Chapel has undoubtedly been themed uniquely this semester, and the theme, from what I can tell from my own experiences and interactions, has received some mixed reviews from students.
The unintentional yet inevitable political anecdotes that have been communicated by this semester’s chapel speakers have seemed appropriate and well-approached by some, but they have also seemed unnecessary and tainted by cynicism by others. Overall, the repeated fixation on reconciliation in this semester’s chapel services has created, whether intentionally or not, a tension within the student body due to the innate discomfort of addressing certain subjects, such as race or politics, in a chapel setting. Such tension has at least forced students to think critically about each chapel message, and I would say that would make this tension beneficial to each student who experiences it.
As I mentioned earlier, some people have been appreciative of this semester’s chapel theme. These students find that our society is in need of reconciliation between various peoples; therefore, each message that the different chapel speakers bring contains an adequate mixture of recognition of societal flaws and an offering of grace and redemption that could repair a great deal of division in our world. These students have taken these chapel messages to heart and see the value of working through these divisive issues as a collective student body.
On the other hand, some students feel rather differently about chapel. These students almost feel as if they are being attacked during each chapel service that repeatedly (yet arguably unnecessarily) addresses various irrefutable societal flaws. Perhaps some people even feel as if a select few of this semester’s chapel speakers address problems that do not even exist and, moreover, they feel accused of being the source of such problems.
To these students, chapel has become a prolonged guilt-tripping experience, even though such a result unquestionably was and is not the intention of any members of the chapel-planning team. In that case, there exists a problem in communication between chapel speakers and the many listeners. There is some level of distortion of each speaker’s message that occurs somewhere between the mouths of the speakers themselves and the ears of students, and I want to further examine this miscommunication.
I believe that both groups of students have valid reason to feel the way that they do, but my intention is not to side with either group or to point out either side’s flaws; I only want to identify why this miscommunication exists and what can be done to mend it. Let me start by examining some of the limitations (not the shortcomings) of the chapel speakers.
To begin, chapel speakers, as far as I know, have an extremely limited knowledge of what has already been spoken in chapel previously in the semester. They come to Olivet with a message prepared having not had the same repeated exposure to the topic of reconciliation that we students have had; thus, any message that appears to be a reiteration to students is only a first iteration to the speaker.
The guest speakers cannot be blamed, then, for providing what feels like a reoccurring blow to the gut if it is delivered with the intent of being material for newfound contemplation. Furthermore, the speakers come from different cultures with different problems and different passions than what we are used to; hence, any societal issue that may appear to be overemphasized to us may be the one thing to any given chapel speaker’s cultural or geographical environment that needs to be fixated upon in order to bring about reconciliation. In that case, whatever such chapel speakers have to say cannot and should not be ignored if only out of respect for a foreign culture.
In my opinion, though, the biggest limitation of the chapel speakers, is that they are basically forced to communicate the counter-cultural nature of the church, which runs the risk of creating a dualistic mindset in those who hear the messages. Let me elaborate.
By addressing issues such as race and politics, conveying the divisive nature of our culture becomes inevitable. After all, the emphasis on reconciliation implies that the world in which we live is one of hatred and division and is in need of being reconciled. Furthermore, by portraying modern culture in this manner, the church must be described as everything that the culture is not; the church assumes the role of instigating reconciliation and mending what society has destroyed. When focusing on these unfortunate truths, the counter-cultural church can easily become an anti-culture church, and when the church becomes anti-culture, it assumes the role of combatant rather than reconciler. This ends up creating the very problems we are trying to solve.
Obviously, speakers cannot do much to overcome these limitations because they are predominantly unaware of them. There is no way the speakers can be held accountable to determining the unintentional implications of their messages; hence, to overcome these limitations ought to be the job of the listeners.
We students ought to be aware of the intentions of these speakers, knowing that they intend not to divide or bombard but rather inform and perfect, and we ought to prevent ourselves from receiving these messages in a way other than how the speaker would want us to in order that we may receive them to the fullest potential. On that note, the listeners’ limitations ought to be examined as well.
To begin, the fact that most, if not all, students come into chapel at some point in the semester with little desire to be there and with a relatively closed mind and heart cannot be ignored. This hinders our ability to absorb the chapel messages to the extent that we could. Moreover, we do not have an extensive knowledge of each speaker’s cultural background beyond what each is willing to share from the pulpit, so we could never fully understand the heart behind each sermon.
This creates what I think is the greatest limitation for us listeners; we fail to demonstrate empathy. We come into chapel unaware that simply because the problems addressed by this semester’s guest speakers may not apply to us does not inherently mean that they do not exist, that we need to be ignorant of them, or that we could be part of a solution. We come into chapel unable to understand others who need to experience reconciliation, and we fail to develop a heart for the marginalized and the misunderstood.
Instead of listening to each sermon in terms of either how we have haphazardly created the need for reconciliation or how we can achieve reconciliation in our world, we need to reevaluate what the focus of each message is; chapel this semester is focusing on the oppressed, not the oppressors.
What needs to happen to overcome these limitations? Ironically, reconciliation needs to happen. The boundary between the chapel speakers and the listeners needs to be overcome. Speakers and listeners can develop a greater understanding of one another, and through this, they can develop a greater appreciation of one another. Speakers mean to convict, not to condemn. They mean to soothe, not to chastise.
Obviously, though, this problem of communication will not be solved completely, and not every chapel speaker will leave a pleasant taste in our mouths if we come into each service willing to demonstrate empathy; however, if the idea of reconciliation that echoes throughout the chapel this semester is to have any effect on our lives, reconciliation needs to start within the chapel itself.
— Drew Leman, Staff Writer