Christian Science fending off obituaries through worldly adaptations

Source: Sarah Nichols, CC BY-SA 2.0 < licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.

Increased financial capital and growth in the global South (mostly in several African countries) have allowed the Church of Christian Science to cope with a declining number of churches, societies and practitioners, ensuring its continuing existence in the foreseeable future, writes independent scholar Elise Wolff in the Journal of Contemporary Religion (October 2020). In a 1998 article, Rodney Stark, applying his influential model of the causes of religions’ success or failure to the case of Christian Science, had concluded that a variety of factors might even lead to its disappearance within a generation. Wolff’s article attempts to identify factors that have slowed or countered this predicted decline. Membership is difficult to assess, since the church refuses to publish such figures due to some of its principles. Moreover, a number of participants identifying as Christian Scientists are not formal members. After reaching a peak at some point between the 1930s and the 1950s, membership has declined, and various estimates put it somewhere between more than 400,000 and less than 100,000 worldwide. Church officials themselves claim that membership has stabilized in the twenty-first century. In contrast to this uncertainty, the listings in Christian Science literature provide clear figures on declining numbers of churches, societies and practitioners. In the U.S., the 1,300 churches that still existed in 1995 were down to 800 by 2015. In 2017, there were some 1,440 Scientist churches and societies around the world.

During the last two decades of the twentieth century, the church had been on the verge of bankruptcy after huge losses that followed an attempt to create a TV network. Subsequently, after shutting down and selling its radio stations (1997), turning its reputable newspaper, the Christian Science Monitor, into an online news site and weekly magazine (2009), reducing spending and selling real estate (namely disbanded church buildings), the church has become more financially sound than it has been in a long time, with over $1 billion in assets. It has made attempts to present its message to a wider audience, publishing a trade edition of Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health, and presenting Christian Science healing as “value-added healthcare.” Wolff adds, however, that some members have not been pleased with what they see as a watered-down version of Christian Science and expressions of laxness. The factors of decline identified by Stark have not disappeared, and Wolff sees indications that the church is attempting to encourage its members to do more to spread Christian Science. For now, however, it seems to have at least succeeded in creating the conditions for continued existence.”

(Journal of Contemporary Religion,