Entering the sanctuary, I gasped at the size of the crowd. Not only was the main floor filled to capacity, but the balcony was standing room only. There must have been nearly 500 people in attendance. It was like Christmas Eve on steroids.
I found my place and sat down. The lights dimmed, the crowd hushed, and four black clad musicians entered the sanctuary. The program included a number of Bach’s canons, as well as a piece by Telemann and another by Scarlatti. As the last shimmering notes of the first piece hung in the air, the audience erupted in thunderous applause.
Founded in 1916, Plymouth was designed to be a community church, and for nearly 100 years we have tried to faithfully live out that identity. We play host to a variety of community events: AA meetings, Tai Chi classes, a Girl Scout troop, and two thriving pre-school programs. Yet these programs are all dwarfed by our growing reputation as the preeminent venue for chamber music. Blessed by, in the words of one reviewer, “exceptional acoustics in an intimate setting,” Plymouth Church is now home to the Cleveland Chamber Music Society, the Cleveland Classical Guitar Society, and Les Delice. Last year, average concert attendance was well over 350; worship attendance, by contrast, was around 220.
Frankly, it bothers me that more people want to hear chamber music than want to hear the gospel. Don’t get me wrong—I’m married to a classical musician, and no one loves a good concert more than I do. But is this part of the mission of the church? Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations”—not “Go and host chamber music concerts for all people.”
Adding to my confusion is the fact that there is no place to list “concert attendance” on our yearly denominational report. Why is that? There was a day when worship attendance, financial giving, and Sunday school enrollment provided an accurate measure of church vitality, but I’m not convinced that still holds true. Plus, I’d like credit for the extra 6,000 people who passed through our doors last year.
I’m starting to think that hosting these concerts is part of Plymouth’s mission in the world. We certainly have devoted church resources to these events. The calendar is coordinated by our office administrator; the Facilities Manager makes sure the sanctuary is set up for the musicians; our Minister of Music is always on hand to act as host and make sure things run smoothly. And while the concerts are a modest source of revenue, given the wear and tear on the building, we barely break even.
So why do we do it? Why have we allowed ourselves to become (as another reviewer so aptly put it) “the place to hear chamber music in Cleveland”? Maybe it’s for the same reason I conduct funerals for the un-churched or officiate at weddings for the “spiritual-but-not-religious.” We do it because we believe that when people find the church to be a place of welcome, and experience something breath-taking and beautiful that is not of their own making, they catch a glimpse of the transcendent love of God.
As the audience thrilled to the sounds of Bach’s Canon in D, I recalled the words that Bach wrote at the top and bottom of every composition: Soli Deo Gloria.
Glory to God alone … indeed.
The Rev. Dr. Shawnthea Monroe is the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church UCC, Shaker Heights, Ohio. Shawnthea is the co-author of Living Christianity: A Pastoral Theology for Today (Fortress 2009), and when she’s not preaching or teaching, she is in the garden.
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