How Christian churches are changing Kansas City’s cultural landscape

Dylan Mortimer enrolled at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1998. A pastor’s son from Ferguson, Missouri, he’d been drawing and painting since age 9, and much of his art was informed by the conservative, Christian environment in which he was raised.

“The church was really supportive of me doing art, so when I got to art school here in Kansas City, I started out doing a version of that same kind of stuff,” Mortimer said recently, sitting in a booth at McCoy’s Public House in Westport. “People hated it. My classmates hated it. My professors hated it. I realized, very quickly, I’d gone from a situation where everybody I knew was Christian to where nobody I knew was Christian.

“There was a lot of aggression toward Christianity in the school, of a kind you wouldn’t see directed toward other faiths. It was this very weird situation where you had permission to do anything there, anything at all — except be a Christian. But I still was one.”

Mortimer responded by shifting his focus toward art that challenged modern assumptions about Christianity, faith and the public sphere. Early on, he Photoshopped road signs to say things, such as “Prayer ALLOWED 40 yards,” and reworked yellow caution signs to warn passers-by that sermons may be occurring nearby. Later, he installed his “Public Prayer Booths” — a play on old-school blue-and-white phone booths, each outfitted with a kneeler — in public spaces across the country, including New York City, where in 2006 he received a master’s degree from the School of Visual Arts. In exhibitions — with titles such as Holla Back, God; Ble$$ed; and Amen, Bitch — he has fitted hip-hop culture within Christian imagery: Tupac in stained glass; a gun-shaped gold medallion with text that reads, “Love Your Gawd Damn Enemies.”

“Looking back, there’s definitely some tinges of anger to some of that stuff,” Mortimer said. “It’s me saying, ‘Am I allowed to hold my Christian beliefs in a thoroughly post-Christian culture?’ In New York, classmates at SVA were completely confused by my Christianity. I would have people ask me if it was some kind of performance-art thing. They weren’t being mean-spirited — it was just genuine confusion. That’s how removed lots of people were from the idea that somebody would have my beliefs. So with a lot of my work, I was trying to get at that idea: What does it mean to be Christian in a world like that?”

Mortimer may be overstating the demise of Christianity. Younger generations increasingly check “none” in the religion box, but at last count, 75 percent of Americans called themselves Christians. His views on the uneasy relationship between Christianity and the arts should ring true to anybody who has logged time in any kind of secular scene in the past 100 years, though.

Art is supposed to be the province of fierce individualism. Organized religion, which demands conformity, is a world of joiners. One appears to run counter to the other. Never mind that the distinction often doesn’t hold up in real life. (Mortimer’s work, as one example, is iconoclastic in a way rarely produced by art-school-educated individuals, many of whom embrace what amounts to a uniform of nonconformity.) That pre-emptive binary is one reason that overt displays of Christianity don’t tend to go over well with the average downtown art crowd. (The Pat Robertses and Fred Phelpses of the world don’t help matters.)

Many artistically inclined Christians experience moments of self-examination that echo Mortimer’s: What is the difference between being a Christian artist and an artist who is a Christian? Can artistic ideals be fused with religious ideals? Should you assimilate into larger, secular scenes or build your own faith-based scene? Is it necessary to divorce your faith from your paintings, from the music you write, from your graphic-design business? Is it even possible?

These questions grow louder and more frequent as the next generation repopulates America’s urban cores. This migration back from the suburbs increasingly includes not just millennials but churches, too. In Kansas City, some local churches are discovering that they can have an impact on the city in an artistically meaningful way. Look closely, and you can see it in the streetscapes, the coffee shops, the music scene, at art openings.

Mortimer — now a pastor at Rivercity Community Church, in the Volker neighborhood — says there has been a shift.

“I think, more and more, you see the city — and artists in the city — eager and open to engage in dialogue with churches and Christians, and vice versa,” he said. “I think of it like kids having to leave their parents’ house in order to grow. That’s sort of what Western art did with Christianity. For centuries, Christianity provided money, a forum, venues for Western art. Eventually Western art had to leave its home and grow up. Now it’s at an awkward state, a kind of late-adolescent state. It’s like, ‘Are we ready to talk to our parents again?'”

The building originally known as El Torreon, at 3101 Gillham Plaza, in midtown, has as rich a cultural history as one is likely to find in a Kansas City structure.

It opened in 1927 as a jazz hall, and Cab Calloway and Count Basie were among the many who played there. It was the city’s first integrated club. In the 1930s, it turned into a supper club. In the 1960s, it was home to a roller rink. In 1971, it reopened as the Cowtown Ballroom, which over the next three years booked Van Morrison, Frank Zappa, Linda Ronstadt and other titans of the classic-rock era.

Even amid the disrepair that ensued over the decades that followed, it still served as a hub. A small room on the ground level was an all-ages space in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and an artsy flea market called the Cowtown Mallroom convened in the upstairs ballroom until last year.

That’s when Bridgeport Community Church bought the 32,000-square-foot building for half a million dollars.

On a recent October afternoon, Bridgeport’s pastor, Sam Newby, was giving a tour of the space and outlining Bridgeport’s long-term plans. He entered the part of the building that once was home to the turn-of-the-millennium, all-ages space.

“I saw Mars Volta in this room back in the day,” said Newby, who is 33.

Besides luring young acts like Mars Volta and Bright Eyes to a local stage, the former incarnation of El Torreon was a venue where dozens of weird, young local bands played their first shows. Now that Bridgeport owns the place, Arin Gilbert, a Bridgeport parishioner, is booking similar shows in an attempt to reclaim the space for all-ages audiences. Newby said it was part of Bridgeport’s larger mission to engage more fully with the city and its culture.

“We’ve always wanted to be in the heart of the city,” Newby said. (Prior to moving to El Torreon, Bridgeport bounced around a few locations in the Crossroads.) “We go to restaurants here. We go see bands here, shop here. It makes sense to have our church here. America is by and large returning to its cities, and in doing so, it’s looking for culture that’s more than an inch deep or a decade old. I think that’s the primary reason urban renewal is on the rise, is a desire to be connected to history and culture. People in our church are feeling that just like everybody else.”

Bridgeport is not the only church transforming urban space in Kansas City. When music venue Crosstown Station closed in 2010, Resurrection Downtown, a United Methodist Church, bought the building. It now holds worship services there and keeps a large, highly visible office a block west, at the corner of Truman Road and Grand Boulevard — a block from the Power & Light District; next to an EDM dance club called One Percent; and across the street from Temptations, a strip club.

And in midtown, at Westport Road and Main Street, Redeemer Fellowship is in the quiet and rather brisk process of reimagining the better part of a square block.

Kevin Cawley, the founding pastor at Redeemer, said he found Jesus while smoking a cigarette outside an Applebee’s in Grandview. But what Redeemer is doing with the real estate it owns in the area is more akin to what you might find along a Portland, Oregon, streetcar line. Over caffeinated beverages at Oddly Correct, an aggressively fashionable coffee shop that serves as the nucleus of this ongoing makeover, Cawley explained how it all came to be.

“In 2006, my wife and I were living in Canada, trying to find a way to get back to KC,” he said. “I was coming back periodically and talking with people about what a church that addressed Kansas City’s real needs would look like. The resonant frequency was that Christians had abandoned the city — in Kansas City, but also everywhere, almost every urban area. There were lots of reasons for it. There are historic elements of racial division. And, frankly — and respectfully — I think many Christians fear the city. I like the city. I like how it’s beautiful and broken. It invites learning and conversation. It allows me to be proximate to people I wouldn’t otherwise be proximate to.”

One day in 2007, Cawley heard from a friend of his in Kansas City regarding a Westport church that was looking to give its building away: First Calvary Baptist, at 3921 Baltimore.

“I didn’t want it,” Cawley said. “I didn’t want an old, dilapidated building. I didn’t want to manage the real estate the church had bought up on Main. I didn’t want to be a steward of a building. I wanted to find a tribe and serve the neighborhood. But I met with the church’s interim pastor anyway. I heard his story. The church had slowly been dying. They were doing all these missions in other countries, but nobody knew them here in their own city. They forgot they existed to serve the city. Eventually, I decided I liked the idea of building on the faithfulness of the people who were at that church 100, 150 years ago — the people who had originally formed a church to serve the city.

“Plus,” Cawley continued, “we were getting the building debt-free. If it fell apart, we could just walk away from it. It was a gift. So we went for it. We had our first service in 2008.”

Redeemer now counts about 2,000 members. A recent Sunday-night service was filled with people in their 20s and 30s — lots of cuffed jeans and Warby Parkers in the house. The restoration of the church reflects the aesthetic sensibilities of the founders and the congregation they’ve attracted: modern red couches, elegant coffee and tea stations, a 15-foot horizontal art piece at the top of the stairs. Designwise, the place is tasteful down to the little arrows that direct you to the restrooms.

In 2012, Redeemer broadened its neighborhood investment by purchasing the historic Katz building, an architectural landmark across Westport Road from the church’s property.

“There were all kinds of restrictions on what could be done with the space because of the CVS nearby, so whoever ended up with it basically couldn’t do a big retail operation,” Cawley said. “We put in a lowball offer at the auction and got it.”

The building, rechristened the Drugstore, is now a collaborative art space that houses 20 artist studios and a small exhibition room. Gregory Kolsto, owner of Oddly Correct and a recently ordained lay elder at Redeemer, is running point on the Drugstore, aided by Sean Starowitz, a community artist.

By leasing studios to young artists for low fees — something Redeemer can afford more easily as a tax-exempt organization — the Drugstore is operating in a blurry new space, as a kind of subsidized Christian-secular art partnership. It’s owned by a church, but only four of the 20 artists are Christians, Kolsto said this month.

“I got interested in the idea of what it would look like to reclaim the concept of patronage,” Cawley said. “I said, ‘What if the Katz building could be remade as a cultural center that’s supported by our church? In some ways — maybe in all ways — my dream is for the Drugstore to thrive and nobody ever know we’re behind it. I was an offensive lineman. The best offensive linemen in the world, you don’t know they’re there. I kind of think of it that way. We don’t want to mitigate or mess with any of the art that’s being done there, and I have no aspirations for people to know Redeemer is involved.”

Given sinking public funding for the arts, and the Internet’s disruption of many arts-business models, faith-based institutions as arts patrons may be a viable new model. It’s also, of course, a very old model. Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare and Mozart relied on rich patrons to make their work. And if an indie band’s best shot these days is to license its songs to Apple, a company that outsources its manufacturing to merciless Chinese sweatshops, does it really make sense to object to a community church as an alternative means of support?

Newby, at Bridgeport, told me this month, “It’s hard for entrepreneurs to succeed these days, particularly in the realm of the arts. So I think one way the church can help is to partner with the artistic community to provide space and resources to get something started without facing huge overhead costs.”

Starowitz, who is not a Redeemer member, said he has started to see more of this model in the cities he visits for various art initiatives on which he advises.

“They’re [Redeemer] supporting progressive, experimental work that isn’t necessarily coming from their same pulpit,” Starowitz said. “I think that’s powerful. They’re allowing artists to be themselves. When I first met with Gregory and Kevin, there was a part of me that was like, ‘What’s their angle here? Are they trying to get me to drink the Kool-Aid?’ That quickly fell away. I just see them as people in the city trying to make their neighborhood better. And it ran me through the ringer of thinking about why I would have had that distrust in the first place.”

He added: “I understand why the arts community might be resistant to some kind of faith-based sponsorship. But I also think in this day and age, we need to move beyond that. That mentality has held our country back in a lot of ways. I think if we lock arms, we can create something greater than ourselves. And I think the Drugstore is a great example of that. It’s a forward-looking thing that’s about identity, community and collaboration with people on both sides of those party lines.”

In his book Hipster Christianity, Brett McCracken — who lived in Kansas City as a teenager — writes about the sometimes-messy collision of church and “cool.” He includes several case studies of churches that embody the topic. One is Jacob’s Well, an independent, nondenominational church at 42nd Street and Wyoming, in the 39th Street West neighborhood.

Jacob’s Well was a trailblazer for arts-friendly churches in Kansas City. It was founded in 1998 by Tim Keel, who has a degree in design and illustration from the University of Kansas, in addition to a seminary degree. An artist, Keel wanted to create a place that would attract similarly wired people.

“A lot of times, churches try to reach out to attract a certain group, like creative people or artists,” Keel says. “But they’re not coming from the same place as those artists. I wanted to build a community from the beginning with those types of people. Instead of trying to reach people who are unlike us, I wanted everybody together from the start figuring out how we want to do church together. And the thinking was, that would in turn attract more people with those same values. And that’s happened. When a creative person comes into a community where creativity is valued, they can smell it. It’s a real thing. It’s not a gimmick.”

Visit Jacob’s Well on a Sunday morning — or evening; there’s a 7 p.m. session for late risers — and the picture that Keel describes comes into clearer focus. It is an exceptionally mellow church. A scan of a November service included lots of Royals hats, flannel, hoodies and easy smiles. Very little about the place besides the building itself (once a Presbyterian church, built in 1929) felt churchlike.

The music, too, was pleasant — mostly midtempo hymns in the key of mid-’00s indie rock. Mike Crawford, who could be seen playing Nels Cline–like lead guitar at the front of the church, has carved out a fairly professional recording studio in the basement of Jacob’s Well. Thanks to Crawford and Bill Pollock — the church’s facilities manager, who also plays in the band Fullbloods — Jacob’s Well has a reputation as a welcoming place for local musicians. Among the acts that have cut albums here are Akkilles, Oriole Post, Sara Swenson, and the Abracadabras. Some of the studio’s alumni played on the church’s upcoming worship record, which Crawford wrote. He’s thinking about releasing it on vinyl; artist Danny Gibson, who designed show posters for just about every local-music act between 2000 and 2010, plans to design the cover.

Keel’s sermon that November morning was part of an ongoing series about sexuality. He told a story about the root of the church’s name, which most of the congregation already knew. It’s from a passage in the Gospel of St. John, about Jesus’ encounter with a Sumerian woman. He then told a lesser-known story about how the name Jacob’s Well came to be. An original member of the church came to Keel one day and said he’d had a dream about a well, had researched Scripture, and had come across the story about Jacob’s well.

“When he said, ‘Jacob’s Well,’ I got what my friend calls the ‘Holy Spirit sweats,'” Keel said. “That thing where you know God is speaking to you in that moment. And I knew it was right. What I didn’t know until a year ago is that Scott is gay. He reached out to me and said, ‘I want you to know that some of the ways I’ve heard that you and your church have talked about same-sex realities have been deeply wounding and painful to me.'”

Keel used the story as a jumping-off point to discuss how the issue of same-sex relationships has fractured the Christian faith. Mainstream evangelical thought on the topic has evolved rapidly over the past 15 years. Once, the overriding belief was that people chose to be gay. Then it was that people didn’t choose their sexual orientation but could change it. More recently, it is that people can’t change their orientation, but gays should be called to celibacy.

It was a thoughtful discussion but disorienting, too: This independent, creative-minded, liberal-seeming church still wasn’t firm on its position on same-sex marriage?

McCracken, the Hipster Christianity author, says, “It’s definitely not something that’s moving as fast in quote-unquote ‘hipster churches’ as you might think. It is not uncommon to come across a church that looks more like a cool Brooklyn bar than a church and yet holds an extremely conservative theology on gay marriage.”

Locally, some churches are more clear about their positions on same-sex marriage than others. The youth-friendly International House of Prayer, which now owns a significant amount of property in Grandview, believes in so-called conversion therapy, which is designed to “cure” gays and lesbians of their sexual orientation. (The church also has been linked to stoking anti-gay sentiment in the country of Uganda.) Keel called it a “disputable matter” and noted that, because Jacob’s Well had started a gay-marriage conversation in its congregation, the church was already ahead of most local Christian churches. (Resurrection pastors have initiated similar discussions.)

Acts 29, the church network that Redeemer belongs to, holds that homosexuality is a sin. Redeemer spokesman Andy Bean says of same-sex relationships: “We believe human sexuality is designed by God, but it’s complex, and discussions are best worked out in relationships and over time.”

Damon Heybrock, a council chairman at Beggars Table, an art space and church in the Crossroads, says, “We have several gay individuals and couples here. We don’t have a specific doctrinal ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ on it. We’re about loving individuals, not making them check a box. I don’t see any reason why we would have to weigh in on that here. We’re a church. We’re an open door.”

Apart from the ubiquitous “KC” hats made by Baldwin — a local company rooted in Christian ideals that has been featured in the pages of GQ and atop the head of Olivia Wilde — the influence of Kansas City’s Christian artists and makers (small “m”) is perhaps most evident in the city’s coffee culture.

Quay Coffee was founded by Cory Stipp and Tanner Stevens, who met through a Nazarene church in Lenexa. Stipp, who buys his beans from Oddly Correct, says it isn’t a Christian coffeehouse but rather a Christian-founded business where the community is meant to come together.

“Do we have biblical conversations with customers over the bar while we’re making coffee?” Stipp says. “No, not very often. But I think we’re a safe place for that. Christianity is a part of what we stand for, so there’s that trust there. Our main thing, though, is just, how can we best serve? That’s why we opened the shop. We ultimately decided the best way we could serve was through this place that loves the community and can be a place where friendships and connections are made.

“That’s part of the pour-over thing, too,” he adds, referring to the slow preparation method favored at Quay and Oddly Correct, among other coffee hot spots around the country. “Everything we do is hand-brew pour-over. It takes a little while. And the idea there is that, instead of going over and pumping some coffee out and sending the customer on their way, you get an opportunity to have a conversation and interact.” (Stevens recently left Quay to open Post Coffee Co., in Lee’s Summit. Like Oddly Correct, it’s leasing space from a church: New Beginnings.)

Messenger Coffee, a wholesale roaster for cafés in the metro, recently purchased a controlling interest of the Filling Station coffee shops.

“We sell coffee to a blatantly atheist company,” says Nick Robertson, of Messenger. “They asked us initially if we were Christian. We were like, ‘Yeah, but you’re not going to get pamphlets with your coffee.'”

Aaron Duckworth operates a coffee shop called Portico that’s part of Graceway, a church in Raytown. A large component of its business is training baristas, who are then ready to work at various area coffeehouses.

“We’ve sent 19 baristas to 13 cafés in the last few years,” Duckworth says. “They’re going off to these cutting-edge cafés, and the people there can’t believe these baristas developed these skills at a church.”

What is it about Christians and coffee?

Hipster Christian author McCracken says church leaders tend to view coffeehouses as a way to spread ministry while getting to know a community. “It’s definitely true that a lot of churches today are operating coffee shops, either inside the church or at a storefront,” says McCracken, who himself is a Christian. “They’re usually not evangelizing at those locations. And the coffee is increasingly very good. Some of the best coffee I’ve ever had has been in church shops.”

Bo Nelson, owner of Thou Mayest Coffee in the Crossroads, says, “I think as … many Christians try to redefine what being a ‘believer’ in the 21st century looks like, they aren’t getting their answers met in church, so they need a space to go hash out their philosophical and theological questions with others. I notice this on a daily basis in my shop.” (Nelson also thinks you’ll soon see more Christians moving into the craft-beer scene.)

“What I find really heartening about KC in particular is that the best shops, many of which do have a faith-based background, are not known for being faith-based — they’re known for being kick-ass coffee shops,” Duckworth says. “And that’s an important distinction because typical Christian coffee shops traditionally have a stigma to them about not caring about quality. These good KC ones, they’re known as having awesome coffee first and being Christian second. I think that’s a good spot to be.”

That’s a common sentiment. Both Keel and Kolsto lament the use of the word “Christian” as a modifier for creative endeavors.

“Christians tend to ruin things in culture,” Kolsto says. “Music, art, anything — add the word Christian to it, and it immediately sucks. Christian stuff traditionally tries to imitate something else but does it in a safe way, and in doing so, you lose the edge of whatever’s beautiful or amazing about something. I don’t have any interest in stuff like that.”

“We love when somebody finds their way up here on a First Friday and is really into the art and doesn’t realize we’re a Christian space,” says Heybrock of Beggars Table. “We had a guy in the other night who found out and said, ‘You Christians usually fuck this art thing up, but you guys are doing it really well.’ It was one of the best compliments we’ve ever had.”

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