Church struggles to keep its voice

Christian Science refocuses mission

Boston Globe/January 5, 2009

The leadership of the Christian Science Church, acknowledging declining membership and a series of unsuccessful ventures in recent years, is trying to calm and stabilize the small denomination and reemphasize its belief in spiritual healing.

Over the past four years, the five-member board of directors, which is the top body of the Church of Christ, Scientist, has taken 191 trips around the world to meet with members of the 1,800 Christian Science congregations in an ongoing effort to field questions and soothe feelings after years of concern about how the Boston-based denomination has been managing its assets and planning for the future.

"There was a lot of fussing going on in the Christian Science movement, and I think it was actually having an adverse impact on what we have always felt was our primary mission, which was to heal, to be good healers," said Nathan Talbot, one of the directors. Another director, Margaret Rogers, said, "There was this feeling that we had gone into a marketing phase and that we kind of lost our sense of the purity of our healing mission."

Talbot, Rogers, and the chairman of the board, J. Thomas Black, said in a recent interview that they have been trying to bring about more unity within their denomination. They have also made a series of tough financial decisions, including transforming the Christian Science Monitor, which is treasured by Christian Scientists because it was established by the denomination's founder, Mary Baker Eddy, from a daily print publication supplemented by a website to a continuous news site on the Internet supplemented by a weekly print publication.

The directors have also pulled back the church's headquarters to one building on its landmark campus along Huntington Avenue, which was completed in 1975, leasing the colonnade building to Northeastern University and trying to lease the administration building to other tenants.

Black said that the buildings had been the denomination's effort to "put our footprint in the world," but that "it just didn't work out that way." He used similar language to describe unsuccessful efforts to create a Monitor television network and to dramatically increase publication and distribution of "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," Eddy's major work.

"The decline continued, and so the five of us sat around looking at ourselves and said the best efforts have not worked," Black said. "We were all praying about it."

Black said that's when the directors got an invitation to visit from a small congregation in Oregon that was troubled by infighting, and all five directors decided to fly out and meet with the members.

"At the time we didn't really recognize it as an answer to prayer, but in retrospect there's no question that it was God saying to us, it's OK to build, but you've got to build on basics at the most fundamental level of spiritual understanding," Black said.

Christian Science, founded by Eddy in Lynn in 1879, emphasizes healing through prayer. Its active members generally avoid most forms of medical treatment, although the church says individuals can make their own healthcare decisions.

Citing what it says were Eddy's wishes, the church has consistently refused to release membership numbers. The denomination was too small to be measured in last year's comprehensive survey of American religious affiliation by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. The Association of Religion Data Archives, which collects data about religious affiliation, has had no estimate for the number of Christian Scientists since 1946, when, it says, the denomination had 268,915 members.

The denomination has traditionally been fairly wealthy, which has given it an outsized influence, and among its most prominent members is Henry M. Paulson Jr., the secretary of the US Treasury. But the number of congregations has been declining, and some are closing or merging.

"In about the 1950s, we peaked in the number of actual members, and since the 1950s, our membership worldwide has kind of drifted down," Black said. "In the last few years it's kind of flattened out - it's been about the same for the last decade - so we no longer think in terms of 'Last one out, turn off the lights,' because we don't think that's going to happen."

A Harvard scholar who has worked closely with Christian Science said the denomination's latest initiatives, including the congregational visits, are part of an effort to assess the church's future after a period of downsizing and retrenchment.

"There was a movement to go mainstream - to be a part of a larger conversation about American religion with other religious groups - and now things have swung back in another direction, where things are very much focused internally," said Ann D. Braude, director of the Women's Studies in Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School.

"They certainly have an ongoing presence because of their strong institutional structure, so they're not going to just disappear. But it's not clear whether a new generation is discovering them or not."

The congregational visits, which began with the trip to Oregon, have taken the directors to 23 countries, including Australia, Brazil, Cuba, and South Africa. Church officials say they see signs of increased interest, particularly in Africa and Latin America. Among the first congregations visited was the Lynn/Swampscott congregation, in 2005, where Virginia Hughes, a current lay leader (the denomination has no ordained clergy), said about 100 people showed up on a stormy night to ask questions.

"It ranged from things about the real estate in Boston, to questions about the Monitor, to questions about the future of the church, because US congregations have been dwindling," Hughes said. "It was really a healing time, because there was a lack of information . . . and it was just good to have a chance to see these people."

Hughes said she experienced a physical healing shortly after the visit - an instantaneous recovery from a burn.

The directors said that their membership woes are not that different from those of multiple mainline Protestant denominations, which are also facing declines, and they said they see the influence of their denomination in society's gradual embrace of spiritual healing and mind-body medicine in multiple forms.

"If people understood the healing impact in every aspect of their lives, they could not wait to affiliate with it," Black said. "So we feel that an increase in membership is a very natural thing, and we look to see that happen. We're expectant."

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