Jacob's Well, Kansas City, Missouri

Jacob's Well, Kansas City, Missouri, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Sabbath Man
Church: Jacob's Well
Location: Kansas City, Missouri, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 17 June 2007, 11:00am

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.

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 or handout.

How full was the building?

The building was very full, probably around 95 per cent 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 atmosphere?

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 service?

"Good morning and happy Father's Day to you!"

What books did the congregation use during the service?

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 vocal harmonies.

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 what?

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?

34 minutes.

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 about?

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 heaven?

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 coffee?

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, helpful answers.

How would you feel about making another visit (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 Christian?

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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