I will never be able to understand what it is like to sit in chapel and feel like an outsider.
I was raised in a church-going family. We prayed at meals and before bed, read the Bible together, and watched a whole lot of VeggieTales.
This probably sounds familiar to many students here at ENC, but there is a significant population on campus that does not come from that background. There are also those who were raised Christian but have separated from the faith, and others who claim an entirely different religion.
It is extremely vital and necessarily Christian to consider and appreciate these students’ perspectives. I wanted to investigate the question, “What do students who do not consider themselves ‘Christians’ think of chapel?”
This topic has not been given much attention to my knowledge. I focused on chapel because it is generally considered the religious centerpiece on campus.
I interviewed several students who shared their chapel experiences, as well as the college chaplain who discussed how the non-Christian population affects the way chapel is organized. Although there were some common threads between these students, there was a lot more variety.
For people who have not read the Bible, scripture is weird. Even if you read it frequently it is certainly confusing but much more so for those unfamiliar with it, and who have not had the guidance of those who study Scripture in depth like pastors or priests. This disconnect between students and scripture can be problematic for non-Christians when trying to follow a message in chapel.
Junior Lainie Block says that she has developed a relationship with God during her time here but hesitates to call herself a Christian just yet. She is fairly new to scripture and when speakers do not elaborate on the text it is even harder to understand.
“It’s confusing sometimes. I kind of wish I could go back to Sunday school…so I could just really understand the basic concepts of God,” Block said, “I feel like maybe some chapel speakers just kind of assume that, ‘Since you go to this school you understand, you’ve read the Bible, you know the stories, you know these verses enough that you understand what I’m talking about.’”
The best way to combat this issue is to give sufficient context for Bible verses and avoid making assumptions that everyone is already familiar with specific stories and characters. Corey MacPherson, the college chaplain and most frequent chapel speaker, says that this affects the way he delivers messages.
“My preaching is very different in chapel than it would be on a Sunday morning. I’m constantly keeping in mind, ‘I don’t think I’ll ever preach in a more diverse sanctuary’, and I don’t just mean culturally. I think the ENC chapel is one of the most challenging rooms to preach in!” Corey laughed.
“I try to not use theological language, or terms that some students may not understand. I try to keep my language Biblical, but even that can be confusing, “he continued.
Sophomore Ciara McMahon pointed out that chapel preaching can be alienating to outsiders.
“I think it’s definitely geared, for the most part, towards people who have a lot of experience with [Christianity],” McMahon said.
When people feel like they do not understand what is going on, they disengage. Acknowledging that simple fact can resolve tension between students who participate in the service and those who do not.
Multiple students said that if they knew what chapel would be about beforehand, they would be more likely to go and pay attention. When Corey heard this, he told me that the majority of the time he does not know what speakers will talk about in advance. He offered a solution for when he does have that information.
“Maybe what I need to do in my prayer email each week…is to say ‘this is who’s in chapel, this is the topic,” McPherson said.
All the students interviewed stated that the most meaningful and engaging chapels were the ones where speakers shared personal experiences. These services stood out, leaving the biggest impression on people.
Sophomore Jacob Mason recalled speaker Chris Russell, who opened up a gym called Fitness 4 Focus that provides “therapeutic workouts for individuals with special needs,” according to their website.
“I remember in my high school we had a really big special education program. I connected well with those kids, so when I saw that he [Russell] used what God called him to do to set up a gym to help disabled people…it really stuck,” Mason said.
Sophomore Ian Carson remembered vividly a chapel where students were allowed to come up and say whatever they wanted. He was humbled by the openness and vulnerability of his peers. “I felt like people were actually genuine. No one was forced to speak; they all went up there on their own,” Carson said.
Another group of students said that they mostly feel welcome, and that they could definitely participate if they wanted to. On the occasion that they feel unwelcome, however, it has nothing to do with the speaker or the way chapel is conducted. It is about the other students in the pews next to them.
Sophomore Abetzi España described herself as a “borderline” Christian when she arrived to college. She chose ENC hoping the environment would encourage her to grow closer to God. Unfortunately, negative experiences here have influenced her to move in the opposite direction.
“I feel like there are a lot of people around me who are like, ‘Stand up. You have to sing. Why aren’t you saying this prayer?’ It’s a little bit hostile,” España said.
España has experienced people getting angry with her and her friends for being passive in chapel. “They will just get really, really mad at you. And we don’t want them to be mad, we’re not trying to offend them, but we have to be there,” she continued.
Aside from noisy or intentional disturbances, there is no reason to be distracted by someone else not joining in the service. While some people may think it is rude not to participate, it is equally disrespectful to turn and glare at them.
There is an inherent challenge in preparing chapel services. Not only is the student body incredibly diverse in its spiritual backgrounds, but in every other category as well. Chapel speakers have to try and be accessible to everybody, and naturally that does not always happen.
McMahon recognizes the dilemma and lack of an easy answer. “Regardless…you’re going to lose a little bit of your audience. It’s a real catch-22 cause…there are people who are at completely opposite ends of the spectrum and you have to find a way to engage both, ” she commented.
MacPherson spoke about how he attempts to consider everybody in the organization of chapel.
“There are a few goals I have for chapel calendar. The top, number-one priority is that we have a culturally diverse chapel. The other thing that’s a top priority for me is to have women pastors. And third, I want people from different professional backgrounds and careers, because obviously most students aren’t going into ministry here. Even for non-Christians I want them to see all three of those things, especially…those that are going into the careers that they may end up in. My hope is that some time during the semester that there will be several points along the way where everyone can connect in some way,” MacPherson said.
Non-Christians should be the most highly prioritized group in chapel. This does not mean that every Wednesday and Friday we have to hear a salvation sermon or that chapel should be secularized. The virtues of the Gospel can be conveyed without alienating people who do not identify with Christianity, but it has to be intentional. If we are not careful, we run a serious risk of becoming exclusive and self-congratulatory.
This is by no means a comprehensive review of what our non-Christian population thinks about chapel. Hearing the opinions of students who adhere to other religions (and no religion) would have provided more perspectives on chapel.
But hopefully this article will start a conversation that will spur a greater understanding of the diverse community at ENC.