A few weeks ago some of our MennoMedia staff met to do some strategic planning. It was an energizing experience and a fruitful time. One thing we all felt was that we needed to tap into an entrepreneurial spirit, both among us and in the broader society. As I contemplated how to put some of that into a post for this week, I came across an announcement in Sojo Mail: Gordon Cosby had died.
Gordon Cosby was probably the most influential religious leader in America that most people have never heard of. The founder some 60 years ago of Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C., he spent his life building and living in small communities, serving the poor and trying to figure out how to “be” the church in modern, consumptive, busy and individualistic, America. His life of service to the church scattered seeds far and wide.
I first heard of Gordon in 1980, shortly before I went to the Baptist seminary in Louisville, Ken., the same place Gordon had gone (as had Clarence Jordan, founder of Koinonia Farm before him). I was living outside of Washington, D.C and teaching elementary school. I spent my spring break week going into the city and one day decided to stop at the Church of the Savior headquarters, near DuPont Circle, where they held weekly worship services. I was unimpressed, and rightly so. See, the Church of the Savior’s purpose was not about being in a certain place, at a certain time, which is what most people think of when they “go to church.” Instead, the Church of the Savior was about the “inward and outward journey” of its members: personal, inward transformation; building community, doing “mission” where they lived; seeking to build a more just world, helping the very poorest in particular. It was a profoundly simple concept, one that would prove fairly simple to replicate. While some of the work of its “mission groups” was to create concrete and tangible (yet small) institutions such as Potters House or Christ House, perhaps the most enduring legacy was the way in which one “mission” would inspire and spawn another, such as Jubilee Housing, Jubilee Jobs, and Columbia Road Health Services. Without using the term, it was a precursor of the “Missional Church” movement of our time.
After my wife and I moved to Louisville, we quickly became involved in a storefront church that was modeled after Church of the Savior. My guess is that there are probably hundreds of such churches, in the U.S. and around the world, doing faithful Kingdom-building work, inspired by Church of the Savior. We moved on from there to become involved in a Christian intentional community, and over the years repeatedly noted the influence of Church of the Savior (with its inspired books of Elizabeth O’Connor) wherever we went, even as megachurches grew to dominate the spiritual landscape of America.
How interesting then that a recent Washington Post interview with Cosby noted a certain irony: “Megachurches, now struggling to manage their size, have come to [Church of the Savior] for guidance on how to be small…This form is dying, and whatever new form will happen is vague,” he said. “We are wary of people who say they already know what that will be.”
All of which brings me back around to our strategic planning. Gordon Cosby was a person with an entrepreneurial spirit, which came from God’s Holy Spirit, even if he would not have quite called it that. Our work here is in publishing and media, but it is also work on behalf of the church. I hope and pray for us that we can be energized and inspired and entrepreneurial in our day, and that with humility and God’s guidance, scatter the same sorts of seeds far and wide.