Lisa Clark Diller and Derick Anderson belong to The Well, an Adventist congregation that meets in a gussied-up storefront in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on the “Southside” not too far from the center of town.
The Well has a modest-sized membership but is struggling with growth-and-space issues. Its ministry focuses on the “immediate community,”—“the work of building the city in the local setting”—and includes tutoring at the local elementary school and preparing meals for the women’s shelter. Members have agreed to speak “the truth with love and honesty” and to embrace the Bible as the “foundational Word of God for life.”
“We are characterized,” says the congregation’s website, “by an attitude of inclusion. Our church is a safe place for exploring questions about Jesus Christ and his teachings.” Services are informal, with praise music and the teaching of scripture at the center of the worship experience.
Lisa, a graduate of the University of Chicago, teaches history at Southern Adventist University and lives, with her husband Tommy, in the working class neighborhood of Glenwood in Chattanooga. Derick’s “day job” is in software development, but his true passion is music. The art of music, he says, “bypasses even my own skepticism and cynicism and gives me a medium to commune with God that I might not otherwise have found.”
Here are the perspectives of Lisa Clark Diller and Derick Anderson on their congregation:
Question: Would you say your congregation is flourishing—with steady or growing participation, adequate financial stability, deepening member commitment? Either way, why? What’s the most important reason?
Lisa: Our congregation is growing in numbers and financial commitment because people like being part of an unpretentious group of people who want to serve the city of Chattanooga. The church is outwardly focused and many people want to be part of taking their joy and worship into ministry and celebration with the community.
Derick: Yes, in fact growth is one of the primary “good problems” that we have right now. I believe the reason for our growth is continually taking the time during worship services to have members and community visitors talk about participation in the Well’s mission statement – fostering friendships, practicing compassion, and growing Christ-followers – through panel discussions and interviews. It puts words into reality.
Question: Congregation are not clubs. Members come from different backgrounds—ethnically, culturally, intellectually. How, amid diversity, does your congregation inspire trusting relationships? How does it encourage honest conversation, theologically and otherwise?
Lisa: I think our pastor models personal honesty and shows that he trusts us as a congregation. The diverse kinds of people and ideas that we hear from up front in interviews, through sermons and on panels allows for what is “normal” to be interpreted widely. Trusting relationships between us happen primarily in small groups.
Derick: I think the primary way we inspire trusting relationships is through honesty and vulnerability from worship leaders and teachers. Leaders acknowledging doubts and struggles helps to tear down walls of defensiveness and provides opportunity for everyone to converse on the same level. I believe that this plays out primarily in small group participation where the majority of relationships are formed as these conversations take place.
Question: Does your congregation participate in some form (traditional or not) of evangelism? One way or the other, how do you feel about this?
Lisa: I think evangelism has always been one person sharing their story with another and both parties learning how God is at work in their lives. This is how evangelism happens at the Well. I think too few of us know how to pay attention to the Spirit’s prompting and we need more practice in how to be attentive for God’s work in the lives of people around us.
Derick: Through emphasizing our mission statement, we encourage each other to live out that mission in our daily interactions, which in practice is certainly a more subtle form of evangelism than traditional methods. However, I feel that we are called to be witnesses of our own personal transformation through the grace of God, and this is most effective in the context of meaningful relationships. It is not a numbers game.
Question: How, in ways large or small, do you think your congregations makes a positive difference for the community around it?
Lisa: Our congregation is very involved in the Southside of Chattanooga. We are partnering with a local elementary school which used to be failing and now, five years later, is thriving. Middle class families are sending their kids there. The Well has been part of that success through providing financial resources, volunteers, planning events to support parents and teachers, and by showing up to the community connections the school has. The elementary school sees us as the church they can count on.
Derick: The Well, as a corporate entity, sponsors a local elementary school, hosts community events and presents outreach opportunities for local charities. But the individual participation of our members in their community – helping neighbors with home projects, being a Big Brother or Big Sister, being involved in the local Chamber of Commerce, being part of Neighborhood Associations and other involvement that I don’t even know about – is where the profound impacts are being made. Living the mission outside the confines of “church” is, in my mind, the greatest witness that we can give.
Image: Ryan Becker