The College Chapel: Puritan Relic or Campus Hot Spot?

How the integration of revival and moral philosophy in the college chapel helped lead to what Mark. A. Noll calls “the great age of Christian higher education.” Part of ongoing series: The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts

If James K. A. Smith is correct in asserting that Jesus establishes particular ‘hot spots of sacramentality’ and endues them with a special sense of God’s presence, then the Christian college chapel must become the campus hot spot once again.

by Gary David Stratton, Ph.D. • Senior Editor

Alumni Memorial Chapel, Johnson University (established 1893)
Alumni Memorial Chapel, Johnson University (established 1893)

Campus worship services convened in a literal college chapel building and/or a figurative chapel program remain one of the most distinctive and symbolic methodologies in the history of American Christian higher education. Rooted in the British Puritan understanding of the college as a vehicle for the ongoing reformation and revival of church and society, chapel services are as old as the nations’ first college (Harvard, 1626) and endure today in most overtly Christian colleges and universities, as well as in many denominationally affiliated schools. Often the symbolic center of controversy over changes in the soul of a given college or university,[i] college chapels serve as significant campus ethos-shaping institutions—especially where chapel architecture and/or compulsory attendance dominate the campus landscape and schedule.[ii] Even as contemporary Christian colleges and universities struggle for an adequate theology of worship in a learning community, chapel programs and their staff serve as hubs for most co-curricular spiritual formation and service-learning opportunities on campus.

The Origins of the College Chapel Program

Puritan Liberal Education and Revivalism The British Puritan penchant for Christian higher learning crossed the Atlantic with the first pilgrims so that George M. Marsden regards the Puritan founding of Harvard College just six years after their first settlement in the New World as “one of the remarkable facts of American history.”[iii] Following the model of Emmanuel College, Cambridge—the hotbed of English Puritanism—and the writings of Jonathan Edwards, early American colleges integrated a classic liberal arts education in the classroom with Puritan revivalistic worship services in a college church,[iv] consistent with how Puritans “combined highly intellectual theology with intense piety.”[v] (See, Revival and Moral Philosophy: A Puritan Vision for Higher Education.) True to the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura and revivalism’s commitment to preaching as the primary means of conversion and grace, colleges preserved a time and place for students to sit under the biblical preaching of the college president. Compulsory attendance at two Sunday worship services (open to the public) and daily preaching and/or prayer services for the college community was central to the Puritan conception of higher education, and became the standard for Harvard, Yale, and the vast majority of American colleges that followed them. Since these services normally took place in a college chapel building (often the most architecturally dominant and symbolically significant structure on campus), they inevitably became known as chapel services.

The College Church and the Preaching President

When a college had an especially eloquent president—such as Timothy Dwight at Yale (1795–1817), Francis Wayland at Brown (1827-1855), Charles G. Finney (1852–1875) at Oberlin, or John McLean at Princeton (1854-1888)—“the effect on the students could be electric.”[vi] Yet, while most of college presidents were clergyman,[vii] few were remarkable preachers. The success of the chapel program often demanded largely upon periodic religious revivals among the students lest chapel preaching fall upon hard hearts and deaf ears. [viii] This only increased the influence of revivalism on Protestant Christian education, especially in the aftermath of the First Great Awakening, when the founding of numerous revival oriented colleges—such as Dartmouth, Princeton, and Brown—eventually led to the explosion of more than five-hundred revival colleges across the American frontier during the Second Great Awakening (1790-1840).[ix] (See, Do America’s Colleges Need ‘Revival’?)

Apologetics and Common Sense Realism

At the turn of the nineteenth-century, the challenge of European radical skepticism [x] led to a dynamic connection between revival colleges and the philosophical worldview of Scottish Common Sense Realism.[xi] Apologetic sermons on moral philosophy joined revivalism as the focal points of the college chapel program. Marsden notes that, “…these two programs, the revival and moral philosophy, were the chief collegiate supplements to traditions of regulated worship…”[xii] and laid the foundation for nearly a century of academic ascendancy that “may be called with justice the great age of Christian higher education in the history of the country.”[xiii] Chapel services remained so integrally identified with American higher education that compulsory chapel attendance continued in virtually all colleges—even state universities—late into the nineteenth-century. [xiv] Today, many if not most historically denominational colleges maintain college chapel buildings, worship services, and chapel staff who aid students in spiritual formation as well as service-learning opportunities in the local community and global village. 

The College Chapel Program and the Soul of the American University

Secularization and the Demise of Compulsory Chapel Programs As the most visible symbol of faith on campus the college chapel has often served as a lighting rod in the well-chronicled tension between the educational and spiritual missions of Christian colleges. Since the post antebellum demise of the revival college movement (sometimes called the old-time college) only a handful of American colleges and universities have been able to overcome the forces of secularization and maintain their uniquely Christian soul. Some scholars emphasize the demise of compulsory college chapel programs as a unique development in the transition from Revival College to Modern University. [xv] They point to the elimination of compulsory chapel at Harvard (1886) and Yale (1926) as key marking points in the forty-year secularization of the American academy.[xvi] Other scholars emphasize the continuity of anti-spirituality pressures facing Christian colleges since Harvard’s faculty rejected the First Great Awakening in 1741.[xvii] They see growing pressure against chapel programs in contemporary Christian colleges as part of an ongoing pattern in the history of Christian higher education.

Managing the Tensions of Worship in a Learning Community

Both sides of this debate recognize that the dualism of post-Enlightenment conceptions of knowledge create a nearly inevitable force against the life of the Spirit in colleges committed to the life of the mind.[xviii] Today’s colleges chapel programs face increasing faculty pressure to become more denominationally-diverse, historically-rooted, and intellectually-challenging, even as post-modern, consumer-oriented, doctrine-phobic students demand more experientially-based, relationally-connected, and individually-catered worship experiences.[xix] Managing these pressures has led to two primary approaches to chapel in Christian colleges.

Chapel as an Educational Essential

Many colleges view their Chapel education programs as an educational essential of a Christian college—not unlike the general studies courses in a college’s core curriculum. As the Gordon College (MA) website states, “Because Chapel and Convocation programs are viewed as an integral component of a Gordon education, regular attendance is required for graduation, much like other non credit-bearing elements of the Gordon experience…”[xx] Similar to the Puritan college church, chapel services serve the broader educational mission of integrating highly intellectual pursuits with intense personal piety.[xxi] Chapel services are required of most students and held in a large often symbolically enriched worship space and at a protected time in the college schedule.[xxii]

Ideally, such chapel programs serve as a corporate spiritual discipline that both symbolically and educationally tie together the entire Christian college experience so that chapel is “foundational for university-wide commitment to integrate faith, learning, and living across campus.” [xxiii] However, just as in historic revival colleges, weak preaching and programming can quickly lead to student dissatisfaction, complaints, and misbehavior from the captive audience.[xxiv]

Chapel as a Student Service

Others colleges employ a model that views chapel services as one student service among many—not unlike other voluntary co-curricular activities. These chapel services are often (although not always) invested with the time, space, personnel, and financial support required to remain ethos-shaping forces on campus, but not because attendance is enforced.[xxv] As the Bethel University (MN) website declares, “Chapel is the heart and soul of spiritual life on the Bethel campus. Chapel attendance is not required, but we believe it’s a vital part of building community and learning about our shared faith.”[xxvi] Students may choose to voluntarily attend worship services to help them worship God in everything they do, but these colleges believe that such heart practices are best-pursued voluntarily.[xxvii]

Ideally, such an approach enhances the worship experience for all who take part and reduces the need to police student attendance and behavior. Practically, the threat of a conspicuously empty chapel often leads to tailoring worship to the tastes of the majority of undergraduate students and subsequently to great faculty and minority student dissatisfaction. The student services model is nearly always the first step towards to end of a vital college chapel program.[xxviii] they often start strong in the first decade after attendance is no longer taken, only to gradually dwindle to a small percentage of the campus.  Julie Reuben notes that once ‘critical mass’ is lost, college administrations often discover there is no going back from the ‘disaster’ of a voluntary chapel.[xxix]

The Heritage of the College Chapel

Two Theological Poles of Worship While modern Christian colleges have yet to develop a widespread theology capable of managing these tensions at the level of the Puritan model, [xxx] both sides in the debate agree that chapel programs should be a time when at very least a sizable majority of the college community gathers together to celebrate their common faith in meaningful expressions of corporate worship, learn the central tenants of the Christian faith, and consider together how to live out their faith throughout their campus community, scholarship, personal lives, and future calling.

Protestant theologies of worship have consistently emphasized that all of life and not just sacred times and places are potentially acts of worship. Commitment to the life of the mind required to forge a genuinely Christian worldview can make “the classroom as a chapel, scholarship as devotion,” so that, “Christianity at the base of the curriculum and suffusing all studies (is) the essence of Christian education.” [xxxi] However the affirmation that all of life can be worship need not discount our need for worship services that train our hearts and minds to worship and provides a means of grace by which the Spirit forms our soul in unique and intense ways. As James K. A. Smith asserts, “Jesus seems to establish particular hot spots of sacramentality and . . . endues them with a special sense of presence,”[xxxii] and there is little doubt that a Christian college chapel service should certainly be one of these hot spots.

Back to the Future

These two poles of worship guided the Puritans in their integration of a liberal education in the classroom and revival in the college chapel precisely because the renewing power of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the chapel is the best defense against hard hearts and deaf ears and in the classroom. Perhaps it is not surprising that both voluntary student-service chapel programs and compulsory educational-essential programs work best in seasons of religious awakening,[xxxiii] nor that both types of chapel programs benefited from the last season of spiritual awakening on American college campuses (1995).[xxxiv] As the contemporary Christian college movement continues to develop deeper theologies of worship in learning communities there is reason to hope that such intentionality could lead them back to the future of a second “great age of Christian higher education.”[xxxv]

Adapted from, Gary David Stratton. 2015. “The College Chapel,” in George Thomas Kurian and Mark A. Lamport, eds. Encyclopedia of Christian Education, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littleton Academic Press of America.

Notes [i] Widespread use word soul to describe the essence of uniquely Christian higher education was initiated by George M. Marsden in 1992 in his essay, “The Soul of the American University: A Historical Overview,” in The Secularization of the Academy, ed. George M. Marsden and Bradley Longfield (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). It was followed by Marsden, The Soul of the American University (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), Robert Benne, Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), Stephen T. Beers, The Soul of a Christian University: a Field Guide for Educators. (Abilene, Tex: Abilene Christian University Press, 2008), and others. [ii] Benne, Quality with Soul, 11-12, 193-14, 213-14. [iii] Marsden, The Soul of the American University, 33. [iv] William C. Ringenberg, The Christian College: A History of Protestant Higher Education in America (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 38. [v] George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 44. [vi] Ibid. 64. [vii] In 1840 eighty-percent of all college presidents at overtly Christian colleges were clergyman, as well as nearly sixty-percent of state college presidents. Marsden, Soul of the American University, 81. [viii] Mark A. Noll, Rise of Evangelicalism: the Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 53-60. Italics mine. [ix] George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press), 499. George M. Marsden and Bruce Longfield The Secularization of the Academy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 8-9. [x] Particularly David Hume and Voltaire. [xi] First proposed by Thomas Reid and developed by Princeton president Thomas Witherspoon, where Timothy Dwight studied. Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 93-113. Also, Noll, “The revolution, the Enlightenment, and Christian higher education in the early republic,” in Making Higher Education Christian, eds. Joel Carpenter and Kenneth Shipps (Grand Rapids: Christian University Press, 1987), 58-64. [xii]  Marsden, Soul of the American University, 58. [xiii] Noll, “The revolution, the Enlightenment, and Christian higher education,” 64. [xiv] Ringenberg, The Christian College, 2003, 80-82. [xv] Such as Ringenberg’s The Christian College; Marsden’s The Soul of the American University; and Julie A. Reuben’s The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). [xvi] Reuben, Modern University, 119-122; Marsden, Soul of the University, 21. [xvii] Such as, James T. Burtchaell, The Dying of the Light: the Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1998), Michael L. Budde and John Wesley Wright, Conflicting Allegiances: the Church-based University in a Liberal Democratic society (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2004), and Benne, Quality with Soul. [xviii] Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 7-10. [xix] A youth group worldview described as “Moral Therapeutic Deism” by, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: the Religious and Spiritual lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). Also, Kendra Kreasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling Us about the American Church (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.) [xx] “Chapel Attendance Policy,” Gordon College Website, 2013-04-15. http://www.gordon.edu/page.cfm?iPageID=474 [xxi] Marsden, Fundamentalism, 44. [xxii] Benne highlights non-denominational Wheaton College and Baptist affiliated Baylor University as examples where this model currently appears to be working. Quality with Soul, 150. [xxiii] David S. Dockery, Renewing Minds: Serving Church and Society Through Christian Higher Education (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 2007), 108. Dockery is president of Union University, an educational-essential chapel school. [xxiv]Burtchaell, The Dying of the Light, 232, 320. [xxv] Benne, Quality with Soul, 49. [xxvi] “Worship/Chapel at Bethel,” Bethel University Website, http://cas.bethel.edu/campus-ministries/worship/chapel, 2013-04-15. [xxvii] Benne highlights Calvin College (Christian Reformed), Valparaiso University (Lutheran), and the University of Notre Dame (Catholic) as examples where this model appears to be attracting a critical mass of students, at least to Sunday services. Quality with Soul, 145-149, 160-165. [xxviii] Benne calls this the third college chapel model: institutions whose voluntary chapel programs are marked by very low attendance and without a designated chapel hour in the college schedule, Quality with Soul, 49. [xxix] Modern University, 123-124. [xxx] See David S. Dockery’s discussion of the lack of thorough theology in Renewing Minds, 124-137. Encouraging starts towards such a theology are found in, Duane Liftin, Conceiving the Christian College (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2004), Cary Balzer and Rod Reed. Building a Culture of Faith: University-wide Partnerships for Spiritual Formation (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2012), and James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009)and Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013). [xxxi] James Bratt, as quoted in ed. Paul John Dovre, The Future of Religious Colleges: the Proceedings of the Harvard Conference on the Future of Religious Colleges, October 6-7, 2000 (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub, 2002), 203. This “all of life can become worship” perspective is also prominent at many schools with required chapel. [xxxii] Desiring the Kingdom, 149. [xxxiii] Ringenberg notes this revival effect compulsory chapel programs, Christian College, 62ff, and Reuben in voluntary chapel schools, Modern University, 119. [xxxiv] In the 1995 campus awakening voluntary attendance at Hope College chapel jumped from a handful of students to nearly 90% of the student body, and student satisfaction with Gordon College’s compulsory chapel program jumped from less than 50% to over 90% in a single year. James C. Kennedy and Caroline Joyce Simon, Can hope endure?: a Historical Case Study in Christian Higher Education. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 188-195. Lyle W. Dorsett Timothy K. Beougher, Accounts of a Campus Revival: 1995 (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1995), 139-170. [xxxv] Noll, “The revolution, the Enlightenment, and Christian higher education,” 64. R. Judson Carlberg, “The Evangelical Vision: From Fundamentalist Isolation to Respected Voice,” in The Future of Religious Colleges, ed.Paul John Dovre, 231.

References

Balzer, Cary and Rod Reed. Building a Culture of Faith: University-wide Partnerships for Spiritual Formation. Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2012.

Beers, Stephen T. The Soul of a Christian University: a Field Guide for Educators. Abilene, Tex: Abilene Christian University Press, 2008.

Bennie, Robert. Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.

Budde, Michael L. and John Wesley Wright, Conflicting Allegiances: the Church-based University in a Liberal Democratic society. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2004).

Burtchaell, James T. The Dying of the Light: the Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1998.

Carlberg,  R. Judson. “The Evangelical Vision: From Fundamentalist Isolation to Respected Voice,” in The Future of Religious Colleges, ed. Paul John Dovre. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002.

Dean, Kendra Kreasy. Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling Us about the American Church, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Dockery,  David S. Renewing Minds: Serving Church and Society Through Christian Higher Education. Nashville, TN: Broadman, 2007.

Dorsett, Lyle W. and Timothy K. Beougher. Accounts of a Campus Revival: 1995. Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1995. Dovre, Paul J. The Future of Religious Colleges: the Proceedings of the Harvard Conference on the Future of Religious Colleges, October 6-7, 2000. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002. Kennedy, James C. and Caroline Joyce Simon, Can Hope Endure?: A Historical Case Study in Christian Higher Education. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. Liftin, Duane. Conceiving the Christian College. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2004. Marsden, George M. “The Soul of the American University: A Historical Overview,” in The Secularization of the Academy, ed. George M. Marsden and Bradley Longfield. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. __________. The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. __________. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. __________. Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), Noll, Mark A. “The revolution, the Enlightenment, and Christian higher education in the early republic,” in Making Higher Education Christian, eds. Joel Carpenter and Kenneth Shipps. Grand Rapids: Christian University Press, 1987. __________. America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. __________. The Rise of Evangelicalism: the Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003. Reuben, Julie A. The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Ringenberg, William C. The Christian College: A History of Protestant Higher Education in America. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006. Smith, Christian and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: the Religious and Spiritual lives of American Teenagers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Smith, James K. A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009. __________.  Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013.

The Ride: Connecting to God in Hollywood, the Ivy League, and Beyond

Part 2 in series Finding God in Hollywood: Soul-Nourishing Practices in a Soul-Deadening World

Horseback riding is not a mode of transportation from one physical locale to another. It is a mode of transportation from one spiritual state to another.  And so are the classic spiritual disciplines.

by Gary David Stratton, Ph.D. • Senior Editor

Micaiah with ‘Maryland’: The crankiest and best horse in the Equestrian Center’s stable

As I write this, I am watching my daughter, Micaiah, take a riding lesson at the Equestrian Center in Burbank, CA. The Equestrian Center is, uh, shall we say, “oddly out of place” in urban Los Angeles. On my right, traffic on the Golden State Freeway (“the” 5, as we say here in L.A.) zooms by at 65+ miles per hour. On my left, horses plod around a riding circle at, well, a lot less than 65 miles per hour. What gives?

Why would anyone invest so much time and money striving to master such an outdated mode of transportation? It takes years to painstakingly advance through learning to walk, trot, cantor, gallop, jump, dressage, etc. Then, once you do achieve riding excellence, your top speed is still only a fraction of that of the traffic whizzing by. My daughter shovels, “stuff,” to earn her lessons, but most riders shell out enough cash to cover monthly payments on a luxury car. I mean, if your goal is to get from Pasadena to Hollywood, then this horseback riding thing is a total waste of time. Just buy a Jag and get on with it.

Yet if you think of horseback riding as something designed to get you somewhere on your busy schedule then you are missing the entire point. Horseback riding is not a mode of transportation from one physical locale to another. It is a mode of transportation from one spiritual state to another. The disciplines of learning to ride cleanse the rider of the soul-deadening effects of modern life and “re-center” their soul in a calmer, deeper place. My actress-singer daughter says it’s “rejuvenating.” Seeing the light and energy in her eyes after each time she rides, I believe her.

Spiritual Disciplines

Now at first glance, striving to master 2,000 year-old spiritual disciplines seems even more irrelevant than learning to ride a horse. I mean, at least horseback riding might help you land a role, or inspire a screenplay. What earthly good does it do to invest the time and energy it takes to master practices like prayer, meditation, fasting, Torah-study, or Psalm-singing? Sure, prayer can come in handy when you’re facing an audition, pitch meeting, or financing appointment. But this kind of “spiritual discipline” is practiced by everyone in Hollywood (even the staunchest atheists), and probably has about as much utilitarian value as wearing your lucky pair of socks.  Prep for your meeting, pay for some good coaching, and get on with it.

Yet, if you think of the spiritual disciplines only as something to get you somewhere in your career, you are missing the entire point. Spiritual disciplines are not tools for getting you from failure to success. They are pathways for keeping you alive spiritually in the constantly shifting landscape of success and failure that is Hollywood.

The Soul-Deadening Worlds of Power

The overarching characteristic of the Ivy League (and Hollywood) is what Schmelzer calls, “Grim drivenness.

Actor/Comedienne/Writer Susan Isaacs once challenged a crowd of aspiring entertainment industry students, “Would you accept God’s call to Hollywood if you knew that you would only have three successful years out of a thirty-year career?” Most wouldn’t, yet that is about the average for those who ‘make it’ here.  The spiritual disciplines are the means by which someone survives and even thrives, not only in the three years when they’re a hot property, but in the other twenty-seven as well.

Make no mistake, the competitive nature of all centers of power–Hollywood, the Ivy League, Wall Street, Washington, D.C., etc.–nearly always creates a soul-deadening culture. Former Yale Professor Henri Nouwen warned, “Our society is… a dangerous network of domination and manipulation in which we can easily get entangled and lose our soul.”[1] Dave Schmelzer, principal at Blue Ocean, Inc. in Cambridge, MA asserts the overarching characteristic of his Ivy League community is what he calls, “Grim drivenness.”  Dave adds, “These are the brightest and most talented people in the world, and the very drivenness that got them this far in a highly competitive environment prevents them from ever really enjoying the fruit of their success. There is always another rung to climb on the ladder of success.”[2] Sounds a lot like Hollywood to me!

Yokes that Bring Our Souls Rest

Spiritual disciplines counteract this soul-deadening effect by nourishing the soul of the practitioner and re-centering the filmmaker, professor, stockbroker, and/or congressman in a calmer, deeper place. Prayer, meditation, study, etc. are means by which we deepen our connection to others and to God. Nearly everyone working in a pressure-filled environment can benefit from practicing them—from Zen Buddhist’s like Laker’s coach Phil Jackson, to Scientologists like Tom Cruise.

However, the spiritual disciplines play a particularly meaningful role in the Judeao-Christian tradition. They are part of what early Rabbis referred to as their yoke—the teachings and spiritual practices each Rabbi used to guide their students into a deeper relationship with God.[3] Like learning to ride a horse, the study of Torah—the principal spiritual discipline in rabbinic education—demanded the utmost commitment to move from one level of expertise to the next. Yet, the promise of a life centered in God and his ways made the effort worthwhile. (See, Rabbinic Higher Education.)

Connecting to the Life of God

Jesus of Nazareth built upon this rabbinic tradition to shape his own version of spiritual formation. Jesus told his first followers, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me… and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). He taught his disciples to pray, study, build community, and serve not to earn religious brownie points, but to form a deep attachment to God—to ‘rest’ in him. Like vines on a branch, Jesus promised his followers that if they would focus upon staying connected to the life of God, then the life of God would flow into them and bear fruit in everything they do (John 15:1-8). The spiritual disciplines are one of the key means by which we maintain that connection. (See, With Prayer in the School of Christ.)

USC philosophy professor, Dallas Willard, has worked tirelessly over the last few decades to describe how Christian spiritual formation can and should help us maintain our connection to the life and the love of God in the Academy, Hollywood, and beyond. He states:

“God’s desire for us is that we should live in him. He sends us the Way to himself.  That shows us, in his heart of hearts, what God is really like–indeed, what reality is really like. In its deepest nature and meaning our universe is a community of boundless and totally competent love.”

Personalizing the Process

Like horseback riding, staying connected to the life and love of God is not a one-size-fits-all process. It has taken Micaiah years to find the right stable, the right trainer, the right horse (the crankiest, but “best” in the stable), and the right sub-disciplines to learn to ride in a way that maximizes the ‘gladness’ riding brings her soul. The same is true for those seeking to cultivate a relationship with God. The disciplines that help one person are often torture for another. The key for some is sitting quietly in a beautiful sanctuary, for others it is walking in the beauty of nature, for some connection to God is found among books in a quiet library, for still another it is best found amidst music is a raucous worship service.

The point of spiritual discipline is not to perform some cookie-cutter religious ritual to make God like you better, but rather to find the pathways that best help your soul connect to the God who already loves you infinitely, ultimately, and unconditionally.

In the following weeks I will explore a number of the key concepts and disciplines that have been most helpful to a variety of leaders in Hollywood, the Ivy League, and beyond in living a soul-nourishing life in a soul-deadening world.  My hope is that we can help you create your own individualized set of spiritual disciplines that help you stay connected to the life and love of God even in the most pressurized situations.

Of course there is another way: the way of giving in to a soul-deadness. Will we? Or will we follow my daughter’s example and embrace an “outdated” approach to life, that in the end is the only one capable of transporting us where we really want to go—to the very heart of God.

Let’s ride!

..

Next post in series: Life on the Fast Track: Spiritually Thriving in High Stress Environments 

 

See also

Emmy Magazine Article Featuring Emmy-winning Producer Kurt Schemper, Director Korey Scott Pollard, and Gary David Stratton

Why Lent is a lot Like Surfing

Spiritual formation book recommendations:

The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence

Sacred Rhythms, by Ruth Haley Barton

Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, by Adele Alberg Calhoun

The Organic God, by Margaret Feinberg

The Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster

Invitation to a Journey, by Robert Mulholland

The Way of the Heart, by Henri Nouwen

The Life You’ve Always Wanted, by John Ortberg

Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, by Peter Scazzero

The Good and Beautiful Life, by James Bryan Smith

Sacred Pathways, by Gary Thomas

The Spirit of the Disciplines, by Dallas Willard

 


[1] The Way of the Heart (New York: Random House, 1981), p. 9.

[2] At least in the Ivy League it is possible to get tenure!

[3] M. Maher (1975). ‘Take my yoke upon you’ (Matt. xi. 29). New Testament Studies, 22, pp 97-103

 

Podcast: Dave Schmelzer and Gary David Stratton on Faith, Culture, Hollywood and Ivy League

On April 7, author, and playwright-turned-pastor Dave Schmelzer interviewed me for a podcast posted 4/19 on his website: Not The Religious Type, on the Blue Ocean platform. It was a great experience, and I really want you to listen to it. However, first I’d like you to know a few things about Dave and his work among the Harvard/MIT-dominated culture of Cambridge, MA. It will really help you understand what in the world Dave and I are talking about.

My wide-ranging conversation with Dave strengthened my conviction that the principles Dave employs to help “Stage 4” Ivy Leaguers embrace faith might be key for Hollywood as well.

I’ve known Dave since we were classmates at Fuller Seminary (CA) back in, well, back “in our student days.” 3,000 miles and ten years later, Sue and I had the joy of watching Dave, his wife Grace and entrepreneur-turned-pastor Charles Park plant a thriving church of 1,000+ in a city that is still regarded as a “graveyard of preachers.”

Dave’s unique ability to communicate the gospel free of religious trappings has enabled him to guide even hardened Harvard skeptics to faith. Dave’s approach grew out of his own journey from atheism to faith while a student at Stanford University, and his subsequent difficulty in finding a church that seemed to preach the actual faith he had discovered in Jesus. He notes:

Having entered faith from aggressive atheism, I found myself baffled by my experience as I visited churches.  On the one hand, they seemed to be talking about this faith I’d discovered.  On the other hand, they were talking about things that seemed, to me, to be peripheral at best.  What was I missing?

Dave’s captivating book chronicles his journey from atheism to faith and how that journey taught him to communicate to the largely atheistic culture of Cambridge, MA.

When God unexpectedly hijacked Dave’s career as a culture-making playwright in order to become lead pastor at a failed church-plant in Cambridge, he was determined NOT to create THAT type of church. He wanted someplace where atheists would feel as welcome as “inculturated” Christians, and where Jesus, not religion, was the big deal. Two driving concepts shaped Dave’s approach.

The first he calls “centered set” faith (see video above). It is an approach to faith that keeps Jesus as the focus of his church’s culture, rather more exclusive secondary issues.  The goal is that people entering Dave’s church for the first time won’t have to learn a new “religious” culture to fit in. Instead, they are encouraged to move toward Jesus from within the vantage point of their own culture and personal journey.

The other concept is what Dave calls, “Stage Four Faith.” Dave bases his system upon the work of psychologist and best-selling author M. Scott Peck (The Road Less Traveled By, etc.). In Dave’s book Not the Religious Type: Confessions of a Turncoat Atheist (which I use as a textbook in my Theology of Ministry class), Dave explains:

Peck talks about an odd thing he’d noticed in his practice. Some patients would begin therapy as deeply troubled, deeply religious people. He’d help them, and—to his mind—part of their clear growth would occur when they’d leave their religion behind. Other patients, just as troubled and then just as helped, would find faith as a result of their work together. What did that mean? That question agitated Peck into proposing a four-stage theory of human spiritual and emotional development.

Schmelzer explains Peck’s theory and its application this way:

 

Note: For those who have heard me teach on the subject, Dave’s “Stage Four Faith” is basically the same as my “Stage Five Faith.” I use Kohlberg and Fowler’s concepts to add a stage between Peck/Schmelzer’s 1 & 2. (See link below to read my SVS paper on Strengthening Blue Ocean Stage-Theory.)

Okay, now that you’ve waded your way through all that, you are ready to enjoy Dave and my conversation on faith, and culture, and Hollywood, and the Ivy League.

Click for: Podcast with Dave Schmelzer & Gary David Stratton

See also my paper on Strengthening Blue Ocean Stage-Theory.


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