Revitalizing Chapel Exercises (Aaron Morrison)

Aaron MorrisonFor our second guest post of the week, I’m happy to welcome Aaron Morrison to the blog. Aaron is a Residential Education Coordinator for the Department of Residential Education at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, NE. He received his M.A. in Higher Education Administration from Taylor University and a B.S. from Indiana Wesleyan University. He is passionate about being a scholar/practitioner of higher education, specializing in leadership development, spiritual formation among college students, history of higher education, and church/university relationships. Follow him on Twitter at @saaron_morrison. In this post, Aaron reflects on corporate worship in Christian colleges.

Todd Ream and Perry Glanzer discuss what makes a “Christian university” in The Idea of a Christian College: A Reexamination for Today’s University. An early portion of their book focuses on the role corporate worship has as a moral practice in Christian higher education. They argue this practice must remain central to a Christian university life. If Christian educators take Augustine’s argument for loving God as the telos of a Christian life seriously, they should consider how chapel exercises help form participants’ affections. Ream and Glanzer caution educators to keep chapel exercises primary. If they don’t, campus communities risk orienting their desires towards “the persuasive voices of… lesser gods of [their] own making” (p. 17).

Historically, administrators and faculty often failed in making chapel exercises prominent in university life. Parallel to the struggle of explaining the relationship between faith and science in the late 19th century, Christian educators frequently neglected to demonstrate the significance of corporate worship to students enamored with individual freedom. For chapel to maintain its role as an important moral practice in teaching students to love God, universities must regularly assess how chapel exercises remain both “theologically orthodox and engaging to members of the community” (p. 17).

How Chapel Exercises (Almost) Became Extinct

In the beginning, American higher education viewed chapel exercises as a near-universally expected practice. The prevailing Christian culture at the time held mandatory chapel exercises as symbolic of the conviction education “must go beyond learning to wisdom” (Elton Trueblood, The Idea of a College, p. 159). Not everyone agreed on the value of chapel, however. Accounts as early as 1802 describe “sleepy boys” in early morning chapel listening to the president’s daily scripture lesson, and ending his homily with a warning of a “4 cent fine” for anyone caught not paying attention.

Princeton University Chapel
Princeton’s university chapel still hosts an ecumenical service on Sunday mornings, but not during the week – Creative Commons (Andreas Praefcke)

What started as early reluctance gave way to frustration and later anger in conjunction with emerging notions of individual sovereignty. In 1817 Princeton president Ashbel Green described a student riot intent on “preventing the usual religious exercises of that sacred day…. A great deal of glass was broken; an attempt was made to burn out the buildings, and the bell was rung incessantly.”

While opposition to chapel exercises gradually emerged in the first half of the 19th century, the second half saw observance decrease dramatically. Elton Trueblood believed this happened for two reasons: (1) the admiration for the German model of higher education, which atomized the subjects and relegated the discussion of religion to merely the theology department; and (2) the impact of the Second Morrill Act (1890) on increasing the influence of the secular, economic interests of the state in directing education.

With the arrival of the 20th century, institutions which retained chapel in the face of changing trends still made compromises. These compromises included changing meeting times from early morning to mid-morning or reducing the number of days in the week for meeting. By the end of the 20th century, only private institutions with historic church connections retained chapel exercises, although many relegated chapel to the edges of university life. Schools who adhered to more conservative theology or had a stronger connection to their founding church denomination kept the practice valued. What most institutions held as mandatory in the beginning became over time largely marginalized and supplemental by comparison.

Keeping Chapel Exercises at the Center: a Proposal

Some scholars, such as James Tunstead Burtchaell in The Dying of the Light, cast a pessimistic future for church-affiliated institutions to remain faithful to their religious traditions. Others, like Robert Benne in Quality with Soul, remain optimistic for some institutions to maintain both high academic quality and a devoted religious culture. Like Ream and Glanzer, both Burtchaell and Benne cite the value an institution places on chapel exercises as predictive of religion’s institutional prominence or insignificance.

So how can an institution keep chapel exercises at the center of how it orients itself? Let me offer a few suggestions:

1. Keep it in the Morning

Dietrich Bonhoeffer gives a theological reason for why worship should be done in the morning. In Life Together, he says when we awake we should be still and let God have the first word of the day: “The early morning belongs to the church of the risen Christ” (p. 41). The start of the day ought not to be “burdened and oppressed” with thoughts of the day’s work ahead. Bonhoeffer cites numerous biblical figures who rose early to worship God as the first thing they did with their day. To give God the first actions of the day is to symbolically declare it belongs to Him as all darkness gives way to “the clear light of Jesus Christ and His wakening Word” (p. 43).

2. Have the Rest of Campus Shut Down
Bethel University sign: "Closed for Chapel - 10:20am - 11:00am"
For the record, Bethel also shuts down for its thrice-weekly chapel

Walter Brueggeman describes the importance of stopping or resting for worship in Sabbath as Resistance. He points to our current time as a “rat race of anxiety.” To have an institution stop its regular processes for corporate worship is, as Brueggeman puts it, “both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods” (p. 90).

Institutions such as Geneva College and Taylor University close most of their campus offices during the chapel hour. When this happens, faculty and staff can attend chapel with their students. Such a policy also encourages additional students to attend chapel by reducing the choices they can make in how they spend their time during chapel hour. Colleges and universities emphasize the importance of chapel by ceasing their regular operations to reserve time for corporate worship.

3. Emphasize Aesthetics More

Philosopher James K.A. Smith has argued that many evangelical understandings of spiritual formation are built on “an inadequate philosophy of action.” If Christians assume the goal of sanctification is to become a “peculiar people…marked by their love for God and a desire for His kingdom,” then the acquisition of knowledge is not enough. (See his interview with Trevin Wax of The Gospel Coalition for an introduction to these themes.) Smith points to the didactic, traditional sermon being the climax of worship services as an example of a belief that spiritual formation is a matter of “just needing more knowledge” in order to be holy. Increased knowledge alone cannot translate into changed behavior. Rather, human beings “feel” their way through the world more than they “think” through it.

In Desiring the KingdomSmith illustrates this idea by describing the sensual experience of being in a shopping mall as a type of religious pilgrimage. All design aspects of the building and the shops, from the architecture, to the advertisements, to even the smells from restaurants, are all telling us a narrative of what makes the good life. Smith calls these aspects “secular liturgies,” and says “the devil has all the best liturgies” (Smith, Imagining The Kingdom, p. 40). In Smith’s argument, worship services which fail to understand the power of aesthetic experience will have a harder time forming congregants to love God’s world more than the one presented by consumerism.

4. Reduce Unnecessary Exposition

Smith’s critique of didactic practices in worship services might have credence historically as well as theologically. In reading the stories of chapel experiences, students often spoke with disdain over lengthy announcements and unengaging chapel speakers. Faculty and administrators may find it harder to keep chapel relevant for the student body if chapel turns into an informational meeting rather than a participatory activity. Better intentionality over every second of the chapel experience minimizes opportunities for the audience to feel like their time could be spent better cramming for the next hour’s test.


A Christian university, says Ream and Glanzer, forms students in their whole being to love God. As the Church uses corporate worship to form Christians towards this end, they argue Christian universities must do likewise. However, such an important function remains under threat. For current faith-based institutions, keeping chapel exercises essential to institutional identity will likely decide the future of Christian higher education. It will require commitments to consistently reform, and to rearticulate to each subsequent generation of students why chapel exists and how experiencing it fits into a larger narrative of how students ought to live their lives.


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