This past Sunday, I shared a vision message for the Karis Church family. It expressed the elders' heartfelt desire to get back to our roots, which means getting back downtown. Below is the manuscript. You can listen to the audio here.
In the District for Good (Matthew 5:13-16)
There has been a slogan that has been with us from the very beginning. You’ve heard it if you’ve been around here for awhile. Maybe even if you haven’t. It’s this: “in the city, for the city.” Recently, I met another pastor that I didn’t know well. I introduced where I was from. He responded, “Yeah, the ‘in the city… for the city’ people.’” Not that we’ve arrived or anything. But that’s where we want to be. Encouraging.
In The City... For The City
Now that slogan doesn’t say everything there is to say about us. But it does capture our vision for mission. It does express how we desire to relate to our city. We want to go into our city - or rather, remain a consistent part of our city. We want to be “in” the city.
Now that may strike some of you as odd. “What other choice do we have? Move to the country?” Now you could do that, for sure. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. Next week we’re going to launch into a study through the gospel of John. Near the end, in chapter 20, Jesus tells His disciples, after His resurrection, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” Just as His Father sent Him into the world on a rescue mission, He also sends us, the people of God, as well. Into the world. Into the culture. Into our city. Not just to go in and toss out some tracts and leave. But to remain. In the city.
This is what we’ve strived to do. To be in the schools. Playing in our parks. Supporting our businesses. Taking part in our festivals. Participating in our government. Learning and working and playing and worshipping in our streets.
But why? Why do all these things? Why live this way? While we’re in our city, we want to be “for” her, as well. Brothers here in Karis have pointed out that I use that language a lot. I might come to them with some concerns, and I preface it by saying, “Brother, I’m for you.”
What does that mean? I think it means that I’m thinking about their good. That I want their best. I’d like to think that’s always my chief concern. But I know that’s not always the case. It may be that I’m more about me. But I want to be more like Jesus.
Being for the world. For this culture. For our city. Not just to exist here. Not just to pursue my needs. But to serve. To work for her good. This is the command Jeremiah gives the people of God in chapter 29, verse 7: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Seek that city’s welfare, God says through Jeremiah. Be for her.
And that’s our calling, too, right? Of course, the best thing we can give the city around us is the gospel of Jesus. But that may not be the first thing we can give them. Maybe they need to see we care. Perhaps they need to see us plant roots and seek the common good. That’s what the Lord wants us to do. To be for the city.
And that’s what we’ve tried so hard to do. Whether it’s serving alongside other Columbians at True/False. Or teaching underprivileged kids basketball skills. Or getting to know a homeless man and offering him a meal. Or serving meals to women exploited by the adult entertainment industry. Or answering 900 emails while running a PTA. We’ve not done it perfectly. There is so much room for growth. But we’ve tried to be for our great city.
Our Identity Together
Next week, as I said, we’ll be in John. But today, I want to share some thoughts on the Karis vision. For that, I’m going to take us to Matthew 5:13-16. This is in Jesus’s famous “Sermon on the Mount.” He’s just wrapped up the Beatitudes. He gives us there a portrait of believer. He doesn’t so much give commands to live up to but a description of one blessed by grace. He wraps them up by telling us that God’s people are persecuted and given a kingdom. And from that Beatitude, he moves into a our role in the world. Our identity that will result in such treatment.
Our Lord Jesus here tells us that we are salt and light. Stop there. Notice that He doesn’t tell us to be “salt” or to be “light.” He says that’s what we are. “You are the salt of the earth,” says verse 13. “You are the light of the world,” reads verse 14. That’s our identity as children of God, as followers of Jesus. The question is whether or not we’ll live in line with that identity.
The Salt of the Earth
That identity as “salt.” Now what could that mean? Some have said this refers to Christians adding flavor to the world. Salt does that, right? That could be true. You know, being made in God’s image and being remade by the gospel should mean that we add more spice to the world.
But I’m not sure that’s the primary meaning of “salt” here. It more likely points to another main use for salt - now, but especially back then - as a preservative. Now this is one of our favorite passages here in Karis. I’ve preached on it more than once. Billy did previously. And you may remember his happy rant about country ham. It’s not my favorite. I’ve got a sweet-tooth. I like the sugary stuff. Why’s country ham so salty? It’s cured with salt. All that salt isn’t there for flavoring. It’s there for preserving.
And that’s probably the main point Jesus is making here. Yes, we live in a world where we can see God. But that world’s also corrupt. It’s rotten. Full of sin and its effects. And it’s decomposing. And we’re meant to be right in the thick of the world, arresting that decomposition. Preventing things from being as bad as they could be. Even making things better. Here’s a thought: take all the Christians out of our city. Would it make a difference? I certainly hope so. It would if we were living as salt.
The Light of the World
What does Jesus call us next? It’s in verse 14. We are the “light of the world.” Interestingly, Jesus takes a title He gives Himself - over in John 8 - and He gives it to us.
But what does it mean? It first has to do with proclaiming truth. Proclaiming the truth of who God is. Along with what God has done. Primarily through the work of Jesus. Add to that all the implications that brings to how we see ourselves and how we live.
But there’s another element. It’s exposing darkness. His light brings us out of darkness. We then illuminate the darkness of others. Jesus says, over in John 8:12, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” We now carry the light. People around us are still in darkness. They can’t recognize or delight in the truth. And we’re meant to light the path. To proclaim the word and ask God to work.
Now some will scatter as we flip on the lights. But some will receive it, just as we’ve ourselves have done. That’s our identity as the people of God. We have to tell the truth. We have to live the truth. What God says in His word. Especially what it says about the “way, the truth, and the life” - our King Jesus. That’s our job. But it’s more importantly who we are.
We’re salt. We are light. Now I think we run into problems when we see these as commands instead of identities. I do these things to prove I’m a Christian. To somehow get God’s favor. I tell it like it is. I stop sin at every opportunity. That’s how we come off as “salty” in the bad way. We’re self-righteous jerks trying to “enlighten” those around us.
God wants us to see this as our identity. We’ve been saved by Him. He’s changing us. He’s made us salt and light. It’s who we are. It’s more about being a presence than giving a performance. Wherever we are, we’re dispensing salt. We’re broadcasting light. That’s our identity. It’s who we are.
Our Purpose Together
Now there’s a reason, we see, in verse 16, why we must live in accordance with our identity. The logic here goes like this. You’re salt. You’re light. Therefore, shine! Let people see that light. Let them experience your salt. They’ll see what you do that flows from who you are. And they’ll come to praise God for who He is. And for what He’s done. Jesus teaches, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Now notice who gets the glory here. Not us, but Him. So often we seek out honor for how well we perform. And when we don’t get it, we tend to lash out. They shouldn’t treat us like that! We demand respect. We want our spot back at the table. We want the glory of days gone by.
But guess what. It’s not about us. It’s about Him. We’re to live in such a way that our Father gets glory. What do we get? Abuse. Persecution. The way of the cross. The opposite. What His Son got. What the church has always received.
What’s our purpose? To bring glory to Him. Our mission is to live as salt and light, doing good works that people will see and turn and praise God for. And generally that mission will take us through suffering.
Worthless Salt, Hidden Light
But more often than not, we avoid it entirely. Here in the American church, we don’t live like salt or light much at all. And we rob God of so much glory. People don’t worship Him because of us. They blaspheme God because of us. We don’t live out these identities. And that’s what Christ is warning against here. Verse 13: “But if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” We become worthless. We’re like the kind of salt thrown out to melt the ice. We’re not like the good stuff that cures the ham or makes the eggs taste just right.
He also says, in verses 14 and 15, “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.” Jesus says we’re like a city you can see for miles away. It’s up on a hill. It’s all lit up. You’re drawn to it. Those who live there can’t hide it.
But oh, do we try. We take our light and try to stuff it away. It’s supposed to be in the middle of the room - illuminating the whole place - but we shove it under the bed. We move out of the city. We abandon the schools. We leave leading and governing for others. We have our own music and clothes and cereal. We play basketball in our own gyms. We flee the mission field entirely. We live in our Christian bubbles.
But back in John, in chapter 17 this time, hear these words from Jesus to His disciples. Verse 15, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” Listen also to verse 18 again: “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”
If you’re salt, to keep the meat from rotting, you obviously have to get in the meat. If you’re light - and you want to do your job - you’ve gotta be where the darkness is. If we want to be who Jesus says we are here - salt and light - in the city, we have to - big surprise - get in the city. And we must trust that Jesus will preserve our faith on a challenging mission field.
A City on a Hill
We’re supposed to be that “city on a hill.” What does that mean? We’re this city within the city. We’re this distinctive counter-culture. We’re in the city. Yet we have a different way of living life. We’re to be set apart from the broader city, for sure. But we’re to be that in a way that draws people in. We can’t be that separate. No.
We have to be the the middle of the culture, showing people the difference Christ makes. Showing people what it means to be fully human. We stand out as this gospel community together. It’s like we’re shining from the top of the hill.
People are drawn to us and repelled by us at the same time. But there’s one thing they can’t deny - we’re there, alongside them, and we care. We have to be “in the city” to be a “city on a hill.” And we have to be for that city, as well.
By God’s grace, we’ve seen Him use us here in our city. We’ve certainly not arrived. But we’ve seen God do some great things. And we want to keep on pressing on trying to live as salt and light that God might be glorified here. But the more we talk and pray as elders, the more we want to get back to our roots as a fellowship. God wants to do more work in and through us on the hill.
Several years back, when some of you were really young, I was exploring planting here in Columbia. I’d visit to do some fundraising, and I’d hang out in this coffee shop downtown. After we made the commitment to move back, I remember this church planting coach beginning to lose some patience with me. Where in Columbia do you want to plant? Where do you feel called? Come on! And then it hit me. Where am I drawn every time I pull off of I-70? It’s down there. In what some call the District. And from that day on, that was the vision for our church. To be downtown.
I ended up getting a job at that very coffee house. God used it to guide me to some of the first people who’d be a part of Karis. My manager, in fact, became our first elder. We had some of our first meetings there. Small groups studying bible and theology. Lots of sit-downs with people sharing our vision. And we began looking for our first home, there downtown.
Well, the Lord provided. About a year after that move, on Easter Sunday, we had our first worship official worship Gathering in the Tiger Hotel Ballroom. There were 17 people in that room. The staff there put out seats for 250. A friend sent TV cameras to spotlight our launch. I begged the camera guy to show the seats that were full and not those that were empty. But there, from those humble beginnings, the Lord began to grow a church. There, in the Tiger Hotel in downtown Columbia.
But not too long after, I took a call from one of the owners of that hotel. I’ll never forget walking on Cherry Street and freaking out internally. One of his partners had heard we were a church. He’s heard we were in there on the cheap. And we would have to leave immediately. At least that was the plan of the one of the owners. But I sat down for coffee with that guy who called. I shared our vision to be “in the city” and “for the city.” He pulled some weight to let us stay. While raising our rent of course. That landlord, a prominent property owner downtown still today, later donated our first office for a season, above Lakota on 9th, what we called “The Loft.”
We met in the Hotel for some time. While serving lattes at that coffee shop, I poured one almost daily for the executive director of the Missouri Theatre. He was a believer. We became friends. He offered to let us begin meeting in that place. So for one year, beginning in the fall of 2008, we had our Sunday Gatherings there. To be honest, I thought that was our place. I thought there we’d arrive. The place was epic! And it was a good season of growth. That is, until that meeting.
The meeting where they said our rent would have to go from $350 a week to $2000 a week. You see, the recession had come. People who had committed to contribute to the renovation of that theatre didn’t end up writing their checks. That executive director was let go. And we were back out on the street.
But we knew we were all-in for the District. We began looking for our next Gathering spot. We ended up back in the Tiger Hotel. We started renting it out all day Sunday. We added an evening gathering called Karis P.M. It sounds like cold medicine, I know. All the time, we were multiplying small groups throughout the city. And we were seeking the good of our downtown - serving the homeless, cleaning up graffiti, taking part in community events, doing anything we could. We also continued some cultural engagement events. We held some theology and current event discussions at some restaurants downtown. We put on movie discussions over in the City Council Chambers Room north of Walnut. At least one Glosson stumbled into one of those meetings, and things certainly haven’t been the same since that.
Things were going well. Again, until we got that call. A new owner had purchased the hotel, and he had no idea who we were, and he didn’t think we were good for business. So we were out once again. But this time, we couldn’t find an alternative downtown. When we were approached by some folks at Calvary Baptist about coming in and using their space, we had mixed feelings. But we trusted God. We moved in there. But the whole time, we were itching to get back to the District.
Sometime soon, after beginning worship there, we opened up our Imago Gallery and Cultural Center at Broadway and Hitt. We rolled up our sleeves and worked hard together. We made it into a beautiful space. We knew God wanted us to be on mission in the District. That was our way to keep up that ministry. God used our time there to build bridges in the arts community that remain today.
Not too long after that time, we got some hard news again. We would need to move out of Calvary. And we weren’t sure where to go. But an elderly pastor helped convince a struggling, dying church that this place here would be perfect for Karis. So we moved in with gratitude, but also some mixed feelings. We were a downtown church. And we had just moved further away.
But God had provided this. I had told people repeatedly back in the day, “If we’re ever given a building, we’ll sell it and buy something downtown.” But we couldn’t do that in this case. So we got to work again. We remodeled this place. We made it our own. But to make sure we kept pursuing the vision, we opened up another evening Gathering downtown. This time it was at the Bridge on Walnut.
It was a great for a season. We made some great connections there, for sure. But it soon became apparent we were doing too much. We later consolidated our Sundays here with two Gatherings. We then had to close down the Gallery. Downtown rent is expensive. It was discouraging. But we held on to hope. And because we were using most of the space here, and because we wanted to keep our foot in the door downtown, we rented our current offices in the Stephens building on Cherry.
Why do I tell you all of this? This is our story. This has been our vision from the beginning. And we, the elders, are convinced that now we’re meant to get back to our roots together.
The Hill in our City
Now let me ask you a question. What’s the “hill” in our city? Yeah, trust me. I know Jesus’s main point in using that illustration. I just shared that a few moments go. But bear with me. If we’re going to be this “city” together, where’s the hill? Where’s that in Columbia? Where’s the most strategic place to exist and minister in this kind of way? Where’s the best place for us to root down and serve for the long haul?
What’s the commercial center of our city? The educational center? The social center? The cultural center? I think it’s pretty clear it’s in the District, in our city’s downtown. That’s the hill, I’d argue. That’s an essential place for the church to be.
But guess what? The church isn’t. To be clear, there are church buildings downtown. But they’ve plateaued and are declining. They’ve by and large abandoned the proclamation of the gospel.
And lots of people are complaining about all the new apartment buildings downtown. But who’s going to reach those folks? And beyond that, what about all the public housing near downtown?
And that brings me to another point. Don’t misunderstand me as I talk about ministering on the hill. On the hill there also are valleys. Downtown is also where many of our city’s biggest needs are found. So much poverty right near by. Opportunities to minister to the homeless, the disabled, to refugees and children. There are social service agencies to partner with. So many needs. So many possibilities.
We believe this is our calling, Karis. And we think the church has for the most part failed the center city - though there has been progress in America over the last 10 years or so. Congregations have fluttered to the burbs and have taken the gospel with them.
But the District has always been at the heart of Karis. It’s always been a part of our vision.
I want you to hear the original vision statement of our church. I present it unedited. So forgive the snark and swag from a young, excited church planter. It comes from back in 2007:
Mega-marts push business to the suburbs. Churches follow suit. Homebuyers flock to cookie-cutter subdivisions. City edges keep expanding. Our world is changing. In the midst of all this is a growing desire to revitalize downtowns all over America. Columbia is no different. Disgruntled suburbans are moving back. Entrepreneurs are reopening doors. “The District” is thriving. People hang there. People shop there. People study there. But the church is scarce. And so is the gospel.
Imagine a community of faith that sinks her roots deeply into the “The District,” resolving to engage and serve the culture. See her answering the city’s questions. See her touching the downtown’s hurts. Watch her being a force for good and blessing in the center of the city.
Picture a church that proclaims the glory of God and the wonder of the gospel, without compromise, within that culture. Imagine a church that shatters stereotypes by proclaiming truth, while also living with compassion. See the grace of God being proclaimed and being lived out by members of a close-knit, loving community.
Imagine that church being concerned less with becoming another super-center, and more about growing the kingdom of God. See a community of faith that trains her own within her midst, through an on-campus institute, and sends Christians out to start churches and reach cultures. See a city changed—from the inside-out. This is the Karis vision.
For most of the life of our church, our business cards have had that slogan “in the city… for the city” emblazoned upon them. But back in the early days - back when I made all the graphics - there was another version of that card. It had a different slogan. “In the District for good.”
Of course, the word “good” had a dual meaning. We wanted to seek the welfare of Columbia’s center. And we wanted to be there for the long haul. For good.
We, the Karis elders, are now actively looking for space for us to move our family back down there. As we’re growing out this space right here, we’re looking back downtown for the next chapter in our church. And that will take us back to the beginning of the book. Stick around for the upcoming Members’ Meeting to hear more. Let’s be salt and light. Let’s be a city on a hill. In the city, for the city. And in the District for good.