Michelle Boorstein of The Washington Post wrote an exceptional front-page story on Tuesday about the uncertain future of the Church of the Saviour, which the Rev. Gordon and Mary Cosby founded 60 years ago. Cosby preached his final sermon -- at age 91 -- on December 28. Boorstein tells the story of a church that has shown an influence far beyond its humble numbers:
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.
"It's the most missionally engaged congregation I've ever come into contact with," said Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, a former member who is now general secretary of the Protestant denomination the Reformed Church in America.
Members include the founder of the mega-ministry Fellowship of Christian Athletes and national religious leaders. Former members have launched service organizations from Seattle to Texas.
Progressive evangelical leader Jim Wallis wrote in 1997 that the Church of the Saviour "has had more influence around the country than any other church I know about."
Church of the Saviour's future seems far from bright amid the departure of Cosby, the lack of a successor and the church's decision to sell the Victorian mansion that unites its disparate small groups.
But, then, Church of the Saviour has always placed greater emphasis on social activism than on increasing its numbers. Boorstein posed this heartbreaking series of questions about the church's future:
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?
It sounds rather like a death spiral, unless Church of the Saviour finds some way of reinventing itself.
There's one lighthearted moment in Boorstein's story:
Last week, a frail but spirited Cosby was typically serene about the future of the movement he launched six decades ago. He noted that megachurches, now struggling to manage their size, have come to the church for guidance on how to be small. He talked about urging church members to be positive about what is, or what he calls "the is-ness."
I have to love a nonagenarian who speaks as though he could lead an emergent church. Maybe that's what he has led all along.
Photo of Gordon Cosby appears with the kind permission of FaithAtWork.com.