The title for today’s post comes from “Que?tion of the Week” on time4thinkers–the Christian Science Church’s oh so hip youth-oriented website.* I will assume that the questions that are answered in this particular Q & A exercise are submitted by readers. My title for this post is the question that was posed for this week.
“There can be no doubt fewer people are attending Christian Science churches than 50 years ago. This is true for most denominations today.” 1
(emphasis is mine)
The answer, given by Christian Science practitioner Bill Warrick, is predictable (at least to me, and likely to most others who’ve left Christian Science). Right out of the gate, while honestly admitting that attendance has declined in the last 50 years, he trots out a tried and true line I’ve heard many, many times before of how declining church attendance crosses denominational lines. I have a few problems with that: first, that’s simply a cop-out. If people aren’t coming in the doors, THINK about why that is! Then DO something about it! Maybe people aren’t coming to church because Christian Science church services are honestly the best cure for insomnia I can think of. Or, maybe it’s because people aren’t interested in Christian Science, or like me, they’ve discovered that it DOESN’T WORK! Don’t rest on the old “well, it’s happening to everyone else, so there’s nothing particularly wrong with us” line. That’s a bullshit cop-out, and it’s a defeatist attitude. Not something that inspires me.
Also, is it possible that the decline of church attendance has been ever so slightly exaggerated? Yes, there has been a general decline in church attendance in so-called ‘developed’ countries, but there are some statistics that suggest that decline has been, in recent years, more gradual and has possibly, at least in the United States, stabilized.2 An article I found while I was Google searching information on church attendance shed some interesting light on the subject:
“Sunday used to be a day reserved by many Christians for attending worship services, but new research indicates the extent to which American churches today are competing against myriad other activities.
The biggest competition? Children’s sports.” 3
The article goes on to talk about churches that respond to this issue by offering services at different times of day, and/or integrating athletics into their programs, rather than being rigid and stigmatizing towards parents who choose sports for their kids and how those churches are, not surprisingly, experiencing growth, while churches that are more rigid in their approach (such as the Christian Science church is) do not seem to experience growth.
“‘More than two-thirds of congregations who said sports and fitness programs were a specialty of the congregation reported more than a 10 percent growth in attendance from 2000 to 2010. In contrast, only a third of churches with no athletic programs reported such growth.'” 4
The main message I got from this article, and from what I saw in the Wikipedia article is that yes, church attendance has been declining, but it has somewhat stabilized, and that churches that respond in a flexible way to the reasons why people don’t attend are the ones that are experiencing growth. Anecdotally, I recall a large mega-church near where I once lived near Seattle, Washington back in the early 1990s, which experienced phenomenal growth because they very smartly viewed their church as something that had to be marketed. They researched how they could appeal to people today, and targeted their market effectively. For example, they offered modern music at later services in the day that would attract a younger audience, and had more traditional services earlier in the day when an older demographic of attendees was more likely to come. The format of their services was flexible, not straitjacketed like Christian Science church services are, and not the boredom-fest that they are either.
“The number of people attending church may rise and fall, but as long as there is one person who can prove the principle of healing, this proof is an ignitor that truth alone possesses, and it can restart a bonfire of activity at any time.” 5
This phrase is a version of a familiar refrain I used to hear all the time when I was in Christian Science, and when I worked at The Mother Church. Whenever the delicate subject of declining membership came up, there was always some version of the line that “a little leaven can leaven the whole lump…” and how it didn’t matter how few Christian Scientists there were, we could still effect great things. In fact, I seem to recall that might have been the theme of Annual Meeting (of The Mother Church) several years back. In this case, Mr. Warrick is talking about one person as the spark. Well, if things keep going the way they are, there might well be only one person in Christian Science at some point.
I scanned through most of the comments (there aren’t many yet), and it’s more Christian Science self-delusion. I especially like the last sentence a commenter named Clara left: “We can trust that Christian Science still has a leavening effect on world thought. Member numbers don’t matter.” Yeah, right. So, when it gets to the point when there are NO church members left, what are you gonna do? I think it’s going to die out and become another footnote in history, like the Shakers and many others. In my opinion, the only thing that keeps the Christian Science Church going right now is its tremendous monetary wealth, which is increasing right now due to leveraging of its real estate holdings in Boston, the continuing closing of branch churches throughout the world, and bequests from dead Christian Scientists.
As I’ve said before, the Christian Science Church is a dying animal that is now feeding upon itself to survive, and has been doing so for many decades now. That, my friends, is unsustainable. If you want to survive, you need to grow. They can deny it all they want, and that’s what they do, but you cannot escape the fact that Christian Science is not growing, and they’re really doing nothing concrete to stem the decline. Sure, they do initiatives like Church Alive, which will probably last another couple of years (the Mother Church has about a five-year life-cycle on little initiatives like this, I’ve noticed), but I don’t see them addressing the real reasons for the rapid decline in church membership. They just keep up with the denial. Deny, deny, deny. That’s all Christian Scientists ever do. It’s almost all that their theology offers them. They will deny until the cancer consumes them completely.
*As of September 10, 2016, the website Time4thinkers appears to have been shut down. The links go to a generic page on the ChristianScience.com website entitled ‘Youth’, but there aren’t links to anything much that’s particular to youth activities.
1 “Que?tion of the Week: Why are Christian Science churches so empty today?” Time4thinkers. The First Church of Christ, Scientist. 17 June 2013. Web. 17 June 2013.
2 “Church Attendance.” Wikipedia. Web. 17 June 2013.
3 Steffan, Melissa. “The Main Reason for Declining Church Attendance: Children’s Sports?” Gleanings. Christianity Today. 8 April 2013. Web. 18 June 2013.
5 “Que?tion of the Week: Why are Christian Science churches so empty today?” Time4thinkers. The First Church of Christ, Scientist. 17 June 2013. Web. 17 June 2013.