The following is an excerpt from the book, “What is Church? A Story of Transition” by Mike Bishop.
There are many people who see what we have seen within the church and immediately proclaim the way to fix things: “We need to be more biblical, to get back to how the first century church did things.” “If only all these churches would sell off their buildings and start meeting in homes, everything would be different.” “Shared leadership is the answer. Pastors need to step down and let their flock have a say for once.” “Theology is too stagnant. We need some fresh ideas about God to stir the pot.” And on and on. A few years ago, I stumbled on a group of people who have consistently refused to be satisfied with quick fixes.
In the early 1950’s, there was a simple, unknown Virginian helping to prophetically birth a church 50 years ahead of its time. You have probably never heard of him. Gordon Cosby was the son of a Baptist father and Presbyterian mother who grew up in Depression Era America. During WWII, Gordon became an Army Chaplain and had experiences that changed his life as a Christian, Pastor, and member of the body of Christ. When he returned from the war, he and a small band of seekers began to experiment with what it means to be ‘the church’ in Washington D.C. In 2001, and then again in 2005, I had the privilege of visiting the result of his life’s work and investigate the phenomenon that is the Church of the Savior.
Actually, Church of the Savior (COS) no longer exists as an organizational entity. About 10 or 15 years ago, they recognized that the groups that had been birthed from the church’s original core really constituted the ‘essence’ of COS. Therefore, there was no need to prop up another structure for simply nostalgic reasons. They just let it die. Now all that exists are unique ‘mission groups’ that each minister to a specific need critical to the underprivileged residents of the Adams Morgan neighborhood in DC. Within each of these groups is the genetic code that Gordon and his friends have been working out for the past 50 years. This code is really very simple. It is not a church structure, a church growth technique, or special model for ‘doing church right’, but really a set of deeply held values and commitments.
I had never heard of Gordon Cosby or COS before Todd Hunter mentioned them to me during one of our conversations. It was actually in the context of a discussion we were having on helping people in church find their ‘calling’, which usually is associated with a calling into full-time ministry. If you had a ‘call’ on your life, you were going to be a preacher or a missionary. Nowadays in evangelical circles, calling into ministry can mean becoming part of a large church staff doing a myriad of different jobs. But mostly call has been associated with a career in professional ministry. Todd and I were discussing the possibility that God calls each of us uniquely into a ministry that may for some be very much outside the church world. Someone may be called to the engineering profession or to be a stay-at-home mom. Others may be called to become entrepreneurs and create businesses that bring justice and healing to the underprivileged in our society. Or some of us may just be called to spend a lot of our time interceding on behalf of those who have not yet tasted of God’s grace and love in our communities. Are not these functions as important to God as one who commits their life to be a full-time church leader?
COS takes calling very seriously. One of their deep values is to be committed to the process of call. I say process, because we can never fully rest in one particular calling. God is always speaking to us, beckoning us to hear his voice and do what he says. What COS has ingrained into their corporate identity is a long-lasting patience with God’s timing. God’s ways take time, and you don’t always see results in the ways you would expect. A calling never ends up looking like what you thought.
But even before COS dealt with the issue of calling, they asked a very simple, profound, question – “What is church?” Gordon Cosby posed the question another way to us during our first meeting, “What did Jesus intend his church to look like?” Or, “What is the essence of the church?” Now the intent of this question is not to recapture the church in the Book of Acts or to solve all the problems I addressed above. No, the question is, what did Jesus envision his church to look like in this time and in this place? What is important to him, now? After all, he is the head of the church, and he thought up the idea of gathering a group of disciples for mutual support in ‘the Way’. So what was he really after then and what is he after now?
As with calling, I think it’s important to realize that we can never fully rest in one definition of church. The question has many different answers for many varied places and times. As a matter of fact, during our first meeting, Cosby offered this word of advice to us young church planters: “Your job is to keep asking that question as long as you live.” Because – and this is critical – “We grow by asking the right questions not by getting answers.”
Growth in discipleship to Jesus, as in anything worth our effort, requires discipline. He qualified this part of the discussion because people always have a hard time with the word discipline. It is difficult because it conflicts with our freedom. But in fact, as Richard Foster and others have shown, true freedom is really found in discipline. He quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer in ‘The Cost of Discipleship’, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The purpose of the spiritual disciplines is to open ourselves in an orderly way to God’s grace. That means a long, slow, painful death to every flesh-way we know. So what do these disciplines look like to a faith community? He suggested a few guidelines. First, they must apply to life. An example of this is the Sabbath rest and recapturing that as part of the way we live. Not in a legalistic way of course, but as a discipline to open ourselves to rest and grace. Secondly, we need disciplines that deepen the community and create intimacy. Our society fears closeness so we need to have time to spare in our gatherings so this closeness is fostered. Finally, we need to be with the poor.
When I visited COS for the first time, I was already aware of my lack of concern for the poor. But Cosby threw me a curve ball. To be with the poor is not the same as trying to help the poor. To be with means you are actually trying to understand someone who is not like you. You are developing relationship. This is a much deeper discipline than just meeting what you think their needs are.
While in Washington D.C., I visited two of the mission groups started under the COS umbrella. The first was their housing project called Jubilee Housing. This program was started more than 30 years ago when they purchased an existing apartment building from a slum-lord. Totally funded by private donations, they now have over 200 low-income apartments in multiple buildings. The purpose of the buildings is to provide low-cost, clean housing to neighborhood folks who would normally live in slum conditions (or be homeless). Sister organizations, Jubilee Jobs and Columbia Road Heath Care provide the obvious practical means for quality of life improvement. The second ministry we visited was called Samaritan Inns. It was created to get addicts off the streets and provide an avenue towards total life transformation. Incredibly, 96% of addicts that begin in their 28-day Alcoholics Anonymous-style program and continue to live in their long term housing for another two years stay off drugs. And not only that, but they get jobs, find permanent housing, and many get reunited with lost family members.
Now, if you have been a good evangelical like me, you are probably wondering, “When do these people get saved?” Or, specific to the argument I have been making, “What about discipleship to Jesus – how is this accomplished?”
This was one of the biggest lessons that COS taught me. Here is a group of people that are deeply ‘Christian’ – sold out to our mission to make disciples as Jesus commanded us to. But they have been committed to one poor neighborhood in DC for 50 YEARS. That commitment has led them to make deep sacrifices of time, energy, and money – all outside of what evangelicals would traditionally classify as ‘church’. For me, this point was driven home when someone from COS was posed a question about how they deal with having to hire professional social workers to provide some support to their ministries. Obviously, not all of them are totally committed to the original values of the church. The response was that they try not to hire outside unless it is absolutely necessary. She quoted Cosby as saying, “I would much rather have someone working in a mission group who is called than one who is qualified.” Immediately I remembered sitting around in church meetings saying those same words…about worship leaders and nursery workers! What a box-breaker! These people came to the same conclusions about calling, but relating to life and death issues – dealing with people that Jesus loves dearly, but happen to have no home, no money, and a wrecked life. Up until that point, my concerns were making sure someone was there to watch the three year olds during the Sunday service and the worship team’s guitars were in tune.
So what does all this mean? I still do not have ‘a heart for the poor’. Maybe the truth is that no one does. But Jesus does and we are saying that we will go where he leads us. One of the catch phrases around COS is that we have a journey inwards and a journey outwards. Our calling to the poor (or whatever calling we receive to minister the kingdom of God) comes from Jesus – along the inward road. This is what we must begin seeking in earnest. In the midst of that quest as a learning community, to discover the kingdom of God in us and among us, we may just stumble upon the essence of church.