Testimony: Why Chapel Is So Critical to the Life of a Seminary

Since the first seminary was founded in this country in 1808, seminaries have held chapel services. By the twentieth century, virtually all denominations had their own seminary or seminaries—and while all of them had chapel services, not all were effective or meaningful. One 1934 study revealed, for example, that what a seminary president chooses to do with a chapel service proves to make a world of difference in the spiritual life and formation of its students. For the seminaries that presented dry, formal services full of perfunctory rituals and “brief talks” from faculty, many students resisted and chose not to attend. One student commented, “Most of the chapel talks by professors are hardly worth hearing. They sound like random comments made on the spur of the moment, or worse, like condensations of old sermons.”[1] However, for schools that have sought to use the chapel service as a central part of their spiritual life, the chapel service has been used of God demonstrably and effectively for great things.

To state which kind of seminary Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary would be, its second president, L. R. Scarborough, gave five “spiritual marks” that a seminary should place on the character and life of its students in his inaugural 1915 sermon. Under the second mark, spirituality, he said:

A theological seminary should not be a cold-storage for the preserving of theological eggs, but rather a warm incubator for the hatching of live, burning, shining preachers of the Gospel with souls hot with zeal and full of power. A seminary should not be a florist’s glass-covered hot-house, in which to grow delicate ministerial plants for perfumery purposes, but rather a training camp and naval station….Our men should find God as well as his truth in their seminary studies….Their hearts as well as their heads should grow. We need great souls with spiritual power in our pulpits and pastorates far more than we need great scholars with profound learning but innocent of the power of God.[2]

Fast forward a few decades to the year that I first enrolled at a seminary led by our President, Dr. Patterson. Though I never heard of any vision for a seminary like Scarborough described, I found exactly that in the late 1990s at Southeastern Seminary in North Carolina. And the place where I often found God at work in my heart was in the seminary chapel. In fact, I found it of equal importance to all of the enriching education I was receiving from the classroom.

It was there I learned theologically rich hymns and songs that were both singable and memorable—and I learned what real congregational singing sounds like. To me, there still is nothing quite like hearing a thousand seminary students singing with all their hearts to the One to Whom they’ve surrendered their lives.

It was there I heard preaching from men who loved the inerrant Bible and believed in its truth and showed how God uses His Word to change your life.

In seminary chapel, I regularly was pushed to consider my role in taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth while making sure I was also taking it across the street. In short, rarely was I comfortable in chapel, but my life was changed.

Like the psalmist, in Psalm 73, who was troubled and wrestling with sin until, he said, he “went into the sanctuary of God,” gathering with God’s people under God’s Word always did remarkable things to my soul and life while in seminary.

And, all of this continued when Dr. Patterson came to Southwestern Seminary in 2003 with many of us following in the years after. In fact, to this day, it is the regular discipline of gathering in seminary chapel, in addition to the services of my local church, that continue to refine, redirect, and refocus my life and ministry.

Why exactly is this the case? Well, it hasn’t come about by accident. In the interest of time, I think I will simply let Dr. Patterson speak for himself to show how, under God’s guidance and grace, we see the critical role of chapel services at Southwestern. In a 1999 article describing his approach to theological education, President Patterson tells how central he views chapel services in the college and seminaries where he has served as president. Note especially how this resembles Scarborough and differs from the dry, boring seminaries of the 1930s:

[Seminaries should have] a lively and spiritually edifying chapel. The Thirty-Four Fold Amen and [high church music] are out. In fact, everything about the old-style seminary chapel is out. Lectures are out. I do not mean that the chapel should not be conducted in a stately or worshipful way. I do intend to convey that the worship must be participatory, vibrant, exciting, and profoundly moving. We must pray until God visits among us in chapel. Bring in the top pulpiteers in the nation to model their craft for the students. While the chapel is primarily for worship, do not forget that the chapel period is the most valuable hour in the day for instruction in preaching, worship, public leadership, platform decorum, public prayer, and the reading of the Scriptures. Give it a full hour … and do not begin classes again for thirty minutes after chapel just in case God is doing business with someone.[3]

At Southwestern Seminary, when it comes to the role of chapel in the spiritual lives of the students and faculty, it brings me great joy to recognize today that with the dedication of this building that will continue to house these types of chapel services—we now stand with those in the past who labored to build this seminary under its founders, like Scarborough and those who followed him—whether they met in Fort Worth Hall, Cowden Hall, or until recently, Truett Auditorium—and we now stand with those who, under the leadership of President Patterson, are still serving to produce for the future those “living, burning, shining preachers of the Gospel” as we begin to meet here in the new MacGorman Chapel.[4]


[1] William Adams Brown, The Education of American Ministers, Vol. 1. (New York: Institute of Social and Religious Research, 1934), 157-158.

[2] L. R. Scarborough, “The Primal Test of Theological Education: The Inaugural Address of President Scarborough, May, 1915,” in A Modern School of the Prophets (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1939) :175-176

[3] Paige Patterson, “What Athens Has to Do with Jerusalem: How to Tighten Greek and Hebrew Requirements and Triple Your M.Div. Enrollment at the Same Time,” in Faith & Mission 17:1 (Fall 1999): 59.

[4] The language here intentionally parallels the often heard refrain of former Southwestern faculty member and then Academic Dean of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, L. Russ Bush III. See Jason G. Duesing, “The Reclamation of Theological Integrity: L. Russ Bush III and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1989-1992,” in Christian Higher Education 9:3 (2010): 203.