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‘Our theological starting point is God Himself’

Furthering the conversation on the purposes of chapel

By Kevin Diller | Faculty Contributor

I want to thank Campus Pastor Jon Cavanagh and all the students who participated in the October chapel on chapel. I found it to be, as Rev. Cavanagh hoped, both inspirational and informative. I appreciated the moving testimonies of God’s work through chapel and the helpful reminders of our chapel program’s carefully framed purpose and guiding principles.

Chapel is an essential part of communal worship here at TU. (Photograph by Andrew Hoff)

Chapel is an essential part of communal worship here at TU. (Photograph by Andrew Hoff)

In my view, our gathering for worship three times a week is vital to the connection and cohesion of our community. Many things could be removed from Taylor, and Taylor as we know it would continue to exist. The chapel program, however, is indispensable to our life together and integral to our educational mission. From generations past to the present, many testify to the transformative ways God has used TU chapel and worked through those who have participated in it.

I also appreciate Professor Richard Smith’s exhortation for us to work together to clarify the “theological rationale” for all we do. I take that to mean, clarifying those thoughts about God that guide and motivate chapel and everything else we do at Taylor. A. W. Tozer was known for his reminders that the most important and pivotal question is always about God. The revelation of God in Christ should drive our thoughts, feelings and actions.

I think there is value in undertaking the communal reflection that Smith commends. It also seems worth considering some of the theological grounding that is already in place and presupposed by our existing chapel program. In my comments here I’d like to suggest that we are fundamentally a worshipping community and that fact has important theological implications. I don’t intend my comments to preempt further discussion and debate. I hope that they offer a helpful perspective that encourages a receptive engagement with God and others in chapel and throughout our learning community.

My thesis is that even to begin to do theological reflection, we must already be a worshipping community; and, to be a worshipping community, we must be animated and captivated by the beauty of God. Our theological starting point is not our “words about God” (theo-logy). Our theological starting point is God Himself — the triune God who gives Himself in Christ to be worshipped, trusted and adored.

One of the things we were reminded of in that October meta-chapel was that the purpose of chapel is to provide “a setting in which community members gather to participate in Christ-centered worship.” I’m sure it surprised no one to hear that worship is part of chapel, but it is significant that, in the minds of our chapel organizers, gathering our community for worship is the primary purpose of all of chapel.

I think we should appreciate the broad, undergirding notion of worship conveyed here. In the view of our chapel organizers, worship includes not only what happens in the first 10 minutes when we unite our voices in worship music. Christ-centered worship is that which fosters all the other aspirations for the chapel experience: “spiritual formation, the integration of biblical truth and faith with learning and life and a thoughtful response to needs and opportunities.”

There is a history and culture at Taylor of thinking of worship as encompassing all aspects of the Christian life. I have always admired Professor Jeff Cramer’s insistence on this. One of the stated desired outcomes of the Foundations course is that “students would begin to understand, value and desire to engage their Christian liberal arts education as an act of worship.”

Worship is central to who we are, to our covenanted life together. In connection with Smith’s ideas, we can ask: what are the theological presuppositions of Christian worship?

Jonathan Edwards, arguably the greatest American theologian, saw that worship of God is motivated by our being captivated by — in fact participating in — the beauty of God. We are by nature worshippers. However, we are mostly idolaters; we are often fixated on shallow pleasures that cannot sustain our beings. To be captivated by God’s beauty we must be transformed by our union with Christ that enlivens our affections for what is truly good.

It is the doctrines of the trinity and incarnation, so prominent in our statement of faith and in the guiding principles of chapel, which are fundamental to worship. We become capable of authentic worship only as we are drawn into the fellowship of the Trinity by the power of our union with the incarnate Christ.

Where our worship is genuine — where it is not a show we put on for those around us, nor merely time passed with friends — it is a response to the grace of God enlivening us to the beauty of God. Few theologians put this more articulately than James B. Torrance. Consider this description from his magnum opus, “Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace”:

Christian worship is . . . our participation through the Spirit in the Son’s communion with the Father, in his vicarious life of worship and intercession. It is our response to our Father for all that he has done for us in Christ. It is our self-offering in body, mind and spirit, in response to the one true offering made for us in Christ, our response of gratitude (eucharistia) to God’s grace (charis), our sharing by grace in the heavenly intercession of Christ (p. 15).

So, the presupposition of Christian worship is the grace of God’s radiating beauty opening us up to receive new life.

I have been encouraged that in all the questions that have been raised about chapel, I have never sensed a move toward cynicism or an intention to withdraw. If some of the theological presuppositions of worship described here are correct, we really can place our confidence in God, and move forward striving together to see God more clearly and by His strengthening to respond to Him more fully.

Is the chapel program achieving its goals? It’s a good question that I know the chapel organizers are constantly asking. I am enriched each week through chapel; but, let’s recognize that no program can by itself achieve the kinds of aspirations we have for chapel. The goals of chapel are greatly dependent on God’s work and our yielding to that work in and with each other.

Advent is about to begin — the time we celebrate God’s becoming human so that we can have a participation in the beauty of divine communion. It is also the time we celebrate our being grafted together to share in God’s beauty with brothers and sisters in Christ’s body. Bill Ringenberg, the greatest living historian of Taylor, recently observed: “The center of the Taylor world view has always been the incarnational idea that God has come to us in Christ. It is from this base that we have gathered together in an intentional community to pursue the truth about God and His world.”

Corporate worship, the first given priority of our chapel program, is predicated on the theology of advent — the theology of the incarnation. I think this is what sustains us, even when a particular chapel is not everything we might want it to be. We share real communion in Christ. Every time we gather, we have an opportunity to open ourselves up to receive from God with and through each other.

The opinions expressed in guest columns represent the views of the author, and not necessarily those of The Echo or Taylor University.

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