Charity in Chapel: An Evaluation and Defense of Chapel

This is my Torrey speech from last semester. I attempt to encourage Biola students concerning the topic of chapel.

Charity in Chapel:

An Evaluation and Defense of the Biola University Chapel Program

In the middle of last semester, I wandered into chapel on a Friday morning, exhausted from a long week of classes. I had no idea who the speaker was going to be, and, frankly, I didn’t really care. I hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before, and I still had a bunch of physics homework to finish before the afternoon. So, I distractedly mumbled through a few worship songs, feeling slightly guilty that I wasn’t giving worship my full attention, and then I settled in as the speaker was introduced. I perked up slightly when I heard that the speaker was Scott Derrickson, a Biola film graduate and writer and director of such films as The Exorcism of Emily Rose and The Day the Earth Stood Still. I had never seen those movies, so I still didn’t really know what to expect, but I figured that this guy seems to be somewhat of a real Hollywood filmmaker, so he might have something interesting to say, corny as it might be, about bringing Jesus to Hollywood. As he started talking, though, I got more and more excited. He shared about his own wrestling with the problem of evil, the arts, and sharing the gospel with Keanu Reeves. He presented a deeply emotional and yet intellectually stimulating account of how Christ’s own suffering on the cross was so much greater than the suffering that any mere human could ever experience, painting a picture which resolved for me some of the emotional impact of the problem of evil in a way I had never considered. I left chapel that Friday morning feeling both challenged to continue thinking and growing and encouraged that Biola is producing young Christian leaders like Scott Derrickson.

Assuming Biola chapels are roughly one hour long, we will each devote two hundred forty hours to chapel over the course of four years here at Biola. Chapel is an experience which affects us all, and chapel policies are one of Biola students’ favorite topics for complaint. What is chapel good for? Why does it even exist? How should we as students approach chapel? Why does Biola think chapel is important enough to require all students to attend? Is mandatory chapel a good idea, and, if so, how should it be enforced? To explore some of these questions, I am going to address some shortcomings I see in Biola’s chapel system, lay out some things I think chapel clearly is not, and then work towards a vision for the role chapel should fill and evaluate how well I think Biola chapels fill that role. I hope above all that you will be encouraged by what I say, challenged to grow in the love and knowledge of our God.

While I do largely approve of Biola’s chapel program, I am not oblivious to its shortcomings. There are aspects of Biola chapels with which I disagree and aspects which I think should be improved. My own experience with chapel has had its ups and downs. First of all, many speakers have fairly unsophisticated ideas. While Scott Derrickson may have given an intellectually stimulating account of the problem of evil, I have attended quite a few chapels where it seems like the main message is that we should all close our eyes and imagine that Jesus is hugging us, and all of our problems will go away. This is Biola University, not Biola Kids Camp. Secondly, since I’m a bit of a theology nerd, I have a few theological idiosyncrasies which differ from Biola’s: I am Orthodox Presbyterian where Biola is nondenominational, I am an optimistic amillennial covenant theologian where Biola is premillennial dispensationalist, I am fairly cessationist where Biola chapels tend to be at least soft charismatic, I am presuppositional where Biola is evidential, and I subscribe to the regulative principle of worship where Biola…doesn’t. Even generally speaking, I have a fairly intellectual and theologically-oriented temperament which doesn’t always resonate with Biola chapels. The third and foremost reason I dislike some of what goes on in chapel is the tendency to blur the distinction between chapel and church. While I have heard multiple Talbot professors emphasize this clear distinction, my conversation with chapel staff left me not completely satisfied. My understanding is that they would of course encourage Biola students to become involved with a local church, but they realize there are many factors which might prevent students from doing so, at least at a significant and meaningful level.  To use an illustration, while I would view church as the main course of our spiritual meal, with chapel as a nice side dish, I understand chapel staff to view chapel basically as a triple-extra-gourmet helping of church. I think their view is the result of both a fairly low and somewhat cynical view of church as well as an overestimation of Biola’s chapels, and, at the core, we might disagree theologically about what the concept of church means. In addition, I do not believe that a chapel program should administer the sacraments, and Biola offers the Lord’s Supper in chapel at least once a semester. I’ll expand on this more in a minute, but all of this is just to say, I have as much reason as just about anyone to disagree with and possibly even dislike much of what happens in Biola chapels. Yet, even still I do not resent having to attend chapel; I choose to view it as a privilege, not a burden.

Our attitude towards chapel has a big effect on how we experience chapel. Even under the best of circumstances, no one chapel will ever be perfect for every single person in attendance, especially at a place like Biola which includes people in many different stages of spiritual and intellectual development, as well as members of many different denominations and traditions. After all, interacting charitably with other perspectives is exactly what we have been learning to do in Torrey these past three and a half years. If we can read Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud charitably, we can surely tolerate a few chapels led by Christian men and women who profess love for Christ. It seems to me that every Christian should be able to learn from pretty much any other Christian, regardless of how different their doctrinal systems and experiences be. As long as we are all Christians, we are all pilgrims on the Way, and listening with a charitable attitude to another perspective seems an acceptable and even desirable practice.

Before moving on to say what chapel is, I think we should first draw some boundaries around what chapel is not. In my opinion, there should be a clear distinction between chapel and church, and I think maintaining that distinction will keep our chapel program healthy. We might be tempted to equate chapel services with church services, since there are many similarities. Like church, chapel brings believers together in community, creating a shared experience of spiritual growth under the preaching of the word. However, there are differences between chapel and church. Protestants have historically understood there to be three marks of the church, three things which distinguish a group as a true church. The classic statement of this concept is found in the Belgic Confession, a confession of faith written in the 1560s. Article Twenty-Nine of the Belgic Confession says that the “marks by which the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if it maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in chastening of sin.”[1]

I don’t think that church discipline, excommunication, in the most extreme case, should be exercised by a chapel program. That level of discipline requires the kind of intimate knowledge and relationship found between an individual and his spiritual authorities, the leaders of the local church with which he has associated himself. A chapel program is not designed to develop those kinds of relationships, nor is it designed to have that kind of spiritual authority. By extension, then, I would also argue that a chapel program should not administer the sacraments; the terminal form of church discipline is called excommunication because the church is supposed to administer the sacraments to communicant members only; when one is excommunicated, one can no longer partake of the sacraments. If a chapel program should not exercise church discipline, then it should not administer the sacraments. Of course, a Christian chapel program should be expected to preach the gospel, but the doctrinal claims made in chapel should not carry the same weight as those coming from the pulpit of a local church, from those leaders in ordained positions found in the Bible. Chapel messages, rather, are instances of one believer helping other believers in their mutual journey on the Way, offering insight, wisdom, and experiences in the hope that others will be inspired by them to a greater love of God and life of holiness.

Moreover, looking at the church/chapel distinction in a broader and more directly biblical context than a Sixteenth Century confession of faith, there are aspects of a Christian community which are found in a church which a Christian university simply cannot provide. A few months ago on The Good Book Blog, Biola’s own Dr. Kenneth Berding posted an article entitled “Should students at Christian colleges go to church?”[2] In this article, Dr. Berding cites ten aspects of Christian community which he takes from 1 & 2 Corinthians, and he notes that some items on the list, such as interacting with the whole body of Christ, which includes people in all stages of life, from childhood to old age, are scripturally mandated for the church but are nearly impossible to live out in a place like Biola. Chapel does indeed have its proper place and function, but it should not be understood as the equivalent of or a replacement for church.

Now that we’ve looked at what chapel isn’t, let’s move on to what chapel actually is. The way I see it, the overarching category into which chapel fits is what is popularly called a spiritual discipline. In Romans 12, the apostle Paul exhorts us “by the mercies of God, to present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [our] spiritual worship”; we are told to “not be conformed to this world,” but to “be transformed by the renewal of [our] mind[s], that by testing [we] may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”[3] Chapel is one way in which we can carry out this command. In the first place, the act of physically showing up to chapel on a regular basis is a way in which we fulfill the first part of the command; we can literally present our bodies to God at chapel, setting aside time during the school week to worship, carving space into our busy schedules to signify where our priorities lie. We may not always be happy about waking up early, and we will not always be in the mood for chapel; we’ve all had days when going to chapel feels like the last thing we want to do. Nevertheless, as I said earlier, choosing to approach chapel with an attitude of humility and going to chapel anyway, regardless of how we happen to be feeling on any particular day, is an opportunity to practice an important aspect of presenting ourselves to God; indeed, we sacrifice our feelings to him. This does not mean we should pretend to be happy and go through the motions of chapel, resenting it the whole time. Rather, we should be honest with ourselves and God and take those opportunities to pray, examine our hearts, and grow. If we never did anything we did not want to do, we would not be growing spiritually; it is not a sacrifice to present our bodies if we do not have to give something up. Going to chapel even when we do not feel like going to chapel is an example of presenting ourselves as a sacrifice to God.

In addition, chapel provides us an opportunity to fulfill the second part of the Romans 12 command; we are transformed by the renewing of our minds when the Scriptures are set before us and we are encouraged by our brothers and sisters in Christ. In Colossians 3, we are told by the apostle Paul to “let the peace of Christ rule in [our] hearts, to which indeed [we] were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in [our] hearts to God.”[4] While these commands were given to a church, their scope is not restricted to a formal Sunday meeting. Chapel is a perfect example of how we as believers, members of the church universal, can build each other up in love and knowledge as we are renewed after the image of our creator, supplementing our academic study of the Scriptures with an opportunity to live out a part of our Christian faith.

Considering the role of chapel, and despite all the things I dislike about Biola chapels, I think Biola does a pretty good job. According to Biola’s chapel website, the goal of Biola’s chapel program is to “bring the Biola community together regularly for worship, spiritual nurture, and education.”[5] All of these goals are good, biblical ideas, things which we as Christians should value and desire. Moreover, these goals lie within the bounds of the role of a chapel program; they do not assume the role and responsibility of the church.

I spoke with Dr. Todd Pickett about Biola’s chapel program. He told me that there are seven main concepts which the Department of Spiritual Life tries to work into the standard Monday, Wednesday, Friday chapels on a regular basis; these are biblical exegesis, Christian living, spiritual development and formation, social justice, reconciliation, missions, and arts and culture. These are important topics with roots in Scripture, and they include and address things which are frequently neglected in a church context. It is good, for example, for believers to hear a Christian account of the arts, and it is even better for them to hear that account from a Christian who is actually an artist. I remember hearing artists like David Taylor and Jon Anderson give their perspectives on what it means to see God’s beauty in the unexpected nooks and crannies of the world, and the way I have looked at a sunset has been changed ever since.

Furthermore, Biola’s chapel program overcomes some of the limitations inherent in a situation which includes people in many different stages of spiritual development, as well as members of many different denominations and traditions, by offering many alternatives to the standard, thrice-a-week chapels. Not only are the speakers at chapel well-advertised, so that students can choose to hear people speak about topics in which they are especially interested, but spiritual development credit is also offered for events and activities like Singspiration, Fives, Sabbathing, and spiritual direction. Biola’s chapel program is designed to provide many different and varied opportunities for a diverse body of students to be able to grow spiritually, enabling us to fulfill God’s commands and will for our lives.

Biola has no right to force us to go to chapel against our will, but, in my opinion, they’re not forcing us to go to chapel against our will, since we signed up for chapel when we signed up for Biola. As I see it, Biola has just as much right to set a required number of chapels as it does to require us to obey any of the other community standards or to meet academic requirements. We might think that chapel falls into a different category because it deals with spiritual development, something which can be radically personal and private. However, chapel is not church; chapel is an opportunity for growth, and no one is forcing us to sing, do what the speaker tells us to do, or even pay attention at all. But, we have signed up to be there and present ourselves; Biola is offering a service, a package deal, and, if we don’t like it, we don’t have to buy it. As far as the new three hundred seventy-five dollar fine is concerned, I am largely indifferent to it. One might argue that, in the grand scheme of things, it might not be the best idea to set up a system in which spiritual development can be so easily monetized, and perhaps the old chapel probation system was better in some ways. There is probably some value in these counterarguments, but, on the whole, it shouldn’t matter what the penalty for failing to meet the chapel requirement is. We have signed up to do it, and, in all seriousness, it is not very hard to do. I am a very busy student, and I have never been even remotely close to not meeting the chapel requirements. Biola’s policies in particular are quite lenient compared to other schools, some of which require attendance at three chapels every week, and others of which assign grade points to numbers of chapels attended. Biola offers abundant makeups, in addition to the possibility of chapel reductions. Meeting the requirement is not difficult.

I think that chapel is fundamentally a good thing, an opportunity for us to grow in the love and knowledge of our God. Even while we realize that Biola’s chapel program is not perfect, we should have a spirit of charity and present ourselves as a living sacrifice. If we can come to see chapel as good and we have a desire to attend, the idea of a chapel requirement takes on a new light. In setting a number of chapels that its students must attend, Biola is saying that it values the spiritual development of its students and it wants to provide them with a plethora of opportunities for growth. We students should approach agreeing to the chapel policy, which we do every time we come back for a new semester at Biola, not as accepting a burden and paying an extra price to attend Biola but as, in Dr. Pickett’s words, submitting ourselves to a training, providing ourselves with accountability and extrinsic motivation for when we feel like quitting. In 1 Timothy, the apostle Paul exhorts Timothy to “train [himself] for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”[6] Just as an athlete temporarily subscribes to a rigorous training regimen in preparation for a big event, we agree to devote thirty hours per semester to the spiritual discipline of chapel; just as an athlete must stick to his regimen even when he doesn’t feel like it or risk the discipline of his coach, we go to chapel even when we don’t feel like going.

I would encourage all of us, myself included, to take advantage of the few opportunities we have left and go to chapel, approaching it with an attitude of charity, humility, and submission. Pretty soon, we will have graduated, and we will no longer have the option of going to chapel. While some of us might view the lifting of this requirement as a cause for much joy and jollification, none of us will have matured so far in our Christian lives that we will not be able to benefit from something similar to chapel. So, what will be the chapels in your life after you leave Biola? How will you continue growing? Quiet times? Small groups? Journaling? These are all good things, but what about engaging the culture? Reading great books? Seeking out Christ in unlikely places? Having good-natured theological fist fights with friends? Ruminating on how the eighth Harry Potter movie ruined all of the books’ Christological symbolism and turned the gospel in to a works-righteousness? But, I digress. I hope I have been heartening to you in what is, for most of us, our last year here at Biola. My prayer is that we will have grown tremendously in our time here, but, more than that, my prayer is that we would continue to grow in the church as we leave here, ready to impact the world for our Lord Jesus Christ.


[1] Guido de Brès, The Belgic Confession of Faith in The Three Forms of Unity: The Subordinate Doctrinal Standards of the Reformed Church in the United States (The Publications and Promotions Committee of the Reformed Church in the U.S., 2011), Art. 29.

[2] Ken Berding, “Should students at Christian colleges go to church?,” The Good Book Blog, posted on March 4, 2011, http://thegoodbookblog.com/2011/mar/04/should-students-at-christian-colleges-go-to-church/ (accessed October 27, 2011).

[3] Romans 12:1-2 (ESV).

[4] Colossians 3:15-16 (ESV).

[5] Biola University Department of Spiritual Life, “Chapel,” Biola University, http://studentlife.biola.edu/spiritual-development/chapel/chapel-policies/ (accessed October 27, 2011).

[6] 1 Timothy 4:7b-8 (ESV).

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