Years ago when attendance had gotten small, Plymouth Church brought in a consultant who said, “You can either be a museum or a church.” The consultant had been going to the wrong museums. A good church is like a good children’s museum—a place to learn, explore, and discover.
On Monday night I met with eighteen members of our church’s history ministry. They know how good a museum can be. Plymouth’s tour guides are better than the ones who wander down Orange Street.
I have interrupted five tours in front of the church. One thing those guides do well is fit the tour to whatever tourists have paid the thirty bucks. When the tour was filled with teenagers, the guide talked about Adam Sandler making a movie here. When the tour was an African American choir, the guide described the Fisk University Choir singing here in 1871. When the tour was a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the guide pointed to 74 Hicks Street where Charles Taze Russell’s cousin lived. (Who knew?)
We share an amazing history, so touch Plymouth Rock and give thanks. Sit in pew 89 and wonder what Abraham Lincoln prayed when he sat there. Turn off the lights in the basement and imagine what it feels like to run for your life. Visit the Senior Minister’s office and think of Branch Rickey praying there until he decided that God wanted him to ask Jackie Robinson to integrate baseball.
Some of our heritage is complicated. The sculptor of the statues in Beecher Garden, Gutzon Borglum, was in the Klan. Our founding pastor was a gifted minister who fought courageously against slavery. His adultery trial sold a lot of newspapers and ended in a hung jury. Look at the portrait of Henry Ward Beecher in the arcade and ask yourself if he is attractive. Mark Twain wrote: “Mr. Beecher is a remarkably handsome man when he is in the full tide of sermonizing, and his face is lit up with animation, but he is as homely as a singed cat when he isn’t doing anything.”
The list of people who have been in our building is surprising—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Hillary Clinton, Sonia Sotomayor, Elliott Spitzer, Colin Kaepernick, Norah Jones, and Sarah Jessica Parker.
A couple of years ago our Senior Minister Search Committee was asked to fill out a form that asked for the three biggest moments in the church’s history. They picked Henry Ward Beecher’s tenure as the first pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr. preaching an early version of his “I Have a Dream” sermon at Plymouth, and the church recommitting itself to Jesus Christ in 2004. Plymouth’s resurgence is part of the story.
We do not have to choose between being a museum and a church. We think about what God has done to remind us that God is still at work.