By Mary Watson Vergnolle | Reporter
With the new circumstances that came with COVID-19, Baylor Chapel has adapted in the way it is offered to students. With that has come surprising results and progression toward a new version of the Chapel experience.
Chapel has evolved into an interactive online course that has continued in its efforts to engage students and spark conversation.
In order to graduate, all students must attend two semesters of Chapel. These sessions typically consist of Scripture readings, praise and worship music, as well as guest speakers.
Dr. Burt Burleson, Baylor’s University chaplain and dean of spiritual life, has played a large role in the evolution of Chapel this past year. Burleson said he intends to promote the same spiritual experience for students now that has been done for many decades.
“It is important to realize what happened in the fall in response to the pandemic is a pretty good illustration of what has taken place in Chapel throughout the decades,” Burleson said. “It goes back 170 years.”
Burleson’s efforts to continue to provide students with a meaningful Chapel experience began with the idea to increase students’ understanding of the Bible and use this as an opportunity to help them dive deeper into Scripture
“We are always trying to figure out how we create something that is really fitting for Baylor and for the Christian faith and for students. It is always a challenge,” Burleson said. “One of the things that was fortunate is that we already decided that we wanted to build the entire year around the biblical narrative, creating a journey through the Bible.”
This journey tailored specifically to all members of the Baylor family combines audio and visual components with opportunities for conversation throughout the week. Burleson said he believes that these elements will help students remain engaged and promote their willingness to converse with one another, ultimately enhancing theological conversations.
Students are now able to participate in a more individualized and intimate Chapel experience and are able to connect with the message at their own pace, something Burleson believes is a unique option for students.
“We have had [Chapel] alternatives before, and we see the idea of introducing choice in order to meet people where they are at as being really important, given how very diverse the student body is spiritually,” Burleson said.
This change in the way Chapel is offered is unprecedented. Although students have always had the opportunity to arrange a Chapel alternative similar to the traditional option, online components now allow many to engage in their specific interests.
“For a number of decades, we tried to make chapel a ‘one size fits all’ and we tried to do everything in one place. That’s been the pattern of Chapel for three or four decades,” Burleson said. “Now I think what’s happening is this kind of parsing out of various things that are important … things that are really focused on vocation. [For example,] Faith in the Healing Professions or Faith in the Arts is going to be offered in the fall.”
This individualized approach allows students to connect with people with whom they share similar values. It brings together student athletes who take Faith in Sports and many other groups, therefore creating an outlet for conversation and connection of similar interests.
Feedback from online Chapel is reported to Baylor’s Spiritual Life department.
“Over 76% of the students in the online Chapel report in an assessment that we did chose positive words and phrases to describe their experience. It doesn’t surprise me that about 25% used negative [words], and that breakdown fits with other assessments we’ve done,” Burleson said.
Student response assessments are a resource that Baylor Chapel has provided for students to be able to voice their thoughts, comments and concerns about their semester experience as it relates to the course.
Burleson said he enjoys receiving feedback about student engagement in Chapel.
“When you look at our yearly assessments we’re always asking things like ‘Is Chapel comforting? Is Chapel inspiring? Is Chapel informative? Is Chapel challenging? Is Chapel irrelevant or boring or concerning?’ We are always trying to get this feedback,” Burleson said.
And students are eager to offer feedback. Waco freshman Raegan Null reflected on her Chapel experience in the fall saying, “It was very convenient to be able to watch Chapel whenever it fit into my schedule. I loved being able to start my day with Chapel and coffee, it was very relaxing.”
Burleson said he hopes that students not only learn about God and His love through Chapel but learn to ask questions and challenge ideas.
“Something about this invitation to begin thinking of these years as time to not only get to know God but to know who God has made them to be,” Burleson said. “I hope there is this lightbulb that goes off where students say, ‘This is a whole world I didn’t know. I didn’t know how beautiful, how wide [and] how deep this life is.’”
When asked if an online Chapel option would still be offered once the pandemic begins to subside, Burleson said, “Absolutely.”
“We also could see students watching together and going deeper into their reflection on what they just experienced,” Burleson said. “What the online version does for us is it gives us the ability to connect with everybody. It’s been a gift to us that we didn’t anticipate.”
With the future of Chapel continuing to incorporate an online component, Burleson said he is interested to see how Chapel will continue to evolve even after the spring semester.
“We are hoping to move into an approach to Chapel that is not only about the different kinds of experiences they have while they are actually doing Chapel, [but] how these are connected to other things,” Burleson said. “The pandemic forced us into an opening. We’ve been pushed into something hard that’s led to something good which sounds an awful lot like the kind of thing God does.”