Healing Church Shows Signs It May Be Ailing

Times Religion Writer

Christian Science, a church that claims spiritual healing as its forte, shows signs that it is ailing as an institution. Its organizational health chart continues to show downward trends with just a glimmer of hope for recovery.

Seventeen percent of the Christian Science churches in the United States have closed in the last two decades, according to a count of congregations listed in the monthly Christian Science Journal. The same unofficial tally also shows that a longer, more precipitous drop in the number of Christian Science practitioners and teachers may have finally leveled off.

It is anyone's guess just how many Christian Science church members there are. The Boston-based Church of Christ, Scientist, and its branch churches and societies around the world say they do not compile membership figures and rarely make estimates.

The last time the church founded by Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910) issued statistics was 1936, when it said there were 269,000 members in about 2,000 U.S. churches and societies, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

May Have Fallen

Membership could be well below the 1936 figure--if church and practitioner lists are any indication. The number of U.S. congregations dropped slightly below 2,000 during 1986. The ranks of practitioners, or healers, and teachers were at their peak in the 1940s, slipped to about 8,300 in 1956 and are about 3,700 today. The only bright spot is that the number of practitioners is about the same as last year's.

"It's no secret that this church is facing tough times today," Stephen Gottschalk, a Christian Science editor and consultant, wrote in this week's issue of Christian Century magazine, a publication that reports on mainstream Christianity.

In urging that mainstream Protestant churches resurrect a dialogue they had with Christian Science in the late 1960s, Gottschalk acknowledged that the Christian Science church has been losing members as fast as mainstream churches, or faster. He noted that his church has been criticized for its healing policies in the New England Journal of Medicine and that fundamentalist literature labeling Christian Science as a cult has circulated in "unprecedented volume over the past several years."

Nevertheless, periodicals available in the Christian Science network of public reading rooms exude an air of optimism about the future in keeping with the denomination's "positive" outlook, considered essential by Christian Scientists for an individual's health and well-being. (Along with its metaphysical interpretation of Christian Scriptures, Christian Science is distinctive for its belief in physical healing without the aid of medicine and doctors.)

Same Problems as Others

Yet the 107-year-old church seems to be suffering some of the same symptoms afflicting more established churches, which grew in the 1950s but have steadily lost numbers since the mid-1960s. Sociologists and church leaders have cited various reasons, including the anti-institutional mood of the late 1960s, the "secularization" of society, aging mainline churches that have not attracted young adults and the evangelistic growth of conservative churches.

The Southern California spokesman for Christian Science, Al M. Carnesciali of Garden Grove, acknowledged that his church appears to be affected by the same trends as the mainline churches.

"Though there hasn't been a specific study focusing on Christian Science churches," Carnesciali said, "in many ways (the decline) mirrors the broader decline experienced by many mainline churches over the past 15 years or so."

One of the few gauges of the denomination's health is the Christian Science Journal's listings of churches, teachers and healing practitioners.

A comparison by The Times of this December's Journal with the December, 1985, issue shows that the number of U.S. Christian Science churches and societies has dropped to 1,997, compared to 2,025 a year ago.

Strongest in California

Thirty years ago, the number was 2,380. The figure rose to 2,411 churches and societies by December, 1966, but by the end of 1976, the total was 2,277. (Counts by The Times were not made to find the peak year.)

Christian Science is strongest in California, with more churches in the state than the next two largest states (New York and Illinois) combined. But California figures reflected the national trend--355 congregations in 1956, up to 384 in 1966, then down to 354 in 1976, 320 last December and 314 on the roster for this December.

The societies are groups of fewer than 16 Christian Scientists. Once the group reaches 16 members, it can organize as a church, usually called "First Church of Christ, Scientist" if it is the only one or the oldest one in a community.

During the last 12 months in California, two churches--First Church, El Monte and First Church, Tracy--and four societies--those in Bell-Maywood, Morgan Hill, Newman and Valley Center--were dropped from the listings.

Also during the year, the "First Churches" of Banning, Barstow, Susanville and Willows were downgraded to "societies." No newly formed societies or churches appeared on the rosters.

'Serious Challenges'

"We wouldn't want to be naively optimistic or 'looking on the bright side' while overlooking the serious challenges facing many churches," Carnesciali said. But he said people in many denominations, including his own, perceive "a deeper spiritual commitment" in churches today.

"It's not something you can count the way you can membership statistics, but for many who are actively taking part in churches, it's something quite tangible," said Carnesciali, who heads the church's Committee on Publication for Southern California.

Much of the leadership of Christian Science, which does not have an ordained clergy, comes from the practitioners, who are full-time, paid healers, and the teachers, of whom 30 are chosen every three years to conduct classes for committed Christian Scientists.

Christian Science practitioners were at an all-time high of 11,200 in 1941, according to the Encyclopedia of American Religions by J. Gordon Melton. Asked if that is accurate, Carnesciali said, "It may be valid, but we just don't have any figures."

In the last 30 years, the total of American practitioners and teachers estimated by The Times has dropped more than 50%. However, the totals for last December and this December were the same--nearly 3,700. The California pattern was similar--about 1,900 in 1956, about 1,600 in 1966, about 1,150 in 1976, and about 900 both at the end of last year and this.

Recognized by Insurance Plans

Practitioners are full-time professionals, often with offices, whose fees are covered by many group and individual insurance plans. Their healing "is solely accomplished through prayer," Carnesciali said. Gospel accounts of Jesus healing people are cited as precedent by the Christian Science church. Although the New Testament describes Jesus as touching people while healing, Carnesciali said that church practitioners do not engage in any touching or physical therapy.

Until recently, Carnesciali indicated that many would-be practitioners believed that they could not afford to live on income from Christian Science healing. But, he said, "we're seeing more and more people going into healing work now and not waiting until retirement," he said.

"I'm an example," Carnesciali said. "I went into the practice 10 years ago and have not had another form of remuneration since then."

Healings on Increase

He said that officials at the 1986 annual meeting last June in Boston announced a 45% increase in healings reported to Christian Science publications over the previous year. "Healings are taking place, and I know more practitioners are going into the Journal," Carnesciali said.

As for attracting churchgoers, Christian Science has generally followed a low-key approach.

The Christian Science Monitor, an international newspaper with a reputation for balanced reporting, is one of its most visible vehicles. There are Christian Science radio programs on three stations, called "Conversations with 'The Christian Science Monitor.' "

The church plans to begin shortwave radio broadcasts aimed at Europe and Africa in January.

Currently, there are about 725 churches and societies in nearly 60 foreign countries.

In this country, the 1,997-congregation Christian Scientists might be comparable in membership to Protestant denominations that typically have small churches. The 2,271-church Church of God, Anderson, Ind., for instance, reports 185,404 members, and the 1,730-church Wesleyan Church reports 109,140 members, according to the 1986 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches.

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