I was asked recently what my thoughts are regarding the future of the Christian Science movement, based on its declining membership. Now the same question might be asked of many Protestant organized religions, because many of them too have their own problems, but this will focus on Christian Science. This question has been asked many times over the years, and some have said that the decline in membership is due to the Board of Directors and their decision in 1910 not to disband the church organization (i.e., the so-called “estoppel clause” myth—and it is a myth), while some others have focused on the content and style of the church periodicals today compared to decades ago. Again others have focused on the Church’s failed attempt to transform the Monitor into a news media giant back in the 1980s or efforts by the Board to allegedly water down Christian Science to make it more attractive to those in the New Age movement. Another group blames the cumulative effect of the publicity from the child cases juxtaposed against the pressure on Christian Scientists from Western society’s overwhelming focus on physical comfort and well-being, tied to an almost religious devotion to (or even obsession with) modern science and medicine. Of course, further divisions in the Christian Science movement have also included the historical battle over the book, Destiny of The Mother Church, the debate over use in English speaking countries of Bible selections other than from the King James Bible, whether the Lesson Sermons should always have exactly six sections, etc. The Christian Science movement in recent decades has not been without its almost internecine internal battles.
Perhaps the first place to start might be to see which organized Christian religions are growing, and why. As a very broad-brush statement, it seems to me the growing ones are largely evangelical. They are ones that are perhaps less ideologically fixed but are more emotional and religiously fervent. In comparison, Christian Science is highly ideological in the sense that it has a very distinctive set of beliefs, and all too often Christian Scientists seem less emotional about their faith and far less fervent than their evangelical neighbors. Mrs. Eddy wrote the Christian Science textbook to be a key to unlocking the true meaning of the Bible, and she would routinely open up the Bible at random at critical times expecting that God would lead her to see a passage that would have direct meaning to her situation at hand. How many Christian Scientists have that sense of the Bible today? Mrs. Eddy was a theist in that she believed God worked in our lives in very real way, even daily basis; yet it appears to me that today many Christian Scientists are closer to deists and believe that God is more like an impersonal Principle that somehow controls a far-off perfect spiritual universe but that spiritual universe is very distant from our seeming human personal existence and needs. (I think this is more true today than it was of Christian Scientists in Mrs. Eddy’s day, but even then it existed as well to some extent.)
We live in a world where atheism is heavily proselytized, not just from the writers like Dawkins and Hitchens, but from a Western public educational establishment that is deathly afraid of teaching anything that smacks of orthodox religion in the classroom, so it defaults to teaching a universe solely controlled by physical laws that have no need for a spiritual component. In fact, if a public school system set out to teach atheism as the universal truth, I am not sure exactly what it would have to do differently from what it does everyday. That is not to suggest in any way that a majority of school teachers and educators are in fact atheists, but rather to reiterate that public education has defaulted to a curriculum that has no need of religion to teach or explain anything. This, combined with a modern Western world obsessed with body, physical beauty, celebrity status, sexual allurements, makes teaching Christian Science one hour per week to that Sunday School pupil pretty tough indeed.
I have shared this with some before, but I remember many years ago talking to a high school senior who made a comment about the evil tobacco companies enticing young people to smoke with their Joe Camel advertisements. Now I have no desire to take up the cudgels for the tobacco companies in any way, but I asked him if he knew a lot of smokers at school. He said yes. I said what percentage of those people did he think became smokers because of Joe Camel ads. He said none of them, because he knew that young people generally start smoking because they think it will make them look cool, will make them look grown up, or even because it is a nonconformist stance compared to what so many people want for them. Joe Camel ads have nothing to do with the real reasons people became smokers, but nonetheless large numbers of people were conditioned to pretend to believe it because it was politically correct to do so. (Did you ever notice that because so many people like to drink there is no equivalent demonizing of the alcohol industry, despite the many thousands who suffer alcohol-related deaths each year? There is no equivalent demonizing of Coors or Anheuser-Busch.) I mention all of this for one reason. I think that in like fashion, some Christian Scientists have become conditioned to blame the decline in the movement conveniently on someone else—it is the Board’s fault because of Knapp book or the move to attract New Agers—it is the fault of the Publishing Society because the Journal and Sentinel articles are not as good as the good old days or because the periodicals today have too much color or too many photos—it is the fault of the Peel-Gill wing of the church history writers because they demeaned our Leader—it is the fault of the “Chicago School” of Christian Science because they were not as theologically pure as the “Boston School”—it is the fault of the Board for stamping “Authorized Literature” on Mrs. Eddy’s books several years after her passing or for using the 89th edition of the Church Manual and not the 88th edition. Take your pick, the various and sundry reasons given over the years go on and on. I am not saying the above issues and debates are not important, but I just don’t believe the above “reasons” are a cause for even a small percentage of the movement’s decline, and if we continue to settle for believing false reasons, we will not be prepared for the real reasons. Does a 20 year old, graduating from the Sunday School really stop going because he doesn’t like the latest Sentinel articles or because seeing “Authorized Literature” stamped on a book is a turn off?
Can it be that the fault is instead ours individually and collectively? Mrs. Eddy in an early class with Ira Knapp and others told them after only a few days to go heal someone that night and report back the next day. Would we do that or would we today instead tell the sufferer to consult the back pages of the Journal to find an official practitioner? When Joseph Mann was shot near the heart at point blank range and given up to die by the local doctors, a local Christian Scientist came to scene and offered his healing services, and Mann recovered very quickly. Would we do that same today, or would we leave Mann to the doctors because we would not want to get involved? To some extent, to quote the old Pogo line, we have met the enemy and the enemy is us. Does this mean that the Board is right on everything it does? Of course not, and people are free to believe the Board is right or wrong; I just don’t believe the problems we face are ultimately a result of five people in Boston, nor do I believe that they alone can fix the problems.
In a way, I think we already know the solution to growing the movement. Healing remains the key to the health of the movement, and if that is not happening enough, the movement will suffer. (Yes, I know what Mrs. Eddy said about healing being the smallest part of Christian Science but it certainly is the bugle-call that attracts the attention of the newcomer.) Try as some of us might to come up with other reasons and other scapegoats, we know that with enough healing—the kind of healing that make every witness praise God because only He could have caused it—the world would beat a path to our doorstep.
This post is designed as an open forum, so if anyone wants to chime in, feel free (and please note that my goal is not to criticize others since I include myself in all of this).
In the meantime, I will give a little peek behind the curtain, so to speak. One of the reasons for this blog is to provide an interesting venue for individuals to learn about the history of Christian Science in a way they have never seen before. The Internet allows the ability to transmit around the world, and perhaps there will be those who will see that there is a lot more to Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science than just what they learned in Sunday School. Outside of perhaps Boston, Principia, and some summer camps, there are few places where Christian Scientists gather, and perhaps this blog will help create an online community open to all that exists nowhere else. If some young person at Principia were to become interested in the history because of this blog, nothing would give me greater pleasure, for that describes me some 35 years ago.