The art of covering Christian Science

800px-christian_science_mother_church2c_boston2c_massachusetts Home to the denomination's "mother church," the city of Boston is ground zero for a small but influential American denomination. The Christian Science Church and its nineteenth-century founder Mary Baker Eddy continue to merit press attention, particularly in an American society that increasingly targets the link between mental and physical health.

A few days ago, Boston Globe religion writer Michael Paulson wrote a story examining the denomination's future as it grapples with static numbers and financial pressures.

Although there are a few questions I would like to have answered, it's quite illuminating.

The lede introduces the reader what seems to be a remarkable effort on the part of the those who had the Christian Science Church to reach out to member congregations:

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.

It would have been useful if Paulson had quoted some of those concerned. It's not clear how strong or loud the voices were, or how profound the controversy.

But what is striking is the tone of Christian Science board of directors.

Paulson's quotes from board chair J. Thomas Black are set a candid tone that carries through the article:

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.

Paulson doesn't pull any magic rabbits out of hats and get the board to tell him how many congregants there are in Christian Science (they say it was against Eddy's wishes to release these figures.)

And I'm curious as to what kind of external outreach activities, such as reading rooms and lectures (particularly in that area), will continue and which may need to be cut back.

While I also wish there were more quotes from Christian Science outsiders, Paulson's generous quotes from board allow us to see the internal logic of a group of believers as they face challenging times in a spirit of hope.

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."

Whether or not that occurs, it will be interesting to see whether the global outreach affects the denomination's future -- and to continue to assess how, and whether, American society is affected by Christian Science precepts in ways that extend well beyond its congregations.

Picture of Boston's Christian Science Mother Church is from Wikimedia Commons

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