To the editors:

Recently the Reader ran a little blurb from U. of C. religious historian Martin Marty entitled, “A lament from the spiritual shopping mall” [City File, March 19]. In it Marty expresses his concern for churches which are leaving behind tradition in an effort to become more relevant to the unchurched, saying, “To give the whole store away to match what this year’s market says the unchurched want is to have the people who know the least about the faith determine most about its expression.” He goes on to say that he fears that these newly attracted people will leave as quickly as they came.

As I see it, there is an unhealthy underlying assumption in what Marty is saying. It is that the purpose of the church is to maintain its institution, rather than help people. If the goal is to maintain a meaningless institution called “the church,” then by all means don’t find out how people are hurting, what questions they are asking, and how the church might best serve them in building their relationship with God. Rather, stick with the old, ignore people’s needs, and suspect any visitor that comes into your door. That will ensure that your church will suffer a slow death, and that’s what your church deserves if it takes that approach.

Churches exist to help people. If churches aren’t “giving the whole store away” in order to reach people with a helping hand they aren’t real churches. They’re aging country clubs. Or as Swedenborg would say, sinking ships: “What is a church which has faith without charity? It is like a sunken ship whose captain hangs on the mast saying, ‘I can do nothing,’ as his ship’s crew paddles away to safety.” No wonder so many people today are paddling away from their churches, because the church seems more concerned about maintenance of buildings and budgets than it does about building people’s character and relationship to their Maker.

I pastor a tiny little church on Armitage Avenue which doesn’t even own its building, and can hardly pay its bills. But we’re growing, and most of that growth is in the individuals who make up our little community. The growth comes from a strong commitment that the church is a spiritual oasis in a wilderness of apathy and spiritual neglect. People come in and find relief, a cup of cool water (truth), and a home (fellowship), if they want one. Some stay, some go. But no one leaves without taking something meaningful with them, a thought, a book, a warm feeling, a hope for themselves or for the world, a new start on some part of their life. Certainly we want people to join us regularly. You can’t sustain a cause or a community unless you have some sort of corporation. But building the corporation is secondary to the goal of changing lives. And the church’s business is in changing lives. Church then becomes a process rather than a list of names on a piece of paper or enough bodies to cover the empty seats. And I think God would rather have us serve people who have never had a chance to know God get that chance, even if they come as easily as they go, than hold firm to the mast of a sinking ship crying out, “I can do nothing,” because I’m afraid the people I might serve might not serve me.

Reverend Grant R. Schnarr

Chicago New Church