussed this. I think it should be a goal for the NW community to be ready for this type of chapel program and to be ready to support it fully. This type of chapel would require a faith community that is hungry to grow closer to God, a community that is willing to hold each other accountable in that shared goal and a community willing to take responsibility for the success of that program. I do not want to come off as cynical or blaming NW students for the current system, but I hope to encourage students to bring our community closer to one that would be ready to support a system where chapel does not need to be required for it to be successful.