Gordon Cosby–A Saint Worth Knowing and Following

Gordon Cosby died recently at the age of 94. Cosby was born in a small town in Virginia. The Baptist church in that community helped him grow up into Christ and to discover and respond to God’s claim on his life. Cosby served as a military chaplain in World War II. Following his military service, Gordon and his wife Mary started the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C.’s Addams Morgan neighborhood. Their intent from the very beginning was to build a no-frills, intensely-focused faith community that would make maximum impact on its community and the wider world. Cosby described that lifelong purpose in his writing: “For me the central question is what it means to be the authentic church of Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected. What is its nature? Its essence? And how can that essence be structured and expressed so as to become a healing agent in the world?”(Cosby, Becoming the Authentic Church)

Church of the Savior understood that its calling was to serve those whom we more fortunate people call “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40, 45). Not coincidentally, these were the very folks Jesus claimed as the focus of his mission—“the poor…prisoners…the blind…the oppressed…” (Luke 4:18) The church warmly welcomed all to worship and to participate in its life and ministry. But the bar for membership was (and is) set very high compared to typical mainline churches. “Apprentice” members attend the School of Christian Living one evening a week for two years before they may become full members. This period of preparation equips apprentice members either to join an existing mission group or, along with at least two other persons, to  call together a new mission group. An apprentice may become a full member only after completing the two-year School of Christian Living and becoming an active part of one of the church’s mission teams. Members may join for only one year at a time and must re-apply each year. If you don’t re-apply, your membership automatically lapses.

How has this policy worked? Seventh-Day Adventist pastor Monte Sahlin, a long-time friend and colleague of Cosby and the Church of the Savior, writes that “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.”

Church of the Savior clearly wasn’t and isn’t for everybody.  Cosby’s own words describe the sort of people who came to call this faith community “home”: “If you love the church but are disillusioned, disheartened, discouraged by what it has become- we invite you to dream with us. If you are weighted down by the choices you have made for your own life, and you long to become the freed and freeing person that God desires, unleashing the gift of who you really are- we want you to dream with us. If you are hungry for the passionate, healing way of Jesus and would be our companion on the journey–we need you to dream with us.” –(N. Gordon Cosby, Becoming the Authentic Church)

No frills. No meaningless “church busy work”. No “playing church”. No spectators allowed. Everybody’s in the game all the time. No “holier-than-thou” contests. No power struggles worthy of a corporate boardroom. No petty church fights over who gets the credit or the blame. Church of the Savior, like every  faith community, is composed of human beings for better and for worse! But they follow Jesus together with the intense single-minded focus taught and modeled by their long-time pastor. (He retired officially in 2008.) United Methodist pastor Dr. Dean Snyder describes “…Gordon’s passion, his willingness to take risks, his determination to do something rather than nothing about the wrongs of our society, his always wanting to figure out how to do it more effectively and in more Christ-like ways, his doggedness to get past symptoms to the heart of the matter…Gordon did not seem to care about credit. His concentration was totally upon applying the truth of Christ to conquer and heal poverty, racism, addiction and disease…”

Gordon’s “passion…willingness to take risks…determination…doggedness…concentration…” have made him one of the most famous “not-famous” people on our planet. You can’t find him in Wikipedia! His passion for “applying the truth of Christ” squeezed out worldly pursuits like building an impressively-padded resume,  writing  (and profiting from) “How I Did It and So Can You” books for those who’d rather imitate than innovate, or building a church monument to himself.

Today is Good Friday. I can’t escape observing that Cosby’s discipleship model of “…passion…willingness to take risks…determination…doggedness…concentration…’ turned out to be the recipe for Jesus’ crucifixion—and for the world-changing revolutionary movement that followed. Do we dare  embrace and follow Cosby’s discipleship model? Doing so would launch us on a journey of discovery through which we’d discover, each in our own context,  transforming answers to the question that drove and shaped Gordon Cosby’s remarkable mnistry: “…what it means to be the authentic church of Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected…And how can that…be structured and expressed so as to become a healing agent in the world?”

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