Having had the chance to attend a gospel mass in Harlem, this was truly one of the most memorable experiences of my time in New York. Whether you are a believer or not, if you too dream of being able to live this authentic moment, I will give you in this post some tips to help you find the best place to attend a gospel mass in New York.
Where does the tradition of Gospel music come from?
The term gospel music comes from the expression "goodspell ", which became Gospel – the good news about Jesus in Christian religion.
The reason why the songs of this African-American musical culture are so emotionally powerful is that they have their roots in three centuries of slavery. For the black slaves who arrived in North America and worked in the cotton fields, singing was already part of their culture.
Their condition forced them to adapt, and new songs were created to enable them to communicate. Little by little, they discovered the Christian religion, and in the Bible, the story of the Hebrews held in Egypt and forced to work reminded them very much of their lives as slaves.
Without forgetting their original culture and traditions, the African-American slaves, who had obtained the right to attend Protestant masses, gradually began to improvise prayer songs, which were known at the time as Negro Spiritual. After the abolition of slavery in 1865, real choirs were formed. This musical tradition later evolved into Gospel music, which blended with Blues and Jazz and dealt with strong social issues such as segregation and poverty.
Moving in both sound and word, this musical style quickly became very popular. In the 20th century, it became widely used by pastors, who based their lyrics on the New Testament. By the 1960s, gospel music had already found its true identity, and in the churches these songs claimed faith in God and the hope that one day all inequalities could disappear.
Where to attend a Gospel service in New York?
In some parts of the city there are a number of small churches where you can attend a mass and listen to gospel music. Before choosing a church, it is important to remember that it is primarily a religious ceremony. Although the atmosphere can quickly become very lively, these ceremonies are not shows where you can walk in and out freely.
You can find beautiful churches for gospel music in all the boroughs of New York, but I really recommend going to Harlem, which is the cradle of African-American culture and remains the place to go to hear this music.
Of course, you can also go to the very big churches, which are in all the guidebooks and are used to receiving tourists at every mass. But they are not, in my opinion, the best way to see an authentic gospel service.
Lastly, you can go on a guided tour. These tours are usually divided into two parts. The first part is devoted to discovering Harlem, New York’s multicultural district. Afterwards, you will attend a gospel service in one of the churches in the neighbourhood. A guided tour takes about half a day, and will give you an overview of Harlem, and help you learn more about the history of the neighbourhoods and gospel music 🙂
My experience of Gospel services in Harlem
By going to one of Harlem's largest churches, the First Corinthian Baptist Church, I was able to attend a beautiful sound and light show, comfortably seated on the balcony among the tourists, while only the congregation was on the ground floor. The musicians were excellent, the sound system perfect – but the experience, although very pleasant, was still far from what I expected.
Other, sometimes lesser-known churches are often much better places to go if you really want to live a memorable experience. In the Greater Tabernacle Baptist Church, I had the chance to attend an unforgettable gospel service. I arrived early and was able to sit among the believers while the church was still far from being full. Gradually, everyone had arrived and a particularly friendly atmosphere formed.
When the pastor took his seat and the choir started to sing, people quickly stood up and started singing loudly to express their faith. With the joy and fervour contained in the singing, the atmosphere quickly became extremely warm, and I really felt that I was experiencing a very privileged moment in that church.
Here are some tips I can give you if you want to attend a gospel service:
- Avoid churches that are too big: it is in smaller churches that you can really attend an authentic gospel mass.
- Avoid group visits: always try to have a maximum of 2 or 3 people only, so that you can fit in better with the congregation.
- I highly recommend that you come as early as you can to attend a mass. On Sunday mornings, mass times vary and some churches have several services. By attending the first service, you will avoid mixing with too many tourists.
- Arrive early, so that you are not among the last to enter the church.
- Do not take photos or videos and put your phone on airplane mode. Again, masses are not spectacles, so try to share the experience with the believers.
- If possible, plan to stay until the end of the mass. If your schedule does not allow it, sit in the back of the church near the door and try to warn the pastor or a regular that you will have to leave the church during the service.
- Many people dress very carefully to attend Mass: feel free to do the same.
- Enjoy this very special moment.
Which church to attend a Gospel service in New York?
First of all, if the mention of Harlem has made you hesitate, you should know that this district of New York has changed a lot in recent years. If Harlem was for a long time a true ghetto where crime was omnipresent, this is absolutely no longer the case – not since the first half of the 2000s. Today, you can walk through the streets of Harlem without any worry and discover a lively and very pleasant neighbourhood.
If you want to live the most authentic experience possible, you can go to one of the many small churches in the area. You can attend a gospel service in Harlem with the congregation, who will be delighted to welcome you as long as you follow basic etiquette. During the service, clapping and singing along is a great way to soak up the atmosphere.
However, if you don't want to go alone and prefer to have a guide with you to tell you the secrets of Harlem and Gospel music, that's obviously possible! More information on the guided tour by following this link.
The Abyssinian Baptist Church
The reason I mention this church, which is probably the most famous Baptist church in New York, is actually to advise you against it. This very touristy church building is perfect for a visit – but if you're looking for an authentic gospel service, this is definitely not the place to go.
On Sundays, the 9 am service is reserved for the faithful, so tourists flock to the 11 am service. If you want to attend, you should expect to queue for at least an hour. The best way to enjoy a more authentic mass in this church is probably to go on Wednesdays for the 7 pm service, which seems to be much less crowded.
The Salem United Methodist Church
This small, relatively non-touristy Methodist church is certainly not the most beautiful in New York, but you can attend a service there every Sunday at 11 am, for a moment of sharing and music in a very friendly atmosphere. To see the church's website, you can follow this link.
The Greater Tabernacle Baptist Church
I have already told you about this charming little church, where you can attend a typical gospel service. In this Harlem church, which is far from being one of the most touristic places, 3 services are celebrated every Sunday: at 8 am, 11 am and 5 pm. Don't hesitate to arrive early, as you will then be able to listen to the choir preparing for the service.
The Brooklyn Tabernacle
To see a gospel service in Harlem, you can go to the Brooklyn Tabernacle. In this evangelical church, which looks a bit like a theatre, you will be very welcomed. The choir is made up of more than 200 singers, and you will enjoy the incredible atmosphere and admire the great fervour of the faithful. Masses are held on Sundays at 9 am. To see the church's website, click here.
The Canaan Baptist Church of Christ
This church is another place where you can attend a gospel service in Harlem in a traditional setting. The services (every Sunday at 8 am and 11 am) last for 2 hours, with a lot of singing. The place is touristy and you'll probably be sitting on a balcony, but from the décor to the singers' costumes, everything about this church exudes authenticity, and you will have a memorable time.
And that's it for my article! I hope it made you want to see a Gospel Mass for yourself. And if you already have seen one, don't hesitate to share your experience with us – especially if you've got a church to recommend!