Christian Science looking to greater lay and community roles to stem tide of decline

Considered one of the more dramatic cases of religious decline in American history, the Church of Christ, Scientist’s freefall in membership is convincing the church’s leadership to adopt a new strategy of lay involvement, writes Rolf Swensen in the journal Nova Religio (February). From being proclaimed America’s fastest growing religion in the 1920s, Christian Science suffered a steep constant decline starting by the 1940s or earlier, marginalized by medical advances and the medicalization of society in general. The lack of social outlets for members, with few theological demands, few missionary and outreach efforts and a bureaucratic leadership are also often cited as reasons for the continuing decline. But Swensen reports that the Mother Church, or headquarters, is undergoing a major shift. Although church founder Mary Baker Eddy left no provision for amending the Church Manual, the Board of Directors now “encourages individuals and churches to go to the Manual and come to their own inspired and prayerful conclusions.” This is a change from the “pontificating approach of the Directors for more than a century.”

Christian Science Mother Church (source:

Swenson adds that the most momentous change may be the reinterpretation of the bylaw called “A Rule for Motives and Acts,” which is read on the first Sunday of each month. The bylaw was meant by Eddy to prevent church infighting and subdue “personality,” but was seen as discouraging the “membership from having any thoughts about how the church should be run.” But increasingly the leadership is permitting individuals and branch churches to have more freedom in running their own programs. Sociologist Elise Wolff has noted that “branch organizations [now] have a degree of autonomy that allows them some innovation.” At the 2021 Annual Meeting, church director Robin Hoagland praised the “unique ways that branch churches are meeting their communities’ needs.” Since then other leaders have endorsed community outreach and caring for one’s local community. Swensen also notes how the church’s all-male leadership has recently included two women on its Board of Directors.

(Nova Religio,