Reassessing Chapel

President Greg Christy


When Chaplain Harlan VanOort ’82 resigned last summer following 12 years of faithful service, it was an opportune time to review our chapel program. As near as I can tell, the most recent significant changes occurred during Chaplain Jerry Sittser’s leadership from 1979 to 1985.

Jerry revolutionized Northwestern’s chapel program and also worked closely with student development to build a discipleship program in the residence halls. Spring and summer service projects were added as another way for students to develop spiritual maturity in settings outside their comfort zones. Those efforts led to spiritual revival and helped solidify our identity as an intentionally Christian liberal arts college.

Since then, each chaplain has contributed to the spiritual life of the campus based on their unique giftedness. God has been faithful in providing the right leader for the time, and we are praying he will do so again.

Before seeking a new leader, we held forums with faculty, staff and students, and about 700 campus community members responded to a survey. We learned much about what has been going well and what could be improved with our chapel programming, and we also had significant conversations about the chaplain position and what its responsibilities should be.

With that wealth of community wisdom in hand, we began a national search for a dean of Christian formation. The dean will report to me and provide oversight for all areas of campus ministry: worship, discipleship, missions and justice. This includes serving as campus pastor and leading the chapel program.

Among the feedback we received from the community were these consistent messages:

  • An engaging and worshipful chapel program is essential to our mission and identity, so it’s appropriate to require students to attend.
  • The requirement should nonetheless be adjusted to enable worship leaders and students to focus more on excellence.
  • Corporate worship should continue to be the heart of Christian formation, but chapel should integrate with and illuminate the ways in which students can also develop their faith through discipleship, mission and justice opportunities.

With these themes in mind, our campus ministry team and administrators crafted a proposal for new Christian formation credits that we are piloting this semester. Students still accumulate the majority of these credits by attending chapel, though we are offering chapel twice rather than four times per week.

Requiring students to invest in their Christian formation, beyond just attending chapel, fits our mission as a Christian college in the Reformed tradition. One of our highest values is for graduates to trust, love and worship God, as stated in our Vision for Learning. The goal of our Christian formation program is to help us best live out our mission of engaging students in courageous and faithful learning and living that empowers them to follow Christ and pursue God’s redeeming work in the world. Thank you for your prayers as we work to fulfill this noble task.

President Greg Christy

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