Four months after Battell Chapel converted to a non-denominational church, it remains unclear whether the original goal of increasing participation has been achieved.
Battell officially ended its relationship with the United Church of Christ last May after nearly 200 years, hoping to include a wider spectrum of religious students in its services. University Chaplain Frederick J. Streets said he believes attendance has increased on the whole, though others said they have seen no substantial increase in worshippers.
Interim Associate Pastor and Deputy Secretary Martha Highsmith said even though attendance among undergraduates has not increased much visibly, she has observed a marked increase in the number of graduate students attending the service. But Highsmtih said many more undergraduates have been pursuing leadership roles in the church, taking responsibilities such as ushering, serving communion or reading scripture during the service.
Highsmith said students have been involved in the process of idea generation, brainstorming with church officials to find ways to make Battell a more open and accessible environment. One of the most important decisions made by the students, she said, was to donate church collections to Katrina victims every second Sunday of the month.
“There are visibly more students participating in planning, doing behind the scene work and evaluating the church’s goals,” University Chaplain Frederick Streets said. “Overall it’s exciting, creative and dynamic.”
Highsmith said the students who participate in Battell’s activities come from more diverse Christian backgrounds than they did in the past. She said that student deacons, a program that was reinstated at the beginning of this year, come from a variety of Christian denominations, including Disciples of Christ, Lutheran and Baptist. She also said the students who have expressed interest in the chapel’s first service trip in October also come from very diverse backgrounds.
“The diversity of the students reflects the diversity of the staff,” she said. “They range from Baptist, to Presbyterian, to Episcopalian.”
But student deacon Tyler Guth ’08 said although a lot religious students who were already practicing are currently getting more involved in church life, he has not seen that many new people attending the service since the first week of classes.
“I don’t think we’re getting a lot of new faces — it’s always the same people,” he said. “I don’t know what could make people get out of bed in the morning and say ‘Today I’m going to church.'”
Guth said that the student deacons have been discussing attendance in their meetings. He said that although a lot of students usually come to Yale in September with the intention of attending church as often as possible, attendance declines as the semester progresses and students get caught up in their academic and extracurricular pursuits.
When addressing the challenge of increasing attendance, Guth said Battell needs to decide whether becoming more open to all denominations is the best way to attract more students. He said that it is possible that a more traditional, yet still inclusive service, will make students feel more comfortable.
“The question is how broad we want to make our statement of faith,” he said.
Streets said that so far no one has complained to him about being uncomfortable with the changes, and he is confident that attendants will gradually get more used to them.
“People get used to changes, and gradually we will settle down to a more predictable pattern,” he said.