You may be too young to know this name; Gordon Cosby has served as pastor of the Church of the Saviour in Washington DC for more than 60 years. He is now 91 and on the last Sunday in 2008, he preached his final sermon, sealing his retirement. The congregation is selling the church headquarters in the Dupont Circle neighborhood and considering Cosby's recommendation to not hire a replacement. Why? Because this is a man and a congregation who have embodied the servant-leadership of Christ better than any religious institution from the mid-20th century to the present.
Never more than 200 members, the church actually seemed to discourage growth. You can only join for one year at a time. If you do not re-apply each year, your membership automatically lapses. But, you have to attend the School of Christian Living one evening a week for two years before you can move from apprentice membership to full membership. No congregation has ever taken more seriously the path of discipleship.
What were the results? Hundreds of faith-based ministries have been started over the years, including a community health center, a residential treatment center for women with AIDS, hundreds of units of low-cost housing, a jobs program that placed 800 unemployed individuals last year, FLOC (For the Love of Children, a movement that revamped how foster care is done in DC), Alabaster Jar (a movement of artists who are people of faith and express faith in their art), the influential Wellspring retreat center, a small college, and Potter's House, what many consider the original Christian coffeehouse ministry which still operates in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood on Columbia Road in Washington.
Cosby has written almost nothing that is published. I treasure the few audio cassettes of his lectures to seminarians that I collected (by hand) in the early 1970s, as well as his Handbook for Mission Groups which is long out of print. (The Church publishes a current version, but more than half of his original material has been removed over the years to down-size it to reduce the cost of publication.) Yet, he is one of the most influential men in the Christian faith of the 20th century. His ideas about servant-leadership and incarnational witness have been widely adopted and are today taught and believed and practiced by many thousands of believers who have never heard his name.
Cosby taught, and the Church of the Saviour practices, the rule that one cannot be a member of the congregation without being a member of a small group that is actively involved in some mission. The two years of preparational classes equips prospective members to be involved in a mission group and when they join a mission group or call together a new mission group with at least two others, then they become members. He truly believes and taught his congregation to practice "the priesthood of all believers," rescuing it from the self-centered religion that it has become. In other words, it does not mean defining my own salvation on my terms, but serving "them," the lost, the suffering, the marginalized, as a representative of the all-compassionate Christ.
The life of Gordon Cosby puts the lie to all the pretensions of the vast majority of "Christians." He was born in a small town in Virginia, became a Baptist pastor and went to Europe as a military chaplain during World War II. When he came home he was struck by the insight that the followers of Jesus are at war with the forces of evil, but they sure don't act like it. So he planted a new church in the inner city of Washington DC and vowed to follow the life of Christ as literally as possible in the contemporary context. (I mean by that the important stuff, not wearing a beard or sandals.)
I had the privilege of some personal conversations with Cosby when I worked at The Gate urban ministry in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington in the early 1970s. I remember walking away with the deep impression that no one I had ever met had so fully integrated well-informed social action with such deep, abiding, Bible-based faith. He was both deeply spiritual and very practical; he profoundly understood community organizing and Bible doctrines.
Cosby's last gift to his congregation was to see them through the process of becoming a number of congregations, although intentionally not a denomination. Although sometimes referred to as "the seven churches" (an allusion to the first few chapters of Revelation), I think there are more than 15 in the Washington area now, as well as several across the nation. Cosby never trademarked "Church of the Saviour" (probably impossible), so not every church with that name is necessarily rooted in his ministry. In fact, most of the churches that actually spun off from his original congregation do not use the same name.