Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, Sunday service: review

Most tourists in New York looking for a good gospel service will make their way to Harlem on the Sabbath, but those based downtown like me are probably better off checking out the Brooklyn Tabernacle Church just over the bridge. I went along one Sunday to check it all out.

From the get-go you know this isn’t traditional church (but then, you wouldn’t be there if it was, would you?). The theatre is huge, comparable to any Broadway venue, and hanging over the stage is a screen advertising the lunch specials in the Church’s cafe and urging attendees to check out the official Twitter page. Yep, we’re not in the World Revival Church of Kansas City anymore.

Upon arrival, I was seated in the third row, far closer than I wanted to be. With each service running at about two hours, I had originally intended to watch for about half an hour, catch a few tunes, and then make a quiet exit through a side door.

But there is a single seat available near the front, and I am being ushered towards it before I can think about the consequences. When I sit down, I realise there will be no quiet exits from this position and I prepare to hunker down for the long haul. I’m also a little disappointed (but not surprised) to find that photography is not permitted during the service.

The choir begins to file in about 15 minutes before we start, and it is almost a stock image of ‘diversity’: Asian, white, black, brown, young, old, some fashionably-dressed and some dressed for church. But, when they sing, the Choir becomes uniform in their zeal.

Things kick off with a few tunes led by one singer with a microphone, backed up by the Choir, the band, and the crowd (lyrics are posted on the overhead screen). For non-believers, it can be uncomfortable to be surrounded by such unembarrassed passion, as everyone around you sways, sings, claps, raises their arms to the roof and utters loud affirmations, while those actually holding the microphones really let rip with praise for the Almighty (“OOOOHHHHH HALLELUJAH!”). You can feel like a bit of an imposter amongst it all, particularly if you’re just three rows from the front, the epicentre of the proudly faithful, as it were.

I’m initially unsure of whether to clap/sing/sway along in tribute to a God I don’t believe in, but after a while I feel comfortable tapping my foot in time with the music and silently observing proceedings.

But it’s hard to be an impassive observer through the entire service. Attendees are frequently asked to hold hands, to hug one another. First-time visitors are urged to stand up during one point in the sermon, though there enough in the crowd that I don’t feel self-conscious raising myself above the throng. At the sermon’s conclusion, everyone is asked to say to five people around them “I’m gonna be okay, you’re gonna be okay”, and no sooner have I risen from my seats that I am clasped into the embrace of my neighbour with this vow earnestly spoken into my ear.

Even during portions of the show when the audience is seated, some parishioners stand up and raise their hands towards the stage. One such woman in front of me did this repeatedly, but obviously this is not an environment where “down in front” is an appropriate response.

After the opening few songs, the audience is asked to sit and the choir begins their performance. And that’s when things get good.

Like all choirs, they are better live. No recording ever manages to do justice to the smack-you-in-the-face power of hundreds of people singing in front of you, and YouTube clips don’t come close, though this is gives you an idea:

The highlight is a rendition of What a Mighty God We Serve that I could have happily listened to well past its ten-minute running time. The soloist who begins the piece has a suitably astonishing vocal range, and when the choir joins in the piece reaches new heights. Whenever you think they have reached their crescendo, they find another level.

It is truly awe-inspiring, being struck with the force of it. When in full song, the choir can almost inspire that feeling that Christians talk about, staring into the face of God dumbstruck with an indescribably uplifting feeling. It is, in the truest sense of the word, glorious.

The choir only sings on its own for about half an hour and then quietly shuffles out again. The one-hour sermon which follows is surprisingly engaging, all things considered. Pastor Jim Cymbala apparently doesn’t tend towards the “fire and brimstone” approach, but is more of a grandfatherly counsellor.

There are inconsistencies, of course. Early on in his address, Cymbala decries sermons which mostly involve people giving their opinions rather than focusing on the Bible. Later, however, politics rear their head when he talks about how the “anti-Christian New York City government” doesn’t allow Church events in public spaces, but readily agrees to staging rap shows “which demean women” as “strengthening cultural roots”.

The victim mentality gets a solid airing too. Cymbala talks about how “it’s hard to be a Christian, everyone is against you, you can be anything but a Christian.” However, he uses this to move the discussion into losing one’s faith, which is one of the main focal points of the sermon. Cymbala urges those who are doubting their faith to make their way towards the stage and encourages them not to give up on God. I am surprised that roughly a hundred people do indeed rise from their seats to stand at the front of the stage, with Cymbala pointing to each of them in turn telling them “you’re going to be okay”.

In many ways it helps turn it all into an experience which traverses the full gamut of religious belief: from the joy of faith to the despair of doubt. It’s not enough to bring me into the fold, that would require another few hours listening to the Choir, but it’s not a bad way to spend a few hours on a Sunday. Perhaps after a particularly sinful Saturday.

Information about the Choir and session times can be found on the Church website.