It's 10 minutes until "showtime," and the parking lot at the Joke Joint in Lilydale is just about full. Young couples in casual clothing flock toward the door, many of them smiling in knowing anticipation of a compelling experience.
At the door they are greeted not by a burly bouncer but rather an impossibly adorable Asian-American girl. "Welcome to Awaken," she proudly proclaims as she props open the portal.
And the veil is lifted.
The 100-plus crowd has come not for a few guffaws but for a little grace. A three-hour retrofit has transformed a Wild West emporium-turned-comedy club into a vastly different kind of performance space: the Awaken Community Church. About the only remnant of the primary occupant is a small "Got wine?" sign below the balcony's spindly rails, and even that has its place in a service culminating with communion.
Are they seriously doing this? Well, yes and no. "We talk about taking Jesus seriously and ourselves not too seriously," said the Rev. Micah Witham, whose stage presence could easily match that of the evening entertainers.
The space is actually an apt fit for the 2-year-old Evangelical Covenant-affiliated church.
"To a large degree we're there because it is a comedy club," Witham said. "It says a lot about who we are and what we want to do....If God created everything, what right do we have to say that this space is sacred and this space isn't?"
Awaken has held firm to that approach since Witham started the church in July 2010. Until last September, in fact, services were held at a picnic shelter in St. Paul's Cherokee Park.
On the hunt for new digs, Witham said he found the Joke Joint "just by driving around in the neighborhood. We did a lot of demographic study on the area and there really is nothing like what we are trying to do within five to eight miles of us.
"When we saw the Joke Joint, I said to my wife, 'What would church in a comedy club look like?' She said, 'How's that going to work? Are you just going to call the guy?' I said 'Yup! You get 80 percent of what you ask for!'"
Singing, swaying and praying
Certainly the venue enhances Awaken's communal vibe for a youngish crowd that's on the hip side of wholesome. Rather than looming in front of an imposing altar, Witham and the musicians who precede him on the barely elevated stage are enveloped by a congregation seated in chairs rather than pews. The aim, said musician Ben Rosenbush, is "to create something that's an assembly."
After a video voice-over Rosenbush's group, Ben Rosenbush & the Brighton, takes the stage. Their songs are warm and affirming, earnest but joyful, tuneful celebrations of Jesus' love. The crowd, which minutes earlier had been commingling, sways and sings softly. As if on cue, the moment the music stops, a tiny girl says, "Hi!"
Rosenbush said he programs the songs, many with his own arrangements, as "a metaphor for unity, with connective points. It's our song, not my song."
Witham, whose trim physique and piercing eyes make him look considerably younger than 35, passes along a few announcements -- "We'll meet at the State Fair at the Miracle of Birth Center," he says with a large grin -- and breaks for a meet-and-greet session. (These folks mingle mightily before, during and after church.)
Fifteen minutes later, it's sermon time. As some congregants knit and others check their smartphones briefly, Witham examines whether secrecy is really a church discipline. Along the way he disses a saint ("Augustine, the great church father who I agree with very seldom") but uses one of his quotations as an affirmation; urges community members to "do something kind completely anonymously," and explains how Facebook posts might provide "an opportunity to be in communion with God."
In jeans and a T-shirt, with expressive hand gestures that would do a seasoned comedian proud, Witham's delivery is conversational, his message open-minded and open-ended. "We start," Witham said later, "with the assumption that what happens on Sunday morning is the beginning of the conversation, not the end. We try to provoke people to think differently, rather than 'I'm the truth teller and you should believe this and not that.'"
'A gentle place'
The collective and contemporary natures of the service continue with communion, when parishioners join Witham in dispensing sacramental offerings that include gluten-free bread and white grape juice.
After the service, most attendees hang around and fraternize. "I look forward to coming every week and talking to people," said Luke Abrahamson, 22, who plays a Brazilian drum called the cajon with Rosenbush's band.
He added that he gets so immersed in this "community of communities" that he hasn't noticed the quadrupling of a congregation that started with about 30. "It's kind of like a child; you don't see the growth because you're around it."
Linda Hilleque might be two generations older than Abrahamson but feels a similar vibe here. "It's a refreshing community, a broad community," said Hilleque, 64, of Burnsville. "Micah has a huge shepherding heart for people."
As she talks, volunteers are reinstalling the Joke Joint signs, breaking down the sound system, and rearranging the tables and chairs. Finally, they pull down two Awaken canvases to reveal enormous paintings of a man and woman in Old West garb, holdovers from the club's erstwhile life as Diamond Jim's Supper Club.
"We think that's the original owners," Witham said. "We affectionately call her Busty Lilli. People were glad when we put up our canvases. It's kind of hard to pay attention when Busty Lilli is staring at you."
Soon the re-transformation is complete, a seamless process in a relationship that Joke Joint co-owner Ken Reed relishes.
"It's just been a good natural fit, " Reed said. "And for us, it doesn't hurt to have a little positive karma.
"Besides, how many churches have a sign that says, 'Don't tip the bartender'?"
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643