BOB ABERNETHY: Fifty years ago this month, an ex-paratroop chaplain helped found a small, nondenominational church is Washington, DC. It’s never had more than 130 members, but many church historians say it’s become one of the most admired places of worship in the country. Its name is the Church of the Savior. At its retreat center near Washington, the Church of the Savior’s 50th birthday reunion was so characteristically low key, you might not have realized looking on that these few people all but reinvented what it means to be a church.
The Church of the Savior was founded in 1947 by a former paratroop chaplain, Gordon Cosby, his wife Mary, and five others. Its home became a large house, not a church building, and its members’ first priority was total commitment to Christian life.
Reverend GORDON COSBY (Church of the Savior): We literally ordain each person who applies and comes into membership.
ABERNETHY: To be a member requires silent retreats, two years of study, an hour a day of prayer and meditation, and tithing at least 10 percent of income.
Rev. COSBY: Then out of that, we feel, comes the capacity to do that which is important to be done in the society.
JAMES P. WIND (President, Alban Institute): It’s a strenuous form of Christianity. Not everybody can do this. But the people who come there come trying to live the most faithful life that they are capable of.
DOROTHY CRESSWELL (Church of the Savior): We simply wanted to follow Jesus, and we try to live the way that we thought he wanted us to live.
ABERNETHY: That meant establishing special ministries, most of them to the poor. A church coffee house had customers who were sick, so the church started a clinic. That led to housing for those convalescing, and then job training and placement and care for the elderly and for children.
Unidentified Woman: A certain number plus four equals 13.
Unidentified Boy: Nine.
ANN DEAN (Church of the Savior): You see, most people who learn about our church learn about it because the mission work is so interesting and dramatic. And it’s so needed. But the heart of it is that the members see Jesus and need and want to serve him there.
ABERNETHY: One ministry is to homeless men with AIDS. David Hilfiger is a doctor there who moved from Minnesota to be part of the church.
DAVID HILFIGER: I’ve always struggled with who God is, whether I believe in God, whether I’m a Christian. I mean, those are ongoing struggles for me. And the only place that I can say that I’ve experienced God has been in community with very poor people.
ABERNETHY: The church’s different ministries taught the spiritual importance of small groups.
Ms. DEAN: Smallness is necessary for depth. It’s just that simple.
Ms. CRESSWELL: If you have a lot of members, most everything is going to be done by 15 or 20. That means that the others will be casual about their membership, or they will feel that they’re really not needed. If you have only 20 members in the first place, then everybody is needed. There is no question about how much we’re needed.
ABERNETHY: So even though it had only about 100 members, the Church of the Savior decided it was too big. It divided into its ministries, 13 small, independent, but affiliated churches. Occasionally, Gordon Cosby visits.
Rev. COSBY: And he said, “This is my body, which is broken for you.”
ABERNETHY: The Church of the Savior as such has now almost been completely replaced by its offspring. Total membership is still small, but the faith, the discipline, the ministries, and the church’s influence go right on. At the age of 80, Gordon Cosby is now helping to start a new church, one of the 13 offspring. It’s beginning with just five members. They make their formal commitment next week.