Squandered: Rethinking Worship in University Chapel Services (Guest Post by Chuck King)

Squandered: Rethinking Worship in University Chapel Services (Guest Post by Chuck King) January 17, 2016

DSC_2705 from Flickr via Wylio
© 2009 graybyte, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio

Today we’re featuring a post written by my friend and mentor, Chuck King, on an experience he had in a university chapel service. I had the wonderful opportunity to serve as Chuck’s intern for a year while he was the music pastor of College Church in Wheaton, and I am grateful for the way his theology of worship has influenced my life and work. You can read more of Chuck’s writing at his blog, Te Decet Hymnus.


I really do not want this to be a rant. And I will keep identifying names and places out of it. But I experienced this today, and it troubles me.

Picture a room filled with hundreds of 18 to 22 year-olds. They have gathered, as they do a few times a week – not necessarily by choice – for a communal spiritual exercise. They are Christian believers (for the most part) under the care of older Christian believers to whom they have been entrusted for their spiritual care.

Those elders are highly educated, with biblical, theological, and/or divinity degrees. They are trying to do what is right, I suppose. No: to be fair, I really do believe they are trying to do what is right. To some degree that means giving students the opportunity to plan, prepare, and take leadership in this spiritual exercise. But I wonder, how much direction was given to what I participated in today? And here I mean musical, theological, and spiritual direction.

The first song was by a worship song writer who is widely sung and highly touted. In fairness, I have not taken the effort to learn many of his songs. Some I have appreciated, a couple I have thought very good. This one had only one word (one word) to clearly distinguish it from a pop song: “sacrifice.” (Sure, the word “sacrifice” could be used in a love song, but at least here it clearly means something spiritual. Just exactly what it means spiritually isn’t very clear, except to insiders who know the lingo.) Some readers will know from the lyrics who wrote the song. This is not a post about a songwriter, so, “no names, please”:

I lay me down
I’m not my own
I belong to you alone
Lay me down
Lay me down
Hand on my heart
This much is true
There’s no life apart from you
Lay me down
Lay me down
Oh oh oh
Lay me down
Lay me down

Verse 1 has the insider lingo about sacrifice. You would probably recognize it as religious; maybe as Christian. That person you want to come to church with you? For whom you think we should be singing songs like this in church? I have to think, s/he will be more confused by that veiled sacrifice reference than by an old fashioned hymn about the blood of Jesus. Just sayin’. At least he/she would know what we’re singing about. Verse 2 might put that person right at ease. Maybe even snuggle up a bit:

     Verse 2
Letting go of my pride
Giving up all my rights
Take this life and let it shine
Take this life and let it shine.

This was our first “worship song” today. Then some announcements and a prayer. And then the person leading the music asked us to stand again to sing another song. (Well, what he asked was that we stand, and what we were going to do was “start to worship.”) I wrote this down, but I’m sure it is not verbatim. This is what he said: “People in other countries are being killed for their faith, who would love to have an opportunity like this, to worship.”

To which my immediate response was:

“And we? We squander the opportunity.”

  • We squander the opportunity to help young adults move beyond their high school youth group experience.
  • We squander the opportunity to train young musicians and pastoral leaders as spiritual guides through gathered worship.
  • We squander the opportunity to expand the world view of Christian college students.
  • We squander the opportunity to help young adults look beyond themselves and their own immediate pleasures.
  •  We squander the opportunity to express ideas and feelings in ways that draw us to maturity.
  • We squander the opportunity to serve the broader church by providing broader perspectives on music and worship.

Let me be clear. We can seize all these opportunities with music and musical styles that appeal most to the 18 to 22 year-old crowd. (As if there is a crowd of 18 to 22 year olds.) Not only with the music that immediately appeals to them; and not without the music that appeals to them. This rant – OK, so it is a rant – is not about style of music. It is about adults providing leadership to college students. It is about theological responsibility in our singing. It is about expecting college to be a time to grow up. That could all have been accomplished today, without taking away the student initiative and without removing the student appeal. But today, at least, those opportunities were squandered.

Chuck’s experience sounds like many that I had at the two Christian institutions I attended. Both were relatively large schools who mandated chapel attendance. Despite the fact that both had large music schools with hundreds of talented vocalists, organists, and instrumentalists, they were rarely featured in the “worship” portion of chapel services. In one school, a four-manual, 70-rank Casavant stood proudly, but was always silent, while a band of guitars, drums, and a few singers replicated some of the day’s top CCLI songs. If there was any place a more historic sense of worship should be welcome, wouldn’t it be in an academic setting, particularly an evangelical setting with an ocean of musical resources? Why would such institutions perpetuate the chronological blindness and artistic monotony? Leave a comment if you’ve had an experience like this, or if you’ve experienced something vastly different.

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