Beginning this semester, the chapel summary word count has been increased from the customary 250 to 500 for students with more than 15 absences and 1000 for those with more than 20 absences. These changes, along with overflow’s shift from Sanderson 215 to Room 22 in the Chapel building, were put in place by the Chapel Department to ensure that the student congregation is present spiritually, mentally, and physically at these worship sessions. Some students view these changes as the unwelcome enforcement of chapel attendance, but Chaplain Lowe has expressed that during an era of “piped-in preaching” and Skype sanctuaries, face-to-face worship is necessary for establishing meaningful relationships with other believers in a congregation.
“Communal worship is something completely other. I think God transforms and ministers to us differently, and we encounter him in a way communally that is impossible to do alone,” said Lowe. “Things happen when we worship together that rarely happen in other contexts and settings. If you look at the Trinity and the way that God interrelates—and we are created in his image—we are communal beings.”
He said that chapel is not intended to replace either church or individual devotion but provide a place in which the campus can worship of one accord. “When we are singing together, that’s going to be a unique experience. When we’re listening to the teaching of the Word, that’s going to be a unique experience. When we are hearing a lecture that stimulates our minds and hearts, I think that is worshipful. When we are encountering those things together, it impacts and changes us in a way that cannot simply happen alone,” said Lowe.
Lowe also explained that meeting three times a week with a physical congregation allows him to have a better, more personal understanding of his listeners. This in turn helps him tailor his ministry to the needs, demands, and character of the Covenant flock. “When I get up and speak on a Friday, I am preaching to a group of people that are physically present and a group of people that, individually, I may not know very well, but as a community, I know. I know the context. I know what has happened in the course of that week in the community at large. I might know very specific circumstances in individuals’ lives. I have relationships with the people that are there,” he said, “and when I preach God’s word in that context, something is happening that those who are not in the context simply cannot in any way comprehend, understand, or participate in.”
After reviewing the number of students who were regularly absent from chapel last semester, Lowe concluded that lengthier summaries would discourage students from skipping worship services throughout the semester.
“If what’s happening in chapel is actually what we believe and say is happening, if we’re actually worshipping together and encountering Jesus together as a community, and a student says they don’t want to be a part of it, that’s really heartbreaking,” said Lowe.
Midsummer, he began to bat the idea around with students, chapel staff, and the Board of Directors, and finally reached a consensus on the current 250-500-1000 plan. This trumped the potential plan for a universal 1000 word count, as Lowe wanted the word count to be “not a punishment as much as a hopeful, thought-provoking number that will allow students to rethink what they really want to do.” Students can miss ten chapels without ramification or required summaries each semester.
“I’ve become convinced that mandatory chapel is a good thing,” he said, particularly after numerous alumni expressed their belated thanks for Covenant’s chapel policy in the years after graduation. “I see the idea of mandatory chapel less as an obligation enforced by rule, and more of an opportunity to allow students to do something they might not do on their own, something that will ultimately be a blessing. They might appreciate it now and maybe even more so later,” said Lowe.
Senior Hannah Robinson is one who already appreciates Covenant’s weekly worship services, and finds that sermons are most meaningful when not regurgitated on an audio clip. “When I am not there, I miss worshipping with the community. It’s a valuable thing and an encouragement.” She said the new word count “keeps people from waiting until the end of the semester to write 30 summaries. I also like the way Chaplain Lowe explained how and why he was making these changes.”
Sophomore John Granholm also admitted that a physically present congregation “encourages an awesome community. You can plan your schedule so that you’re able to make it to chapel.”
“I think it’s appropriate,” said senior Bri Delisfort concerning the new word count.
However, not everyone on campus is quite so thoroughly enamored with the idea.
While junior Austen Crim doesn’t see the appeal of writing summaries instead of going to chapel, he says that when the school uses “writing as a punishment, we are being treated like children. When there are interesting speakers and a decent band, I don’t mind going to chapel, but I might even get more out of it if I wrote a summary.”
One anonymous staff member explained that “on a whole, chapel summaries could be changed. I think there are easier ways to organize and keep track of who is going and who is not. I think Chapel should be counted as a 1 hour free credit where one’s GPA goes up or down, just barely, dependent upon his or her attendance.”
In any case, Lowe has promised to make these changes more palatable to the student body by clearly communicating expectations concerning absences, summaries, and upcoming events, thereby “creating a context of awareness and hopefully expectation.”
While Lowe was unable to give any information on expanding the chapel sanctuary, Overflow has been moved from Sanderson to the Chapel’s choir room to better recreate a sense of communal worship. Dr. Scott Finch and Dr. David Tahere have also discussed replacing the pixilated praise band videos with a live hymn sing in Overflow. The music professors have volunteered to lead the sing each week and choose selections based off student requests.
While Hannah Robinson is not keen on continuing chapel Overflow, she says she likes “the idea of separate worship not off of a screen. It sounds as though it will be more like a real experience than a fake chapel.”