Chapel at Westmont

Why does Westmont College have chapel? Our address demands it:

    955 La Paz Rd.,
    Santa Barbara,
    United States,
    North America,
    Western Hemisphere,
    Planet Earth,
    Solar System,
    Milky Way Galaxy,
    Mind of God.

Emily, in Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town” addressed her schoolbooks that way. And it’s very close to saying what the apostle Paul said when he quoted the seventh century Greek poet Epimenides to the Athenian philosophers on Mars Hill: “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Paul was appalled at the idolatry of these pagans. Their gods were limited to specialized functions and places in heaven and earth: rivers and thunder and agriculture and fertility. The God he came to proclaim was the one who actually made the heavens and the earth. He was a big God. He wasn’t in things, things were in him. The idols were frauds, no-gods.

The implications are profound. The God of the Bible obliterates the division between the sacred and the secular by doing away with the secular altogether. The whole creation is sacred because the whole creation is God’s — in him and from him and through him and to him (Romans 11:36). “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” wrote the priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. “It will flame out like shining from shook foil.”

How does one act in a sacred space? Humbly. More conscious. Deeply respectful. With wonder and awe. Sacred spaces are places of worship, of service to God. For those who know where they are, all of life is worship because all of life is lived in sacred space, God’s space.

We worship God at Westmont — we have chapel — because we know where we are and don’t want to forget it.

Worship services at Westmont are like leaven or salt in our community. Though they make up only a tiny portion of our life together, they affect everything else we do. In chapel we sanctify a part for the sake of the whole. We worship God in chapel so that we may worship and serve him everywhere else — in the classroom, the laboratory, the dorm and the D.C. Chapel services, gatherings of thanksgiving and praise to God, and the hearing of the Word of God are integral to the Westmont experience.

The Heart of God

But there is a greater reason for worshiping God at Westmont. For when this awesome God wanted to reveal his heart, he didn’t speak in hurricane, thunder and blinding light. The Word he spoke was simply, “Jesus,” the one who came from the Father’s side, full of grace and truth. So great is the Father’s love for us “that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Jesus, the sinless Son of God, died for our sins to remove our guilt and rescue us from the tyranny of Satan.

We worship God at Westmont because we believe the Gospel and don’t want to forget it.

Every chapel service is a little reminder, a memorial of God’s amazing love — and an opportunity to do what we can never over do: say thank you. It works this way: God’s motive in reaching out to us in Christ was his love; his purpose was to make us lovers too. Worshippers. We love because he first loved us. The song the citizens of heaven sing to the Christ is, “You were slain and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God.” Christ died to make us priests. Priests serve by worship.

We worship God at Westmont because Christ died to make us worshippers.

Actually, the very sin Christ died for was our refusal to love and worship God. The heart of human darkness is, “For although they knew God, they neither worshiped him as God nor gave thanks to him.” In chapel we practice what Christ died to restore in us. Worship is God’s right and our need. We have chapel because we know the truth of St. Augustine’s longing: “You made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” And David’s: “My soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you.” All our longings are signposts to God, pointing to God and fulfilled in God. We are most human when God is most God to us. For “the glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God” (Irenaeus).

First Thing!

Every community and academy has its “first thing,” its point of departure, foundation and cornerstone. For Westmont it is Colossians 1:18, “So that in everything [Christ] might have the supremacy.” “Supremacy” is a worship word. “Everything” describes the sphere of supremacy, of worship. Abraham Kuyper, in his inaugural address at the Free University of Amsterdam, paraphrased Colossians 1:18 when he asserted that there is not one thing in all creation that Christ does not lay his hand on and say, “Mine!”

This is the conviction that animated the founders of Westmont and led them to make bold steps of faith and endure great difficulty to establish this institution. Chapel services were not an after thought for these men and women. Chapel represented, and in many ways embodied, the heartbeat of their mission. When we gather in chapel, we honor the Lord. We also honor these servants of the Lord. When you come to Westmont, for whatever reasons, whether as student, faculty or staff, you join something that was there before you arrived. Coming to Westmont is like joining a family with unique traditions and ethos.

Chapel services are like the family meal, the one gathering to which everyone is invited. In chapel we encounter the value of the various and diverse members of the Westmont family, past, present and even future. Over time we enter into a lively fellowship with the Westmont community: professors, founders, roommates, custodians, alumni. Day to day, amid the heat and busyness of a packed semester, chapel can be a way to integrate the fractured life of a diverse community.

Practicing Worship

How do we do chapel? Above all, we earnestly want everything we do in chapel to have biblical and theological integrity. We want to worship God in ways that please him. Our roots and affections are evangelical, but our larger loyalty is to historic Christian orthodoxy.

We believe that whatever we may know about worship, we still have a lot to learn. Our understanding of God and the God we worship is partial. The need to worship is natural, the capacity and ability for authentic worship is not; it must be taught and cultivated. Chapel services are not only acts of worship, they are training in worship, disciplines in the enjoyment of God, practices of the pleasure of his presence.

A Christian college is a place where one’s vision of God, and therefore one’s humanity, is expanded and deepened. Chapel should frequently be educational; an invitation to acquire a new, larger and more thoughtful set of criteria for what makes worship good. Services will at times feel very familiar and other times very foreign. We want chapel to sometimes seem a perfect fit and other times something you must grow up into.

Among other things, this means growing in understanding and appreciation of the diverse ways Christians once have and now worship God. We want to be sensitive to the perspectives that can shape worship:gender, ethnicity, culture, theology, ecclesiastical traditions, style, chronology (the communion of the saints, the richness of church history), age (e.g., young, middle age, old age), seasons of life (e.g. seasons of doubt, the journey of faith, post-college, etc.), vocation (e.g., different walks of life, business, academia, pastors), theoretical and practical, campus, local, national, international.


Do we really think we can accomplish all this in only 50 minutes three times a week? Hardly. Not even in 15 weeks a semester over four years. But we like the challenge. As the saying goes, if you aim for nothing, that’s what you will hit. There are bigger obstacles than time, however: certain attitudes and outlooks, many of them cultural, that misunderstand and run counter to the idea of a Christian college. We list a few:

  • Confusion over the meaning of freedom and choice.
  • Worship is authentic only if I have chosen to go. Anything else is inauthentic and coercive. No one should ever be forced to worship. Required chapel undermines freedom of worship and conscience.

    This view seems to be based on two misconceptions. The first is that choice equals freedom; the more choices, the more freedom. The fact is, this idea has much more to do with American consumerism than biblical truth. Biblical freedom is not freedom to do whatever you want, but to do what is right — and to want to do what is right.

    William Willimon, former dean of the chapel at Duke University, sees an irony in all this concern about choice:

      “Most of us have been taught that religion is something we ought to choose for ourselves. We don’t remember being taught this because choosing for ourselves is a value so widely held in this society, so firmly sanctioned by the economic order and government, that choosing for ourselves seems natural, innate. In so believing we demonstrate how well a consumer society has formed us, turning our lives into a mere matter of consumer preference without our ever remembering when we were taught. We did not choose to believe that personal choice is the highest human virtue. Rather, we were taught, formed, forced to believe that nothing is important in life other than that which we have personally chosen. The irony is that the belief that nothing is important in life other than that which we have personally chosen is a belief that we have not personally chosen! The supermarket and shopping mall have been our school.”

  • The second misconception is that choice is acting on the mood of a moment.
  • I am free only if I can do what I feel like doing right now. The truth is, the best choices, and the most freeing, are not about the mood of a moment, but the commitments of a lifetime (or a college career). Marriage is that kind of choice, the promise to choose to behave in a certain way for a lifetime, regardless of moods and moments. God is this way! He makes promises and covenants to behave in a certain ways for thousands of generations.

    To come to Westmont is to RSVP to an invitation to a banquet of sorts. The menu is nourishing and will feed your soul. It is to choose over time, in multiple situations and moods, to engage your mind in vigorous disciplines of learning, to embrace a community and its standards, and to worship God with that community. Students are no more forced to worship at Westmont than anyone is forced to accept the invitation.

  • It’s all about me
  • The worship service was good if I felt good about it. If the music or speaker was pleasing or in some other way met my standards, the service was a success. This view is utterly alien to Scripture. True worship is worship that pleases God, meets his standards and honors his name in the ways he has prescribed. True worship is not about us, it’s about God. Soren Kierkegaard said God is the audience in worship, we are the performers, and those who get up front to speak or sing are the prompters — those who help the performers perform. The question we should ask ourselves after every service of worship is not, “How did they (the prompters, the preacher, the singers, etc.) do?” But, “How did I do? Did the Holy Audience receive my best performance?”

  • Individualism and Privatism
  • My faith is strictly a private matter between God and me. It’s nobody’s business but mine. Again there is no support for this view in Scripture. Quite the opposite: to be a Christian is to become a member of the Body of Christ. One can no more practice the faith apart from the Body of Christ than a hand can be a hand apart from the body. Jesus did not found a religion, but a church (Mt 16:18). Christian faith is personal but never private. Faith is lived out in the community of God’s people or not at all.

  • Spiritual Dryness
  • I’m flat spiritually, indifferent, even uninterested in the things of God. I’m increasingly disconnected from the (fill-in-the-blank) style of worship, speaker, leadership or other students. Spiritual dryness happens to the greatest of saints. They are in surprising agreement as to what to do with it. Boiled down it is: learn from your dryness. Let it be a teacher, not a master. Keep coming back for prayer, worship, the fellowship of other believers. Ninety percent of growing in faith is just showing up.

  • Anxiety
  • The fear of what’s next — a paper due, a test. It’s hard enough to have it on your mind — it’s worse to bring the work into chapel with you. There are three things you can do with the anxiety. One, you may want to do a little Matthew 6:33 exercise: seek first his Kingdom by setting aside your work and giving God the honor that is his due. Two, use one of your chapel misses to study. You have 12 in all, roughly a month of chapels, one-fourth of the semester. Besides, chapel is a lousy place to study. Three, learn to manage your time in such a way that you won’t be in a panic.

  • Rudeness
  • There are many ways we can act that are heedless, even callous, to the fact that we are sitting in a gathering designed to honor our Lord and our Savior. The list is long and includes things like: an open laptop, study notes and textbooks spread out; noisily getting up to go to the restroom, walking down the bleachers, out the door, letting it slam, then walking back in and up to the top of the bleachers; chatting with friends, physical affection between boyfriend and girlfriend. Usually these kinds of things are not done maliciously but thoughtlessly. But the effect is the same: God is dishonored and those who want to honor him are distracted. There aren’t enough rules — don’t do this, don’t do that — to fix this. Only a change of heart and attitude will.

How to Get the Most out of Chapel

Attend! To attend to something is by definition to listen, participate, engage, learn. Just showing up, filling out a chapel attendance card and occupying a space is not true attendance. At the heart of chapel attendance is an attitude of reverence.

It is, after all, God who is being worshiped in chapel. He alone is worthy of our full attention. His love, holiness and majesty demand the kind of fear the Scriptures say is the beginning of wisdom.

  • Talk about it
  • Let the things that happen in chapel be opportunities for dialogue and conversation with other students, faculty, the Adams professor of music and worship, and the Campus Pastor’s office. Explore the implications for faith and life of the things you hear and do in chapel. Do you like something? Say so and why. Do you not like something? Say so and why constructively.

  • Be real
  • Ask yourself honestly, can I say I truly attend chapel — and show reverence for God — when I: chat with my neighbor, send text messages, plug into an iPod, or do homework? Are my attitudes toward chapel a product of my culture or of biblically faithful, thoughtful conviction?

  • Be expectant
  • Expect to meet with God in chapel. Jesus has promised to be present wherever two or three gather in his name. Know that the Lord is there in Murchison Gym when we are whether we feel him or not. Know that he is pleased with our loving attention.