Campus-wide gatherings for worship continue to be distinctive of Christian Higher Education. The very formation of an institution of higher learning took root in the Middle Ages amongst Christian worshipping communities. Embedded in the disciplines of study and examination were the devotion to prayer, reading of scripture, and singing of songs to God. Emerging from these early beginnings, most if not all universities in Europe were founded with a compulsory attendance requirement of what historically and traditionally has become known as chapel.
In turn, chapel services in the United States are as old as the nation’s first institution of higher education – Harvard University, founded in 1636. Donald George Tewksbury in his book The Founding of American Colleges and Universities Before the Civil War notes that in 1861 there were 782 colleges and universities in the U.S. Out of those institutions there were 762 that maintained chapel as an essential part of the educational expectation. Chapel services continued to be so distinguishable with the American higher education system compulsory attendance continued in virtually all public, state, and private colleges and universities until late into the 19th century. Today, chapel sets Christian higher education apart for those institutions that deem corporate worship of equal importance to lectures, study, exams, and the pursuit of a degree.
As with our churches, the sweeping effects of the COVID-19 pandemic brought great challenges and changes to the practice of corporate worship on the college campus. Campuses were forced to seek creative and strategic ways in which to translate the in-person chapel experience into a virtual platform. Beginning with the Fall 2020 semester at California Baptist University, chapel services pivoted from thousands of students gathering weekly in the CBU Events Center to pre-recorded services uploaded to an online education platform that allowed for the health and safety of all involved while also providing greater flexibility and accommodations to meet the semester expectations. Yet even amid a global pandemic, the value and distinction of chapel continued to hold true for the collegiate community and the collegiate experience.
Chapel Keeps the Bible at the Forefront of Learning
As Paul inscribed in his second epistle to Timothy, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (II Tim 3:16-17). One of the principles we hold as a guide in our worship-planning process at CBU is that chapel services will demonstrate a richness of biblical theology to direct the hearts and minds of worshippers to the glory of God, the pre-eminence of Christ, and the power of the gospel. We desire for students to know what the Bible says, what it means, and how it applies to their life so that they can live their purpose for the glory of God!
Chapel Maintains a Rhythm of Worship
Students studying within CBU’s Collinsworth School of Music understand the significance of rhythm in performance and composition. Our Lancer student-athletes train rigorously to attain great rhythm and timing to excel in their sport. All of life depends upon rhythm. From the onset of creation, God placed the sun, moon, and stars into place to “serve as signs for seasons and for days and years” (Gen 1:14). Chapel helps to establish times and patterns for worship within the academic year. It calls us to “Enter His gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him and bless his name” (Ps 100:4). The rhythmic gathering of students, staff, and faculty to pray, read scripture, and respond in song is critical to the identity of the Christian university.
Chapel Reminds Us of Our Institutional Calling
California Baptist University believes each person has been created for a purpose. As an institution of higher learning, there is a calling to help students understand and engage this purpose by providing a Christ-centered educational experience that integrates academics with spiritual and social development opportunities. Chapel serves as an extension of the mission of the university by providing students with opportunities to hear messages of spiritual challenge and encouragement. It also serves as a strategic on-ramp for numerous other opportunities to discover and grow in what it means to be a follower of Christ. And ultimately, as a university committed to the Great Commission, chapel serves as a consistent reminder to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:19-20).