In 2016, Central West End Church (CWE) in St. Louis, Mo., planted itself at a literal dividing line in the city: one block south of Del Mar Boulevard. The Del Mar Divide, as it is known, is a dividing line of wealth, prosperity, race, and perspective. Pastor Eric Stiller views this stark contrast as an opportunity to see the city made new spiritually, socially, and culturally by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
CWE marked its own new beginning on October 11 as it celebrated “local church” status with Stiller’s installation as Pastor and the ordination of Kerry Cheung and Pete Brown as elders. Due to COVID-19 concerns, the service was live-streamed.
The Central West End neighborhood was identified in 2008 as a potential site for a church plant and is an eclectic area with a vibrant art, food, and cultural scene. This dynamic is what drew Stiller to St. Louis from New York City in 2005, when he entered Covenant Theological Seminary.
“I came to St. Louis with the passion to do whatever ministry I was going to do in a city,” he said.
Tom Ricks, who leads the EPC’s Church Planting Team, said the committee considers the needs of an area when deciding where to plant a church. He noted that the residents of Central West End are primarily unchurched, and most would consider themselves secular progressives. Ricks estimated that more than 90 percent never attend religious events.
“Why we got excited at the national level is that there just isn’t much of a Christian community in the Central West End, period—much less a Reformed Christian one that matches up with our EPC foundation and worldview,” he said.
When Stiller heard that the area was being considered, he became excited and began to earnestly pray about it. As this seed of excitement and passion continued to grow, he began to fall more and more in love with the location.
“God didn’t really call me to church planting. He called me to a neighborhood,” Stiller said. “It’s the place I feel most passionate about.”
He added that he loves that Central West End is such a secular place.
“I have always had an interest in apologetics and reaching out to people who at best would be indifferent to faith and at worst hostile to faith.”
Stiller understands this indifference firsthand. He describes himself as “not being concerned about God” for the first 30 years of his life and wrestling with the same doubts and “allergies” that people have today. In addition, he recalled noticing the “glaring” racial segregation in the city when he first arrived. Having been a jazz musician for many years, he had always been surrounded by African-Americans and their music and culture.
“When I prepare my sermons or have conversations with people, I am always imagining the inner skeptic asking questions,” he explained.
CWE’s worship services are currently live-stream only, but in-person services have been held at the Mahler Ballroom, a local event space originally built as a dance studio in 1907. In addition to their worship service, the church offers community groups focused on “building friendships and community, growing faith, learning how to follow Jesus in every area of life, and supporting each other through prayer,” Stiller said.
The church hosts Alpha, a course designed for those who are curious about God. Alpha conversations delve into topics of spirituality from a biblical perspective, with no pressure to believe and no obligation to join the church. Stiller hopes that they can develop more resources for people interested in the integration of faith and work while reaching out to secular neighbors who might be interested in faith and spirituality.
Ricks believes that Stiller is the right guy for that spot.
“The EPC wants to apply the gospel to every area of life, and Eric just exudes this,” Ricks said. “God doesn’t make mistakes in his personnel choices.”
As CWE began rooting itself in the community, Stiller and his team began a partnership with a local Montessori school as a means of engaging with their neighbors. Church members helped convert an outdoor space into a classroom with raised gardening beds, began tutoring students in math and reading, and renovated a teachers’ lounge. As the coronavirus pandemic struck a financial blow in the community, CWE raised more than $18,000 to help people associated with the school with rent, food, and supplies.
More than just physical assistance, however, Stiller said CWE seeks to fulfill the social aspect of their mission by seeking intentional and ongoing relationships with the school, the students, and their families. He emphasized that their mission is “a holistic one, not a false dichotomy that embraces spiritual work and evangelizing as opposed to social action and deeds of mercy and justice. God’s mission comprises all of this.”
For their part as Ruling Elders, Cheung and Brown see themselves as “shepherds and advocates” whom God has gifted in the areas of leadership and administration. Both are just as passionate as Stiller about the mission of the church to be a part of the renewing of the city spiritually, socially, and culturally.
Above all, CWE wants to follow Jesus as He makes all things new—especially across the dividing line.
by Kelli Lambert Gilbreath