TAMPA — They’re hard to miss on the grounds of the private University of Tampa and Eckerd College: huge, architecturally striking chapels, providing sanctuary to students at a critical time in their lives.
One thing about local campus chapels, though — students don’t seem to have much use for them.
Professors from UT and Eckerd have just published a paper in the Journal of College & Character stating that just over 1 percent of students at the Tampa school and 6 percent at its St. Petersburg counterpart have attended religious services on campus. The students do visit the centers — 44 percent at Eckerd and 56 percent at UT — but mostly for concerts, lectures, meditation or meetings, the researchers found.
The numbers may reflect what the Pew Research Center calls a gradual softening of religious commitment among Americans in recent decades, particularly among young people. But they also have inspired new ways of serving students, said Doug McMahon, Eckerd’s chaplain and director of its Center for Spiritual Life.
“Buildings are very important, and we’re very grateful for this beautiful building, but buildings alone don’t bring people to God, and they aren’t what necessarily attract people to gather together,” McMahon said at his office in Wireman Chapel.
“It’s other people and their common search for God and hope and meaning in their lives.”
At Eckerd, McMahon and his staff conduct what he calls a “ministry of presence” on campus. That means small group discussions in dorms, one-on-one conversations throughout the campus, and events such as the “peace pilgrimage” — a hike from the Pinellas Bayway campus to downtown St. Petersburg featuring visits to hospitals, a mosque, the Holocaust Museum and neighborhoods.
“That can be more transformative than coming to a traditional service,” McMahon said. “We don’t measure effectiveness by how many people come to the chapel. We’re looking at our pastoral approach as unthematic and being present with students.”
The idea of researching campus chapel use came to Ryan Cragun, a professor of sociology at UT, when he learned of plans to build the $20 million Sykes Chapel and Center for Faith and Values in 2009.
“How often do researchers have the opportunity to evaluate a community in terms of its religiosity before a chapel is built and then after a chapel is built to see what the effect is?” Cragun said.
He polled students before construction, then after the chapel opened in 2010, and again last year.
“What I was looking at was what effect does a chapel have,” he said. “If we drop a chapel onto this campus, which didn’t have one before, is it going to increase religiosity, is it going to decrease it, what is going to be the effect?”
Cragun teamed with Patrick Henry, a sociology professor at Eckerd, who conducted a similar survey of Eckerd students as a control group. Eckerd has always had its chapel; the institution opened as Florida Presbyterian College in 1958, and religious leaders turned over control to a local board of trustees in 1971.
The data suggest that the chapel at UT, built 76 years after the college opened in 1933, didn’t change anything, Cragun said. At both campuses, few students visit the on-campus chapels for worship.
But don’t jump to conclusions, Henry warned.
“It’s a mistake to interpret that as seeing a lack of beliefs and values,” he said. “They’re searching for the same things we did when we were kids, but they’re not doing it in the same way.”
According to the paper, titled “Chapel Use on College and University Campuses,” 27 percent of UT students and 44 percent of Eckerd students said they had no religious affiliation. Yet 38 percent at UT and 21 percent at Eckerd said they are confident that God exists.
That suggests a shift away from religiosity toward spirituality, reflected in the UT chapel’s meditation rooms, labyrinth and rock garden with waterfall.
It’s a trend that bears out nationally. The 2012 Pew Research Center Religion & Public Life Project found that in the previous five years, Americans who consider themselves religiously unaffiliated grew from 15 percent to 20 percent.
The public University of South Florida does not have a chapel on campus. The east side of campus features several buildings owned by religious organizations that lease land from USF.
The university also makes available meeting space in the Marshall Student Center for religiously affiliated student organizations; the center also has a Serenity Room for personal religious or spiritual activity. USF does not monitor its use.
In their paper, the UT and Eckerd researchers conclude that campus chapels “appear to be a complicated investment.” They say that a university that is contemplating constructing or remodeling a chapel should consider designing it as a multiuse site that could accommodate a variety of activities.
“I don’t think our story is about bulldozing the chapel — it’s not that at all,” Henry said. “It’s about people who are responsible for religious and spiritual searching needing to be keyed into the fact that traditional chapels are not getting it done.”