Will Church of the Saviour die to be re-born?

The Church of the Saviour, Washington, DC, is an icon of Christianity in action. Their long time pastor, Gordon Cosby gave his final sermon on December 28. The church is contemplating the future with the very real possibility of ending its current mode of being to allow new forms to emerge.

Today’s Washington Post reports on the movement of the Spirit in the congregation:

The Church of the Saviour was never a conventional church. It has no pews, no Sunday school, not even a Christmas service. Instead, for 60 years this small, unusual group based in Northwest Washington has quietly fueled a revolution in faith-based activism.

Thousands of people are served by dozens of organizations started by the church, part of the intense social justice work mandatory for members. One of its programs found jobs for 800 people last year. Another provided 325 units of affordable housing. There’s Columbia Road Health Services. Christ House medical services for the homeless. Miriam’s House for women with AIDS. And on and on.

But now the grass-roots orientation that has animated the church for decades might lead it to disband. The church always has favored small groups over large and has been wary of entrenched institutions. So as it loses two of its own bedrocks — its founder and its longtime headquarters — and opts, for now, not to replace either, the church is asking itself questions about its very existence.


Things will change, but it’s not clear how. Will the faith communities ultimately become totally separate? Will another leader appear? Will the mission groups remain faith-driven, or will secular nonprofit people eventually take them over?

“We always say things shouldn’t be maintained just for the sake of history, but this is our biggest transition yet,” said Terry Flood, who joined the church in 1960 and is the director of Jubilee Jobs, one of the church’s employment programs.

In fact, the church has about the same number of members it has always had, fewer than 200. Its ever-expanding ministries continue, and the rise of such service-oriented leaders as Barack Obama and Rick Warren suggests wider embrace of its basic philosophy: A commitment to serious, inward contemplation as well as ambitious social justice work. No spectators. Action over institution.


Cosby has already moved on, a few years ago starting several small spiritual support groups made up of a calculated mix of people of different races, economic backgrounds and those coming out of incarceration. After decades of bringing white, middle- and upper-class people into neighborhoods around Columbia Road and Adams Morgan to serve the poor and lecturing to seminarians and faith leaders, Cosby has concluded that societal change might go in the other direction.

“We thought change should come from the top, but it turns out the bottom might be the top,” he said in an interview. The groups, he said, are “closer to what I think God loves than any I’ve ever been to.”

That’s saying something for Cosby, who has been preaching since he was a 15-year-old in Lynchburg. Raised Southern Baptist, he went into the seminary and then became an Army chaplain in Europe in World War II, an experience that reshaped his faith perspective. He said he came back feeling that denomination and race were artificial constructs and that people should live in regular life as they would in war–willing to lay down their lives for their neighbors, viewing their faith as an urgent tool to change the world.

Read it all here.

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