By K’reisa Cox
Unlike many other Christian universities, students at Seattle Pacific University are not required to attend the weekly chapel service offered by the school.
As I was embroiled in the college decision making process last year, it was one fact about SPU that I found especially appealing. This policy was compelling to me because it seemed to be indicative of a culture of tolerance, an opinion shared by other journalists such as alum Greg Piper of The College Fix, who wrote that “SPU is tolerant precisely because its identity is Christian.”
Interfaith and interdenominational accommodation is an important value, and by not mandated chapel attendance, the university sends a strong message of the merit of freedom of worship.
However, as my first year approaches completion, I have realized that the policy does not have solely positive repercussions. SPU’s policy on optional chapel attendance obviously reduces the attendance, but it has effect on more than just numbers; it reduces the effectiveness of chapel as a whole.
Chapel is populated only by students and faculty who want to make time out of their day to seek out the particular brand of worship. This is positive in the sense that those who attend really want to be there, making the experience more meaningful. But it also means that the audience is a very sectioned portion of SPU’s population, a group of people who value similar experiences and encounter God in alike ways.
Because the audience responds to a particular presentation of chapel, weekly worship becomes formulaic. Deviations from the usual pattern are few and far between, and somewhat unusual when they occur.
This presents an issue for students and faculty alike who feel disconnected from the chapel experience, as there are few entry points for them to feel included. There are those who prefer a more liturgical experience, and some who would prefer even less formal, and still others who would seek non-Protestant service who will not find what they are looking for at our weekly gatherings.
At this point, I should pause and acknowledge that I am a weekly chapel attendee.
I love the loud, joyful music. I love the wide array of speakers who deliver thought-provoking messages. I love the space it provides to take time out of my week for prayer and contemplation.
Although, I also grew up in schools that had chapels. Thus, I have been raised on the type of worship available every week. To me, it is familiar, comforting, reminiscent of home. But in these feelings are exactly where chapel’s pitfalls lie.
Chapel has become a niche market, a problem that has received little or no attention by the student body.
Students either respond well to the style or feel out of place, and therefore stop attending.
By diversifying our worship, we can attempt to reach out to students and faculty who may feel that they do not have a place in a weekly gathering.
However, this risks alienating those who already feel safe and at home in the usual setting.
I think that there is room to compromise on this issue; we should be building community while simultaneously reaching out. There is room for variety and diversity while also retaining the qualities that make chapel beneficial for others.
All this is not to say that we have to cater to everyone; it would be impossible to satisfy every single person’s preferences for worship.
But we should examine how our current policy affects the climate of chapel, and other institutions around campus.
There should be a way that we can marry the benefits of the freedom of choice and the diversity that required attendance would command.
Introducing more variety of service types and structures would invite more students and faculty into this community that I have found so rewarding during my time here.
Perhaps this solution would bring SPU closer to reaping all the benefits of free attendance while steering away from the drawbacks.
K’reisa is a first-year studying business administration.