Years ago when attendance was pretty low, Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, N.Y., 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 the tripadvisor.com list of things to do in Brooklyn, Plymouth Church is No. 82 — behind the Coney Island Museum, but ahead of the Coney Island Brewing Company.
I have interrupted five groups of tourists in front of the church for no good reason. One tour guide suggested I point out any mistakes he made — and soon regretted it. I caught a mistake on another tour, but the guide was speaking Spanish, so I let it go.
They miss some details, but the guides are good at fitting the tour to whatever tourists paid the 30 bucks. When the tour was filled with teenagers, the guide talked about Adam Sandler making a movie at our church. (The Cobbler suffers in comparison to earlier classics, such as Happy Gilmore and The Waterboy.)
When the tour was an African-American choir, the guide described the Fisk University Choir singing in our sanctuary in 1871. The concert was so successful the choir sang at the White House shortly thereafter.
When the tour was a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the guide completely skipped our church’s role in the abolitionist movement, women’s suffrage and civil rights, but pointed to a house across the street where Charles Taze Russell’s cousin lived. Who knew?
My church has an amazing history. When I sit in pew 89, I wonder what Abraham Lincoln prayed when he sat there. I have turned off the lights in the basement — where runaway slaves passed through on the Underground Railroad — and imagined what it feels like to run for your life. When I am in my office, I often think of Branch Rickey — a member of Plymouth Church and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers — praying there until he decided that God wanted him to invite Jackie Robinson to integrate baseball.
Some of our church’s heritage is complicated. The sculptor of a statue of Henry Ward Beecher and a bas-relief of Abraham Lincoln in our church garden was Gutzon Borglum, who also created Mount Rushmore. Borglum was a member of the Klan.
Beecher, the founding pastor, was a gifted minister who fought courageously against slavery and was considered the most famous man in America. His adultery trial sold a lot of newspapers and ended in a hung jury.
The portrait of Henry Ward Beecher in our arcade does not make him look particularly 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 one of our committees was asked to name 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.
Every church has a history with which to deal. Churches stuck in their history keep talking about how great it was years ago. Churches that have forgotten their history mistakenly believe that there are no good gifts older than they are.
We can be grateful for our past without being trapped in it. We do not need to choose between being a museum and a church. We explore what God has done and discover that God is still at work.