Hipster Church Tour: Jacob’s Well

As part of the research for my book, I’ve been visiting churches all over the country over the past year—a tour of “America’s hippest churches,” you might say (though soon to expand to Europe as well). The goal is to gain a good bit of qualitative data on the subject I’m writing about, to understand firsthand how various church bodies are fitting in to this whole thing. I have stopped at dozens of churches in many states and talked with countless people, and every now and then on my blog I will describe in depth my various observations about these churches.

Keep in mind a few things: 1) I love Christians and have greatly enjoyed all the services I’ve visited. They are all genuinely worshiping God. 2) Calling these “hipster” churches does in no way elevate them above other churches nor does it denigrate them; It is not meant to be any sort of value judgment at all. “Hipster church” is simply a designation for a particular type of contemporary church that, above all classifying criteria, tends to attract large numbers of hipsters.

With that said, I’d like to start this series with Jacob’s Well—a church in Kansas City which exceptionally high hipster cred. Because I’m from Kansas City, I think it’s fitting to start this journey there.

Church Name: Jacob’s Well
Location: Kansas City, MO.
Head Pastor: Tim Keel

Summary: I’ve attended services at Jacob’s Well on three occasions, which is more than most of the churches I’ve visited (simply because I’m in Kansas City a lot). Jacob’s Well has been a fixture on the “emerging church” landscape since the early 00s, largely because pastor Tim Keel is on the board of directors for Emergent. It’s a church that feels totally new and fresh, but which upholds tradition and history and all things “vintage.” It’s a hipster church because it has a large, young hipster contingent in the audience, but also because it fits firmly within the hip tradition of usurping the establishment. As described by Christian Century, Jacob’s Well is “a rebuke to those churches that, in imitation of cutting-edge 1970s evangelicalism, deliberately strip themselves of historical symbols, creeds and practices in an effort to grow. [Jacob’s Well] is succeeding by moving in precisely the opposite direction.” For example, JW embraces things like read prayers, weekly communion (by intinction, and with the option of gluten-free bread!), and lectio divina. It’s all very mystery-minded and aesthetically pleasing.

Building: A formidable old Presbyterian structure from the 1930s, renovated but retaining many traditional and ancient elements like stained glass, pews, candles, and churchy vaulted ceilings. On one wall in the building you will see this quote from Stanley Hauerwas: “The work of Jesus was not a new set of ideals or principles for reforming or even revolutionizing society, but the establishment of a new community, a people that embodied forgiveness, sharing and self-sacrificing love in its rituals and discipline. In that sense, the visible church is not to be the bearer of Christ’s message, but to be the message.”

Congregation: Granted, I’ve only ever visited the evening (5:30pm) service, which probably skews especially young, but the JW congregation is remarkably youthful. There are some older people scattered throughout, but for the most part the crowd seemed college or twentysomething. Lots of guys with beards, girls with tattoos, and skinny jeans everywhere. Mix of yuppie-type hipsters and more organic, indie types. Not particularly high on the friendly-to-strangers scale, but twentysomethings rarely are. We all did hold hands for the last song, however, which was a cheerfully sung benediction.

Music: Led by worship pastor Mike Crawford, the Jacob’s Well band is youthful, loud, but worshipful. It seems less performance-oriented and more a facilitator of community singing, which is not to say that it isn’t good. It’s quality indie rock, and largely original. Crawford writes many of the songs himself, such as “Words to Build a Life On,” which features the lyric “Sing your freaking lungs out / Jesus Christ is King!” When they play the music of others, the JW band is more likely to do a Sufjan Stevens song during communion than any sort of “Jesus is my girlfriend” chorus. On one of the Sundays I visited, they played the Welcome Wagon version of the nineteenth century hymn “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,” mere weeks after the Welcome Wagon CD came out. Their style is a bit grungy, imperfect, and unpolished, in true hipster fashion. Slick, overproduced songs with crazy lighting and fog machines are nowhere to be found at Jacob’s Well.

Arts: Arts are huge at Jacob’s Well. There are frequent gallery shows displaying the art and photography of the congregation. During worship services, the congregation is encouraged to take one of the “community journals” to write doodles, art, prayer, thoughts, or poems, as they sit through the service.

Technology: Like most hipster churches, technology is important at Jacob’s Well, but not in an over-the-top way. They do encourage texting in questions or ideas, and the church has a large online presence (MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, etc).

Neighborhood: The heavily hipster midtown Kansas City area—near Brookside and Westport. Lots of artists, bohemians, and Democrats in the area. Far from suburbia, which is important.

Preaching: One interesting thing about the preaching at Jacob’s Well is that the speaker preaches on the floor, at eye level—not elevated on stage or behind a pulpit—in a conversational style. The preacher invites comments and questions from the audience throughout the sermon, steering the sermon according to where the congregational conversation goes. On one of the Sundays I visited, the topic of the sermon was child sex abuse—a topic rarely discussed in church but which is a problem made all the worse because “we let dark places remain dark.”

Quote from pulpit: “We at Jacob’s Well are trying to move away from a belief-centered community to a practice-centered community.”

Quote from website: “Jacob’s Well doesn’t have a mission; it is mission.”

18 responses to “Hipster Church Tour: Jacob’s Well

  1. If you’re ever in Canada, especially in Toronto, you should come and check out Freedomize! We’ve been labeled hipster (apparently) and I’d be interested to see what you think of our community. Check out http://www.freedomize.com for details.

  2. http://www.mcleanbible.org/pages/page.asp?page_id=4029

    Ever heard of this one? It’s been huge in No. Va. for well over a decade now.

  3. becomingbethany

    I’m really looking forward to reading this series.

  4. If you’re planning on coming to Nashville check out:

  5. stephenbrannen

    also, atlanta has to offer

  6. I’m an attendee of JW in Kansas City when I come home from Mizzou on the weekends. It’s a strong commuter church from myself & my friends from the “Northland” region, near the Airport. Or North of the River.

    Pretty accurate review. The 5:30pm is the trendy service where a majority of the hipsters come out. The early service houses the “older” crowd and babies.

    Many students of Mizzou attend JW, it’s a church where Young Life Leaders can feel comfortable to bring their “kids” to have an engaging experience with the Lord.

    The location is great and in a neat part of town known as the Volker district (if my memory serves me correct). I’ve been going to JW for about 5 years when I come in town every so often and have enjoyed their Christmas services & Easter services, Really cool.

    Sigur Ros is often played when walking into the chapel early. I’m fascinated by your area of interests concerning “hip & trendy” churches. I’m a gender studies major at Mizzou and belong to a Christian subculture + a “hip” ministry on campus. I’ll be following this blog. :)

    There is also a connection to “The Khrusty Brothers,” a side project from “Waterdeep.”

    see ya man.

  7. Re: Quote from the Pulpit.

    As though you could actually be just one or the other.

  8. Check out Freedomize in Toronto. I used to go there when I was doing my graduate studies in Canada. Awesome church. You will be impressed.

  9. being a passionate JW attendee and making fun of hipsters, it seems you’ve outed me as a closet hipster. Guess I need to hit my local thrift store for some ironic clothes now.

  10. I think this is why I have only gone to this church once. I have never been part of a hipster or cool crowd and thus this has never been my scene.

  11. Good to possibly great insight.

    I however think your definition of Hipster is completely undefined, and to use it as a noun that has common acceptance or even to create your own word of “hipster church”. I think lacks journalistic integrity. And seems to clash with your intentions. Where you go through and give a great review of church by your various scales, it seems to be an “ironic” review of how much cred it has? Yet how unappealing that “cred” might be at the same time.

    I have some possible other labels you could try on if you would be interested.

    Gentrified Church

    The only pop-culture I like is given to me from sounds familyre or asmatic kitty – church

    I’m only getting older and need to regain my youth by combining cultural trends to my core beliefs – church

    Urban Outfitters – Church

    Mid-Life Crisis – Church

    I went to cornerstone to much as a kid – church

    not quite good enough as secular art – church

    I’m a recent college graduate with a liberal arts degree – church

    I’m achieving Maslow’s Self Actualization – church

    So these are simply some suggestions that might be helpful in your journalistic endeavor that might make it more clear your efforts. And might make it more clear if a person leaving a comment should be offended or be excited and suggest a new “hipster church” for you to come check out.

    Good luck, can’t wait to read your book I hope relevant or Zondervan give it the proper P.R. it will surely deserve.

  12. I’m new to Kansas City and looking for a church but I can’t seem to find a spiritual connection with any yet. I need windows and a connection to nature during a service. I was raised in St. Louis and my family always attended the Church of the Open Word, a Swedenborgian church that was built to resemble the Wayfarers Chapel. The Wayfarers Chapel was built by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son and was built to incorporate nature with the church. It’s such a shame that I can’t seem to find any KC churches with windows behind the podium that overllook flowers and trees. Something so simple but so necessary. Now that I’ve attended Church of the Open Word I just can’t get inspired by listening to someone preach in front of a wall. You should definitely check out Church of the Open Word in STL as part of your research. It’s so beautiful but unfortunately has always had problems sustaining members so there are very few people at a service and usually only ones that have been there many many years. I think maybe it’s because of the need for members to be somewhat openminded to attend the church which is in a very suburban “white-bread” location. Please let me know if you find any churches in KC architecturally inspired by nature.

  13. Hipster, or Indie or Post modern or whatever the world would have you be, JW is a place that invites seekers of Christ to have their own encounter with God……
    Back in March, still 30 something and newly separated from my husband, I showed up for the ‘evening’ service with my 7 year old son. Not once during that first visit or any other time after, have we ever felt like we showed up without an invitation……… I think that lends TOMES to the mission of the church and the christ like character of the people who make up the congregation………

    peace my man.

  14. Pingback: You’re So Hipster // The History of Hip (Part One) | veritas.

  15. I am moving to Saint Louis soon and am wondering if anyone knows of any good churches there? I am 24 and just got a masters in philosophy. I am doing a masters in classics there. I went to Baylor where I went to the most wonderful church and had a group of friends who were my church. I guess they would be called “christian hipsters”- we embody most of what qualifies someone as a christian hipster but would cringe at the title- also something that makes someone a christian hipster. I didn’t find likeminded people in edinburgh this year and I was hoping if someone could push me in the right direction in going to saint louis.

  16. Check out Crossroads in Olivette for church in st. Louis Crossroadspres.com

  17. I was looking for something similar in Omaha, NE. It’s not so far away from KC. Any ideas anyone? I can road trip down one Sunday, too.

  18. I visited this church when it was meeting at Westport Prez on a Saturday night, or Sunday night…I don’t remember. This was about 2003. However, I do remember the pastor stopping in the middle of his sermon and grabbing a marker board from over in the corner. He drew a couple of lines, kind of like heartbeat lines. The first one went across, spiked real high, then spiked real low and ended. The second one went across, spiked a little bit and came back down. It spiked again, higher than the first time and came back down, then spiked a little low, then spiked high, then low, then really high a couple times before ending.
    He asked the congregation if they could guess what these lines represent. He waited about 30 seconds and nobody said anything. Then, he confessed they represent orgasms – the first line that of men, and the second one represents that of women. He then, proceeded to preach on how God designed men and women to compliment one another and for each to set aside what they want to give their husband or wife what they need as a norm in the life of a healthy marriage.

    I never forgot that.

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