by Ellen Larkin

I’m all for conversation about chapel — the good and the bad — because it shows how much we care about it as a community practice and how much it impacts our lives every day. Chapel does need to be talked about. There are plenty of legitimate concerns that have been raised: the number of required chapels, the lack of exemptions for arguably legitimate reasons and the concern over increasing legalism. That last one should be talked about all the time in the Christian life anyway, especially in an academic setting like Northwestern. We are so good at losing sight of the spirit of the law in favor of the the spirit of the gospel, so it’s important to be continually examining ourselves together with the Holy Spirit. So please, keep talking.

While I think that overall Luke Morse (who wrote the last opinion piece on chapel) did a really good job explaining his (and representing many other people’s) opinions and frustrations surrounding the recent chapel policy changes, there was one big point that I disagree with and just could not let rest: the quality of chapel content. I think that citing a lack of quality in chapel content as the root of the issue is, to be honest, a cop-out. We’re playing the blame game.

Let me be clear: I am NOT saying that the content of chapel is perfect. It’s not. We as students need to accept some of the responsibility for the predicament we’re currently in. We need to practice speaking up and offering feedback regularly if we want to make chapel a time and space that’s truly representative of the whole student body. Generally speaking, that feedback hasn’t been happening. The content of chapel is actually pretty good, and one big reason people think that it’s not good is because we students have failed to engage with it. We’ve been passive. 

“Daily chapel is about community and disciplining ourselves to spend time with Jesus and other believers — right now, those other believers are the students, staff and faculty of Northwestern.” – Ellen Larkin

Let’s talk about the format of chapel this year. We switched from a largely lecture-based week (along with Praise Chapel) to a format with more variety. We still have a weekly theme (more on that later) to add a little coherence. Now there are only two “lecture days” and what basically amounts to elective/breakout chapels on the other two days. This format is a good thing. It’s made chapel less passive — students get to choose how and when to engage in it now more than ever before. I can personally say that the chapels offered by the Bible and athletic departments are excellent; I’m sure plenty of people can attest to other quality breakout chapels too.

As for the videos and prayer chapels, I will be the first to admit that the video series haven’t been my personal favorite. I don’t think they’re home runs. But it is important to remember that 1) a chapel that is minimally impactful for you might have just blown the mind of the person next to you, and 2) sorry guys, but you aren’t going to love everything. That’s just the way life works — I think we’re all reasonable enough to acknowledge that.

I know this isn’t the most popular opinion, but I love prayer chapel. And you know what? I think prayer chapel is essential. We’re commanded over and over again in the Bible to pray and to do it together. It is so easy to overlook prayer, guys. It takes discipline to build it as a habit. But it’s one of the main ways that God grows us. The fact that Northwestern has given us a weekly community space to pray testifies to the value they place on prayer. And yes, we all know it also takes minimal time to plan an open-ended prayer chapel, but so what? That fact in no way negates the importance of practicing prayer together.

As for the themes/topics of the week, the last op-ed pointed out that we don’t study Scripture exegetically in chapel and instead favor talking about friendship and other topics. I get the thought behind this. But I would like to suggest that chapel is not the best format for true Bible study — classes and small groups are.

Daily chapel is about community and disciplining ourselves to spend time with Jesus and other believers — right now, those other believers are the students, staff and faculty of Northwestern. Thematic chapels are like worldview sessions. How do we apply Christian faith and grace in the area of mental health? In racial diversity and reconciliation? In friendship? I am the first to agree that we all need to be better students of the Bible. That is one of the reasons Northwestern offers exposition classes. You know them, the ones that are titled “Isaiah” or “Life of Christ” or “Genesis.” Will you ask yourself when it was that you last really engaged in those classes? Gut-check, right? It was for me. Maybe we should start there if we really want to learn to study the Bible.

Lastly, something practical. At the beginning of the year, Nina was very straight with us regarding chapel: budgets have been cut, so we can’t bring in as many speakers, especially big names, as we have in the past. That’s life. We all know that something has to give when push comes to shove. The new chapel format was a solution for that “problem.” For the reasons discussed above, I believe that the new format actually fosters more than a solution. It gives us a place to engage as a student body. It’s way better than big names.

Lectures are by far the most passive, spoon-fed way to learn. Honestly, I get enough lectures in class. Let chapel be different. While it’s amazing to have the opportunity to hear from big names like Greg Speck and Eugene Cho, I didn’t come to Northwestern to experience a continual youth conference in chapel. I came here because I wanted to grow in Christian community. I wanted to learn to better love God with my mind and my heart. I wanted to work out cultural issues and life challenges with people who love Jesus. I wanted to “get equipped” by hearing from people who are wiser than me and from people who are different than me. I wanted the conversation and the engagement.

I’m willing to bet that a lot of you did, too. Because of the new format, chapel can offer those community growth opportunities more effectively than ever. So, yes, please talk about chapel. Debate and disagree. Signing a petition is totally fine, but not if that’s the only thing you do. Give honest and respectful feedback, and don’t stop if/when the policy gets changed. And don’t play the blame game. We all have to work on this situation. Chapel can be better — the first step is on us students to engage.


Ellen Larkin is a senior kinesiology major from Excelsior, Minnesota. She hopes to balance coaching and a career as a physical therapist someday soon. You can find her on the softball field, in the public library or looking for any excuse to show you a picture of her baby niece (photo courtesy of Ellen Larkin).

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