COLUMBIA — In 2005, the members of Karis Church fit around the kitchen table of lead pastor Kevin Larson. The cars were all parked neatly in his driveway.
"I told Kevin, 'You know, there's going to be a day when I'm going to have to put on a little traffic orange vest and I'm going to have to go onto your street and help navigate parking. This is such a beautiful thing we have here that it's going to grow," Executive Pastor Rob Gaskin said.
Now, the parking lot behind Karis: Westside, formerly Bethany Baptist Church, fills up on Sunday mornings. More cars park up and down Spencer Avenue in northwest Columbia.
"I just remember joking with him about parking, and here we are at Westside. It was the parking that was just a little bit sentimental for me," said Gaskin, who was a graduate student at MU when Karis got started.
Inside the church, the floors are still unfinished and some walls have yet to be painted. The basement renovations haven't started. But this doesn't stop the congregation of Karis from gathering there every Sunday morning at 10.
After nine years, the church has gone from an idea to a congregation of 220. The recent addition of a building is a brick-and-mortar testament to the church's deepening roots in Columbia and will provide a launching point for continued growth.
"There are three elements that sort of make up our DNA: gospel, community and mission," Gaskin said.
The church is independent, but has received guidance and is affiliated with Acts 29, a network dedicated to helping "plant" gospel-based churches, which will in turn plant more churches.
Karis received its new building at 1703 W. Worley St. as a gift from the Bethany Baptist congregation, which decided to disband a few months ago. This is the first time Karis has had a permanent home, though it also rents out The Bridge on Walnut Street for Karis: Downtown, the Sunday evening worship at six.
"With a space comes the potential to get in a rut where you think the building is the church and not the people," Larson said. "But at the same time, as we looked at it, we were a people that gathers together regularly for worship, and these people were gracious enough to pass it on to us."
A new opportunity
Although the building was a gift, Karis also raised $50,000 for renovations. The renovations included updating the flooring, installing carpeting, installing a new stage for the worship band and painting the church.
Volunteers, including congregants, friends and people from other churches across Missouri who wanted to help, have done almost all the renovations.
The goals of the changes were to make Westside both welcoming and well-functioning, Gaskin said. He estimated the volunteers put in more than 3,000 hours working on the building, which would have cost the church about $250,000 to do through a company.
"My first thought was, 'Wow, this place has potential, but it’s going to take a lot of work. It doesn’t look like us,'" Gaskin said. "We’ve always been a mobile church. We’d meet in nontraditional places, whether it's another church building, The Tiger Hotel, Missouri Theatre, the basement of our pastor's house."
The Westside building includes much more room for Karis Kids, the children's ministry, as well as for storage. In addition to working better for the congregation, Karis also hopes Westside will help serve the neighborhood around it.
"Because we own this building, there are things down the road that we can do during the rest of the week. We would obviously love to be a place where we can open up to the community," Larson said. "It is right next to public housing in a neighborhood that we’ve been at for a while, so I think it provides some opportunities throughout the week to do some really cool things."
Karis has a partnership with Love INC, an organization that works to help churches provide needed services to the community. It also provides classes to help develop career skills, which Westside may offer in the future, Larson said.
"I just want Westside to be an active, flourishing gathering for the people, living among and caring for the people in that area of town," Larson said.
A dedication to serve
For the people of Karis Church, their motto of "In the city, for the city" means more than just the building's location.
Jacob Gonzales and his wife, Ali Gonzales, moved to their Worley Street home specifically to serve their neighbors.
"It’s not something we have to do — it’s something we get to do," he said.
The couple recently started the Douglass Park Missional Community, which meets Wednesdays at their home. It is one of 14 missional communities Karis has. They are meant to be small gatherings of the congregation throughout Columbia and Jefferson City to serve different neighborhoods.
The second meeting of the group drew six people, including two other Karis members and two neighborhood children. Laughter rang out as Ali Gonzales served pasta and steamed vegetables. After dinner, Jacob Gonzales gave a lesson to the group about how to best serve the area.
"The only way we know what needs to be done is if you know the people," he said. Trying to meet needs without knowing them lacks humility, he said. At the end of the lesson, Ali Gonzales let the children pick out school supplies that had been purchased for the neighborhood residents.
Jacob Gonzales cautioned against what he called "drive-by evangelism," where Christians serve a community for a bit and then leave. He believes Christians are called to invest their whole lives into serving others.
"I think that investment is rare — because it's hard," he said.
Before the missional communities were created, congregants met in small groups. But in some cases, the groups drifted away from their purpose: investing in people outside the church. This led to the change in name to missional communities three years ago and reaffirmation of their key reason to exist.
"We just felt like the further we went, those groups were about just coming together with your friends," Larson said. "That group is not meant to be an end unto itself. It’s meant to point out to the city, to the world."
Earlier this year, Karis started an additional gathering in Jefferson City and, more recently, sent a member to plant a church in Fayetteville, Ark. The hope is to plant another church in North Carolina soon.
At the older Southside Missional Community, the gathering looks quite different than the Douglass Park one. Aimed at serving the people of southern Columbia, especially families, the members of this community are all parents. On a recent Saturday, 10 children ran around the house until their parents called them to the living room for the sermon.
Scott Schilb, the leader of both Southside and Karis Kids, calmly spoke to the group as his three daughters crawled over him. The children tried to remain attentive, taking turns to pray for the church's health and growth.
"This group is hard," Schilb acknowledged. "It is really challenging to have all the toddlers and all the activity distracting us."
Nevertheless, he thinks it's important to have this family-centered gathering because faith should be a family affair.
"I think that church has become so program-oriented that we've forgotten how to worship as a family unit," he said.
At Southside, members have helped each other financially, he said. At one point, the larger church even helped a family with the costs of adopting a child.
"One of the things that's so evident is that the people truly love each other: genuine, sacrificial love," Schilb said. "I feel like it's rare and it's hard."
A look into the future
The new building means more stability for Karis. Since the church's founding, the congregation has moved six times. In key ways, though, that created internal stability for members.
"If I had to leave my family every time I had to move out of a house, it would destroy me," Gaskin said. "But moving is not that big of a deal because we’re doing it together. And when I go in new house it’s still me, it’s still my wife, it’s still our family."
Gaskin said the metaphor fits the church because "the house doesn’t make the family, the family makes the house. The church is not a building."
In the future, the members of Karis hope to continue reaching out into Columbia by creating more missional communities.
"We’re a people that is fully convinced of our brokenness and our need for grace," Larson said. "We’re called Karis — we mean grace — and we’re a people that are constantly aware of our sin and our need for a savior. We want to extend that grace to other people in our community."
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.