The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


'It's there if you want ...'

The high school student was touring the campus of one of our ELCA colleges. The student guide pointed to the chapel and said, "It's there if you want that kind of thing." I heard this story from the high school student's parent. Those words were in sharp contrast to the centrality that the chapel had in the parent's mind.

What is central for school? Is it the weight room? "It's there if you want that kind of thing." Is it the cafeteria? "It's there if you want that kind of thing." Would a guide ever say that about Internet access?

Another guide may have dwelt lovingly on the vital spiritual life of the student congregation, mission trips they take on spring break and so on. The centrality of chapel at Lutheran colleges (and seminaries for that matter) fluctuates during the school year as it does through the years. But it struck me how the "It's there if you want ..." comment deeply reflects the cultural attitude toward church. There was a time when chapel attendance was required.

Suppose a real estate agent is a member of a Lutheran congregation and is showing a house in sight of the church. I can hear the agent saying, "It's there if you want that kind of thing."

When Leslie Newbigin (1909-1998) returned to England after serving as a missionary in India, he found the culture had changed. The attitude about the church had changed. I think the student tour guide precisely spoke the attitude of our culture to the church: "It's there if you want that kind of thing." Newbigin also suggested that Western culture had developed a sort of immunity to the gospel, as if people have been vaccinated.

We are in a new culture where the prevailing attitude toward church is "It's there if you want that kind of thing." Our task as the church is to cross the threshold of people's lives and overcome their immunity. Our task is to speak the good news of Jesus in such a way that the line begins to change.

The desire to experience the centrality of the chapel at a college of the church extends from Christ being the center of our lives. The chapel as the center of each ELCA school is the symbol of our passion that our children live in Christ and Christ lives in them.


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