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||1470: Jacob's Well, Kansas City, Missouri, USA
Mystery Worshipper: Sabbath Man.
The church: Jacob's
Well, Kansas City, Missouri, USA.
The building: Originally built for a Presbyterian congregation, the
building is stout, red brick, a bit worn and frayed, with warrens of hallways
inside. The sanctuary has a very churchy feel – dark wood beams, stained
glass windows, the Lord's Prayer written prominently in the center of the
chancel, a communion table with many candles and chalices on it. The building
certainly belies the myth that a church needs a bright, new building or
some sort of non-traditional worship space to grow or be "cutting edge."
The church: Their beliefs, practices, ministries and outreaches are
all well described on their website. Jacob's Well is one of the best known
members of the somewhat controversial emergent church movement. Emergent
churches are congregations begun by and primarily for "Gen-X" people –
20 and 30 year olds. They are said to exude a post-modern, non-doctrinaire
approach, with great value placed on mystery and the arts, and an appreciation
for historic expressions of Christian orthodoxy. Begun in 1998, Jacob's
Well has had incredible success in reaching young people. Although intentionally
very casual, the congregation seemed not immune from being status and fashion
conscious, with just the right mix of casual brands and designs. I got the
sense it was a place to be seen and meet other young people. I had hoped
for more evidence of reaching unchurched young people or social outcasts,
but what I seemed to be seeing was actually just lots of young evangelicals
who wanted to wear soccer jerseys and flip-flops to church.
The neighborhood: Kansas City, Missouri (not to be confused with
Kansas City, Kansas) sits at the western edge of Missouri, on the Missouri
River, just across from its namesake in Kansas. Founded in the early 19th
century, its stragtegic location helped it to become what was said to be
the world's most important cattle market. Indeed, the city labored well
into the 20th century under a reputation as a wild and bawdy cowboy town.
Today's Kansas City is clean, green and elegant, and is said to have more
fountains than any city except Rome, and more boulevards than any city except
Paris. Its restaurants also feature some of the finest and most tender beef
to be had anywhere. Jacob's Well is located in the Westport neighborhood
of Kansas City. There is an artsy, bohemian feel, obvious gentrification,
older bungalow homes, tree-lined streets.
The cast: Tim Keel, the founding pastor and a major figure in the
emergent church movement, did not participate in this service. Rather, the
service was led by Shayne Wessel, associate pastor, who also preached. Another
gentleman whose name was not given read the announcements.
The date & time: June 17, 2007, 11.00am.
What was the name of the service?
Their website describes their services as "worship gatherings,"
although the name of the service we attended was not listed in any announcement
How full was the building?
The building was very full, probably around 95 percent capacity.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
We were greeted by a person at the door who was handing out an announcement
sheet. No one else greeted us personally, save for a few smiles and nods.
We sensed that in a church this size it is probably hard to distinguish
visitors from the regulars, and it would be very easy to remain anonymous.
Was your pew comfortable?
The pew was comfortable. Just as well, since with an attendance this large,
people were sitting closer to one another than is typical in most churches.
How would you describe the pre-service
Very lively and loud. The worship band was still rehearsing when we arrived.
When they stopped playing, recorded pop-rock music was played through the
sound system. Lots of young people were chatting, greeting each other and
fidgeting with their cell phones. It almost seemed as if everyone were expected
to carry a cup of coffee or a bottle of water into the service. Quite a
few had their own Bibles – small, easy-to-carry editions, not the large
Bibles with zippered covers of a previous generation.
What were the exact opening words of the
"Good morning and happy Father's Day to you!"
What books did the congregation use during the
We were handed an announcement sheet entitled the JW Weekly. There
were copies of the New Living Bible in the pew racks. Words for
all the songs were projected onto large screens on the either side of the
chancel, as were the scripture lessons, which everyone read aloud.
What musical instruments were played?
A band of keyboard, three guitars and drums led the music. They were good,
several notches better than the typical praise band. The music seemed slightly
edgier than typical church-band music – some U2 sounding guitar, tight
Did anything distract you?
With so many young people present, it was difficult to distinguish between
hormones and the Holy Spirit. Both were in the air. There was quite a bit
of public affection on display.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
Very relaxed and casual. There was some raising of hands and lots of swaying
during the singing. All the speakers had a tone that was conversational
and sincere. After the scripture reading, the preacher asked people in the
congregation what had struck them. Several raised their hands and shared
insights. The service included communion, but with hardly any liturgy, almost
as an afterthought.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 Shayne Wessel preached at floor level, from the head of the center
aisle. While he had notes on a little lectern, his presentation was informal
and impromptu. He exuded authenticity and even came across as a bit of a
tortured soul. He sprinkled his sermon generously with post-modern terms
like "matrix," "alternative paradigm," "ambiguous" and "subversion," along
with a rather extraneous reference to the French philosopher and social
critic Michel Foucault.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
It being Father's Day, he took as his text Hebrews 12, where St Paul describes
how God disciplines us as a father disciplines his sons. God's discipline
is not cruelty, but is meant to raise up the best in us.
Which part of the service was like being in
Singing the songs with the band, especially the music during and after communion.
One particular song of lament was unusual and effective.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The sermon was too long and rambling. I also missed prayer. There really
was very little prayer throughout the service. No congregational prayer
or "prayers of the people" with any sense of the wider world or church.
Overall, a sense of transcendence and wonder seemed missing.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No offering is taken during worship. Instead, there is an inconspicuous
slot in the foyer for you to slip financial gifts into. I went out to slip
my calling card in the slot and then stood there for a few minutes. No one
said anything. The foyer is a very small space, not very conducive to standing
around or socializing, but used more as an exit. Perhaps standing outside
would have been a better way to be noticed or start a conversation.
How would you describe the after-service
I don't believe any coffee or other refreshments were served. In the parking
lot, we asked some folks for nearby restaurant advice and were given friendly,
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 I'm just too old, both to appreciate and really be noticed at Jacob's
Well. I was somewhat underwhelmed by any sense of their being "emergent."
I didn't catch any post-modernity or mystery. To me, it was very close to
the typical contemporary American evangelical worship – 20 minutes of singing,
35 minutes of preaching and another 10 minutes of song to close.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
Yes. It is good that the church continues to adapt for different generations.
But the roots of Jacob's Well in American evangelicalism are very evident.
Despite the hype, no church is ever "all-new," "totally different" or a
"radical paradigm shift." And this, too, is good.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
To be sure to bring bottled water with me if I ever return!
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