Communal Worship and Love: Not an Option

Westmont Horizon, December 11, 2000

Several weeks ago in this space, Ryan Patterson deliberated the pros and cons of making chapel services optional. Ryan, I am delighted that Dr. Winter's rhetorical question was all it took to change your mind about optional chapels: "What about having a mandatory chapel is inconsistent with what Westmont professes itself to be about?" You decided that a mandatory chapel was an effective sign of Westmont's motto, Christus Primatum Tenens ("holding Christ preeminent" [though a proper translation would actually be "Christ having preeminence"]).

Well done. Now I'd like to show you how that motto also answers every argument you put forward for optional chapels. (By the way, I am arguing against positions I once held myself, before years in church and at school trained me away from them.)

The first argument is that chapel would be more positive without students who don't want to be there. Their distractions get in the way of "the people who want to attend and get something out of chapel." That's just the problem.

Against what our culture tells us, and what even our churches often tell us, worship is about God getting something out of us, not about us getting something out of God. That's why it's called worship! If we evaluated chapel according to our own satisfaction with it, we would be holding ourselves preeminent, not Christ. I challenge you to find one biblical passage where God treats worship the way Americans treat it — as a vehicle toward our own enrichment that is better for being "optional."

Of course God wants our whole hearts and selves and minds. Of course God uses worship to bless us. But God's response isn't for us to take a vacation when we don't feel like it. It's a command that we feel like it, and much more: "Love the Lord your God." Worship that is compulsory is our best chance to learn to worship like Jesus, who at the gravest moment in his career — in Gethsemane — emphatically did not feel like it. Few Americans have the chance to learn this, because so many people, even our own churches, basically tell us to hold ourselves preeminent, and to attend only when it is worth our while.

The second argument is that students should be forced to confront the issue of whether they want to make chapel part of their Westmont experience. Of course, they do that every time they go, especially when they don't want to be there. But Christus primatum tenens says that's not the point.

To turn worship into an opportunity to be confronted with the existential decision of whether we want to worship is, again, to put ourselves at the center of the picture. It turns chapel into a heroic moment of individual decision: Chapel is significant when I make it significant. This is what European intellectual culture has been telling us to do for centuries — start with ourselves, put our freedom first, create worth in things by assigning them personal value. That's a long way from Christus primatum tenens! Where in the Bible do we make God significant? Where is our response to God's call more important than the call itself? God, praise his name, is not an existentialist. Compulsory worship proves it. Aren't we blessed to be at a place where Christ is preeminent, not we?

The third argument is really a response to the claim that "no one would attend if the requirement were lifted." You answer falls back on the first two arguments, claiming that we are "capable of finding enough benefit in worshipping God or challenging ourselves intellectually to make the choice to go to chapel." With reasons like these, we're not worshipping God anyway, so why worry about attendance?

The God of Israel showed himself not by attracting people to a beneficial, intellectually challenging, freely chosen context — a Westmont College, so to speak — but by choosing and gathering a people that has, more often than not, suffered from the privilege. I often tell students that Westmont is not a church. Apparently it's time also to make it clear that a people gathered to worship isn't a college. I don't believe that throngs of people who come voluntarily to a place where they find "enough benefit" in God's presence, or who "challenge themselves intellectually to make the choice" to be there, are particularly pleasing to God. Jesus usually left such people behind or chased them away. Ironically, the best way we can fulfill our mission as a college, holding Christ preeminent, is precisely not to act like just a college when we gather in chapel.

God commands us to worship. Mandatory chapel is a sign of that command (and a mild one, as such signs go). Like you, I need it in my life, because like you, I live in a culture that persistently points to itself, or me, or my career, family, or state, as preeminent. But our community holds Christ preeminent, and so he is the one we make ourselves worship.