There are a couple of Christian Science groups that have arisen in the St. Louis, Missouri and Chicago, Illinois areas. They are a form of what I call “Nouveau Christian Science”. As I see it, it’s an effort to make Christian Science more relevant to a modern and wider audience that doesn’t generally embrace the highly sleep-inducing traditional Christian Science church service, or the highly esoteric nature of Christian Science theology. The St. Louis group has been around for awhile, and is somewhat well-known in Christian Science (and ex-Christian Science) circles. The Chicago group is newer and less well-known. Neither group is recognized officially by The Mother Church (although the St. Louis group is closely affiliated with First Church of Christ, Scientist, Brentwood, Missouri, and uses their edifice). There is another somewhat similarly inspired group that I am more personally familiar with that has gained official recognition as a Christian Science Society; it is in the Boston, Massachusetts neighbourhood of Jamaica Plain. Like the St. Louis group, they are connected somewhat with another Christian Science church–in this case, Third Church of Christ, Scientist, Boston, and occasionally hold services in their edifice, but most of the time, they’re nomadic, meeting in a park on sunny days, and their connection to Third Church is more informal.
If I was still in Christian Science, I might be attracted to these groups. I liked the idea behind the Jamaica Plain group, and several friends of mine from my Boston days are involved with that group. The Jamaica Plain group holds services that largely follow the familiar order of services as dictated in the Church Manual*, but with more flavour introduced than one would find at the sleep-inducing traditional Christian Science service (you can’t haul an organ out into the park very easily). The other groups seem to be much looser in their conduct of services and behave similar in some ways to mainstream Christian churches.
I think these groups, and there are more throughout the world, are in large part a response to a desire for more life and vibrancy within the Christian Science movement; a desire for something different, less stuffy, more relevant. Let’s face it, almost anyone who has been to a Christian Science Sunday church service will attest that it is the most boring hour one could ever spend. I don’t remember a single Sunday where I didn’t have to convince myself to go to church, and my Sunday attendance was consequently sporadic. I always found it to be mind-numbingly boring! In these fellowship groups, there is modern music, meet-ups in the park, and looser format services–sometimes it’s a discussion of the Weekly Bible Lesson, rather than a droll, rote repetitious reading of it. The Christian Science Church, especially as I look at it more from the outside as I do now looks more and more like a stone-frozen 19th century fossil, with little relevance to the realities of the world today. These groups seek to smash that fossil to pieces, and I think that scares a lot of traditional Christian Scientists. On that level, I think they’re a great idea.
They’re also as much if not more of a response to a yearning desire for simple fellowship–a commodity virtually non-existant in most Christian Science churches. For instance, in the St. Louis group, there is no condemnation for members who seek medical care, rather there is support and prayer and visits to the ailing individual. Imagine that! Also, in these fellowships, there are small group sessions, men’s groups, women’s groups, and youth groups–where the discussion, from what I understand, is wide open–including issues surrounding sexuality, believe it or not. These groups are also inclusive of LGBT members–quite unlike many more traditional Christian Science congregations. Additionally, they participate actively in interfaith activities (something that is sternly frowned upon by many “old-line” Christian Scientists–my Teacher of Christian Science often made a point to mention the perils of participation in ecumenical/interfaith activities), and community outreach activities such as homeless shelters. In the past, Christian Science churches have been notable by their distinct lack of community outreach.
So, are they desperately seeking relevance and/or members? On some level, yes. However, I’m not as cynical as some are to say that the sole purpose is to increase membership or to just “spice” things up a bit. I do believe they are genuinely seeking relevance for Christian Science in today’s world, a world vastly different than the one Mary Baker Eddy inhabited and in which she laid down her rules. For that, I applaud them. They’ve done what The Mother Church cannot and probably never will do: blow the cobwebs off a moribund religion that has been frozen in a 19th century straitjacket.
Will it work? Will this make Christian Science relevant? Time will tell. From my experience with Christian Science culture in general, it will have a minor effect. It will attract a small number of people who do desire change. The majority, however, are tightly bound to the Church Manual and strict adherence to the rather dictatorial “Order of Services”, and Mary Baker Eddy’s stated preferences for format–nothing but organ or piano music of an “appropriate character”. Will it attract newcomers to Christian Science? Perhaps it will, although I would hope that is not their sole objective. You’re either relevant and valid, or you’re not.
*The present “Order of Services” for The Mother Church and Branch Churches is enumerated on pages 120 – 121 of The Manual of The Mother Church:
- Reading a Scriptural Selection.
- Silent Prayer, followed by the audible repetition of the Lord’s Prayer with its spiritual interpretation.
- Announcing necessary notices.
- Reading the Explanatory Note** on the first leaf of Quarterly.
- Announcing the subject of the Lesson-Sermon, and reading the Golden Text.
- Reading the Scriptural Selection, entitled “Responsive Reading,” alternately by the First Reader and the congregation.
- Reading the Lesson-Sermon. (After the Second Reader reads the BIBLE references of the first Section of the Lesson, the First Reader makes the following announcement: “As announced in the explanatory note, I shall now read correlative passages from the Christian Science textbook, SCIENCE AND HEALTH WITH KEY TO THE SCRIPTURES, by Mary Baker Eddy.
- Reading the Scientific Statement of Being, and the correlative SCRIPTUREaccording to I John 3:1–3.
- Pronouncing Benediction.
The services should be preceded and followed by organ or piano music of an appropriate character in all cases where this is possible.
On the first Sunday of each month Article VIII, Sect. 1, A Rule for Motives and Acts, is to be read.
** The “Explanatory Note”, is also written by Mary Baker Eddy, and is as follows:
The Bible and the Christian Science textbook are our only preachers. We shall now read Scriptural texts, and their correlative passages from our denominational textbook; these comprise our sermon.
The canonical writings, together with the word of our textbook, corroborating and explaining the Bible texts in their spiritual import and application to all ages, past, present, and future, constitute a sermon undivorced from truth, uncontaminated and unfettered by human hypotheses, and divinely authorized.