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Activist D.C. Church Embraces Transition in Name of Its Mission

"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."

But Cosby and others spoke this week about their frustration in failing to make their church more diverse -- a struggle shared by many faith groups. Members tend to be white and middle-aged or older. As Cosby and 2025 fade into the background, the future of the movement is unclear. But that might be where the Church of the Saviour is most comfortable.

The church's culture barely allows for uncertainty or even death to be seen as bad things. There is a trust in divine destiny, a belief that if people are called to continue the church and its offshoots, so be it.

In his final sermon, Cosby urged his followers to make real "the beyond," which he described as the world outside of what is merely observed. The term was also a metaphor, he said, for thinking about the future of the church. What people think the beyond is determines how they act, he said.

Telling a story about his initial hesitancy to assist a needy stranger who telephoned him at home for help on Christmas, Cosby was characteristically humble, self-deprecating.

"We've got to move from believing so deeply to doing," he preached. "We've got to keep in mind the discrepancy between belief and embodiment."

Cosby has already moved on, a few years ago starting several small spiritual support groups made up of a calculated mix of people of different races, economic backgrounds and those coming out of incarceration. After decades of bringing white, middle- and upper-class people into neighborhoods around Columbia Road and Adams Morgan to serve the poor and lecturing to seminarians and faith leaders, Cosby has concluded that societal change might go in the other direction.

"We thought change should come from the top, but it turns out the bottom might be the top," he said in an interview. The groups, he said, are "closer to what I think God loves than any I've ever been to."

That's saying something for Cosby, who has been preaching since he was a 15-year-old in Lynchburg. Raised Southern Baptist, he went into the seminary and then became an Army chaplain in Europe in World War II, an experience that reshaped his faith perspective. He said he came back feeling that denomination and race were artificial constructs and that people should live in regular life as they would in war--willing to lay down their lives for their neighbors, viewing their faith as an urgent tool to change the world.

He and his wife, Mary, began to craft an unusual church structure: Members had to commit to an inward journey of daily quiet prayer, meditation and courses on Christianity as well as an outward journey of social justice work. People would be held accountable by working in small groups.


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