COLUMBIA - Streaming in to find the few empty seats left in the ballroom of the Tiger Hotel, members of Karis Community Church sang a contemporary version of an old hymn and waited for the first announcement during last Sunday's service.
"There could be some tears shed," Pastor Kevin Larson said. "But this is our last Sunday here."
After waiting for the cheers to die down, Larson said, "That didn't sound like a tear."
Today, Karis will meet for the first time at its new downtown home in the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts, a venue that can accommodate the significant growth in church membership. Karis began in 2005 as a handful of people gathering at Larson's home on Sunday mornings, Larson's wife, Amy, said. It has since grown to a congregation of about 100, meeting for two-and-a-half years at the Tiger Hotel. Although the church has outgrown that space, the new contract with the Missouri Theatre ensures Karis can keep to its original motto to be "In the ‘District' for Good."
"Missouri Theatre is the cultural center of the city," Deacon Rob Gaskin said. "We'll be in a strategic location to effectively and efficiently shape the culture being produced."
Janice Seagraves, a new member, helped the church move its equipment and supplies, which filled only a small trailer, into the Missouri Theater last Sunday night. She said it was important that she and her husband choose a church that makes itself relevant to the culture of the community.
"It was exciting to see Karis was already geared that way without losing the strength of the Gospel story," Seagraves said.
One of the ways Karis has plugged into the Columbia community has been through clean-up projects coordinated through the city's Parks and Recreation Department. Volunteer Coordinator Leigh Britt, who has been with the city for eight years, said this kind of partnership is a first for Columbia.
"Honestly, it's a bit unusual to have a group that approaches us with an idea," Britt said. "That's what makes this so special."
The first clean-up project, in October 2007, showed that Karis has a real interest in what goes on in downtown Columbia, Britt said. The church-wide community projects are led by Gaskin, who said he talks with Britt at least a couple times a month. Karis will lead another clean-up project Sept. 27, Gaskin said, in addition to co-sponsoring a Columbia graffiti summit in the fall. Larson said community members can go to karischurch.org to find ways to get involved.
"This is a good example of how citizens can solve problems in their own community," Britt said.
Karis will be the second church housed in the Missouri Theatre, Executive Director David A. White III said. The first, Urban Empowerment Ministries, which used the theatre from June 2005 to December 2005, found the space to be more than what it needed, Pastor Lester Woods said. White said he is glad it worked out with Karis to use the space.
"The success of this building and what it means to the community as Columbia's living room is that it serves multiple purposes," White said. "Now we can do even more because we have so much more space."
The additional space created by the renovation of the Missouri Theatre will help Karis expand services to its youth. Susan Yoder, who is in charge of the children's ministry, said having two available rooms at the theater will allow for older children to be separated from the nursery-age children. Larson said this will make Karis "ready to go" with children's ministry, which until now has been comprised only of Larson's own children.
The volume of the Missouri Theatre, with seating for 1,200, is actually something Karis leaders are trying to minimize. Larson said artists in the church are working on a huge curtain that will hang from the balcony to make the theater seem smaller.
"We don't want people to come into this huge space and just be eaten up," Larson said.
Karis offers people the opportunity to get involved in the church through "C-Groups," 11 different community groups Larson said are at the heart of Karis life. Although the church-wide events have focused on downtown, C-Groups are available in five areas of the city. Gaskin said C-Groups can choose their own service projects, and each has its own community niche. Intern Ryan Worley, in his Sunday sermon, summed up this aspect of Karis life: "The welfare of our church is tied to the welfare of our community."
Remaining in The District is central to the vision of Karis leadership. Larson said that even if a building or land were to be donated, the church would not leave downtown.
"I would just ask if we could sell it," he said.