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.”