Cedarville University sells its chapel experience as the “heartbeat of campus.” In other words, chapel is a staple of the University and a defining feature of its character. Many prospective students and parents helping their children choose a school are drawn to Cedarville by the daily chapel that takes place during the week at the Dixon Ministry Center. Not to mention, conservative Baptist donors’ pockets empty at the thought of daily services at a university that has such diversity of academic programs.
The concept of chapel is not unique to Cedarville. In fact, most if not all Christian colleges and universities have some form of chapel. However, Cedarville is different in that it mandates chapel every single weekday for students with 8 excused and 8 unexcused absences per semester. Beyond these skips lies the possibility of fines and more severe disciplinary action.
Cedarville’s mandatory daily chapel is laced with many issues including poor guest speakers who return over and over and worship songs that seem to repeat over and over, not to mention the mandatory aspect and strict enforcement of arbitrary rules and the often confusing mirroring of the local church experience.
What’s the Big Deal?
Even from a few quick social media posts about chapel, it became clear that criticizing chapel is quite controversial. Many point out that there is nothing inherently wrong with the gathering of believers to worship and hear God’s word preached every day. With this point, I would agree. At a basic level, gathering together in a spirit of worship is commendable—so long as that worship is characterized by quality, does not detract from commitment to the local church, and is firmly planted in truth. The problem is that Cedarville chapel does not meet these standards
Lack of Quality.
Quality is a vital component of the gathering of believers. Of course, truth must be proclaimed from God’s word, and in doing so, the proclamation must result in more than mere listening. James 1:22 says, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” Unfortunately, this is all Cedarville achieves by mandating daily chapel: 4,000+ hearers of the word, many of whom are deceiving themselves—deceiving themselves by thinking the frequency of worship equates to quality of faith, or by believing chapel acts as a substitute for a local church, or by expecting faith by osmosis, meaning that hearing words sung and preached will magically sanctify their hearts toward Christlikeness.
Why does chapel cultivate a community of “hearers”? Because with repetition comes monotony and with monotony comes apathy. You can only sing “whoah God we love you for setting a fire in our hearts” so many times before it loses its meaning. You can only hear SGA student leaders spout the same shallow catchphrases and try to be relatable so many times before you begin to groan every time you realize it’s an SGA chapel. You can only hear Dannah Gresh yell “Go Girls!” so many times before you begin to question all of your life choices. Or maybe that last one was just me.
The point is that quality attracts quantity: the better the chapel experience, the higher attendance will be. A telling measure of Cedarville’s quality was during its COVID-affected semesters where chapel was optional and could be viewed online. Attendance was mediocre at best and most likely highly disappointing for the administration. But to them, it surely could not be a problem with chapel itself but merely its virtual nature. “Don’t worry,” they told us when they lifted COVID mandates, “chapel is back.” Back, of course, with no changes made to address the clear disinterest that has built over the last several years.
We will not waste time here recounting every single mistake every speaker has made because, frankly, Cedarville should not take the blame for every single off-the-wall comment a speaker makes. The issue really lies with inviting speakers back and strongly endorsing them even after they have made theological blunders (i.e. Dannah Gresh) and with lacking diversity in its choice of speakers. Imagine how much more interesting chapel would be if we heard perspectives from more non-white males and those with different opinions from our own. Now I know that suggesting that has negative connotations and we are not saying there is something wrong with being white or a male, but rather that diversity of thought and opinion is the fuel of the pursuit of truth. Homogeneity—seemingly one of Cedarville’s priorities—is its flat tire.
The quality of chapel must be improved. Cedarville owes that to its students, especially when attendance is mandated under threat of disciplinary action.
Confusion with the Local Church
Chapel far too closely resembles a church. It is identical in every way except for communion, Baptism, and I suppose the official presence of elders and deacons.
We know that we are not to neglect gathering together as one body in our local churches as commanded in Hebrews 10:25. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 commands us to pray without ceasing. And Psalm 1:1-2 says, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.”
However, central to all of these is a personal choice. If someone is forced to gather, their heart is not present in worship. Worship is a personal choice for a personal experience with a body of believers and with God.
The reality is that chapel is too much like church. Worship and a sermon every day numb us to the importance of gathering with a local church. It is the definition of too much of a good thing and many students find themselves burnt out and struggling to motivate themselves to go to church, especially when many churches students favor are 30-45 minutes away from campus.
Truth and Tolerance.
Cedarville seems to forget that it is an academic environment, and not an ecclesiological one. Because of this, its principles and goals are different from a local church. Chapel, unlike church, is a place where a variety of viewpoints can be heard and tested by our own foundational faith. We ought to be like the Bereans, listening intently to what is taught and comparing it to what we read in scripture. Cedarville ought to be afraid of such a Berean approach to chapel. Much like the Catholic Church in the 15th and 16th century, which once dominated thought because no uneducated commoners could read the Bible in their own language, many speakers spout errant teaching wrapped in buzz words and catchphrases so they are never checked by impressionable students.
As students, we need to constantly tighten the security of our hearts. Subtle heresies are the most dangerous because they are disguised so well as truth.
You may be wondering how to reconcile a desire for diverse speakers and for the truth to be proclaimed. It may have felt contradictory as we wrote that Cedarville invites back bad teachers and preachers while also writing Cedarville ought to invite speakers from wrong viewpoints. How do we have our cake and eat it too?
First of all, the main issue lies with an endorsement of poor teachers and false doctrine. As far as allowing opinions Cedarville deems to be wrong, the obvious solution is to provide panel discussions with individuals who do not align with what Cedarville believes or even those who are staunchly opposed to Biblical truths. In this way, students are exposed to the “wrong” ideology in a constructive setting where that ideology can be addressed immediately without simply being laughed off. This is how we strengthen our faith, not through shallow teaching and monotony.
Steps for Change
We don’t like to whine about Cedarville without providing practical things that we believe Cedarville should do to fix the problem. There are four main areas of change we believe would not only defibrillate Cedarville’s dying “pulse” but also improve the Cedarville experience as a whole.
1. Decrease the frequency of chapel to 2-3 times per week
Chapel at a Christian university is completely normal and, when done right, can be a huge asset to the community academically and spiritually. But most universities have far less frequent chapels.
At Boyce College, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s (SBTS) Bible college, chapel occurs twice per week throughout the semester. Students are required to accrue 12 chapel credits per semester. That’s a little bit less than once per week. Interestingly, their chapels are usually packed out every time despite the fact that only twelve are mandatory.
Similarly, Union University requires students to attend 14 chapels over the course of the semester and offers chapel twice per week.
Covenant College, a Presbyterian university in Lookout Mountain, GA, allows eight skips per semester while offering chapel three days a week.
Ohio Christian University offers chapel two days a week and allows seven skips per semester.
Liberty University’s version of chapel, “convocation,” occurs twice per week. However, Liberty does maintain a rather strict policy that allows only two skips per semester. But one thing LU gets right is that infrequent chapel gathering allows for better speakers which works to promote huge student attendance, mandatory or not.
Universities that do not have chapel every single day still have vibrant chapel experiences, still meet Bible minor requirements, and still attract students to attend.
Quality attracts quantity. Mandates attract apathy.
2. Remove or alter the chapel mandate
I know what you might be thinking…getting rid of one of the biggest things that sets Cedarville apart?
I would disagree. I think Cedarville has far more to set it apart from other Christian colleges including its academics, community, and some areas of theology and if administrators think mandatory chapel gives them an edge, they’re simply wrong because if CU insists on having chapel every day, students who “want it to be mandatory” can simply go every day. It’s a revolutionary concept, I know, but one I posit would work for the University to still target that niche group of students that want to go every day of the week.
There are a few ways Cedarville could alter its mandate if it does not want to entirely end its requirement. Of course, there is the option to no longer have a mandatory chapel, but that is unlikely and would swing Cedarville too far out of grace with its supporters. However, Cedarville could align more closely with one of the colleges or universities listed above and offer chapel 2-3 times per week and require a certain number of chapels per semester. This allows students to act like adults and work chapel into their busy schedules and not be forced to attend every single day.
3. Vary the chapel style
I’ll say it again for irony’s sake. Monotony breeds apathy. When we get into the habit of coming into the same building to hear the same songs and the same style of speaking, we zone out. Suddenly everyone’s arriving at 10:04 to catch the grace period and leaving at 10:25 for the three consecutive classes they definitely have (understand my sarcasm: there is no way half of the top section has to leave at 10:25). Something needs to change. In addition to changing frequency and attendance policies, the quality of chapel must improve.
Mix up the songs that are sung. Consider allowing students to audition to lead chapel worship. Intermingle worship with teaching. Have chapels that are *gasp* fun. Change things up. Please.
Oh, and for the love of all that is good and right, get rid of or vastly change SGA (Student Government Association) chapel. Everyone hates it except SGA and SGA’s friends. It’s great that we’re giving a college student the chance to play preacher and for the SGA president and VP to get to give overly rehearsed and forced speeches to try to relate to the fellow students they seem so disconnected from, but if chapel were not mandatory it would be slim pickings at an SGA chapel for a reason.
4. Diversify speakers
In true Baptist form, CU’s chapel is dominated by a bunch of white guys. For crying out loud, our president’s name is Dr. Thomas White, which is not his fault but it is still funny. A woman speaking in chapel is barely a biannual occurrence and when they do speak they can’t preach. After all, God doesn’t communicate with or equip women in the same way he does men, right? I think I read that somewhere in the Bible.
In all seriousness, Cedarville must diversify its speakers to enliven a repetitive chapel experience. Black speakers, white speakers, Hispanic speakers, female speakers, male speakers, speakers we disagree with, etc. should all be invited to speak in chapel. Diversity in all its forms is an asset. Why can’t Cedarville’s kingdom diversity initiative seem to make its way from Founder’s Hall to the chapel building?
It’s time for a change–and not only a change in the present. It’s time for Cedarville to seriously consider how it will continuously change chapel. It needs processes and procedures for developing unique experiences and making better connections for speakers to invite.
Chapel is not all bad. It has its benefits, such as proclaiming truth and encouraging godly living. The problem is that it lacks finesse and technique. Cedarville is like a basketball player that can only dribble well but knows nothing about strategy or how to shoot the ball. They are working on the wrong area. Instead of mandating chapel, attract students to chapel. Instead of fearing differing opinions, present and confront them Biblically. Instead of detracting from local church worship, provide chapel as a means of spiritual nourishment that is an asset to students rather than a burden.
It’s time for Cedarville to objectively check its pulse and change its chapel experience.