Question: "It has come to many of our church members, through consecrated prayer over the past several years, that a shift from being a church to a society would be the more honest step to take right now, -- a step that could actually result, counter-intuitive as it may seem, in much-needed spiritual growth and renewal, better enabling our small but dedicated group to devote our prayer to better healing work for and within our community. Others feel this is a step backward, a giving up, or admission of decline from the church we once were. Any thoughts?"
RESPONSE 1: FENELLA BENNETTS
I know these issues can really tug at the heart-strings of members who feel that a church they’ve loved for a long time is declining. But there are one or two keys in what you’ve said here. The first is your consecrated prayer. This never leaves us where it finds us, and we can expect it to change the way we see things - as well as bringing us answers, sometimes in surprising ways! And the second is honesty, which is defined in Science and Health as “spiritual power” (p. 453) . These are such good starting points.
I’ve often thought that the outward form of a church is something like a coat. If the coat is either too tight or too loose it’s not the right fit, and it makes it difficult for you to move freely.
The actual “body” of Church is the body of thought. I love Paul’s description of “the body of Christ” when he said to the early Christians, “Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular” (I Cor. 12:27). In this sense, the real substance of your branch church is the embodiment of Christly thought being expressed by the members. It sounds as though this body is in good shape, dedicated to healing and well nourished by prayer! What you’re considering now is whether your “coat” is helping or hindering your most important mission of Christ healing.
Not long ago I was in touch with a friend whose church membership had dwindled to three people. After several years of prayer they decided to close the church and sell the building, which raised far more money than they expected. With the funds they helped two other branch churches, which were re-developing their Reading Rooms, and also gave much needed funds toward an event for young Christian Scientists in their country. But they knew Church was a spiritual idea, not a building, and therefore couldn’t be closed down. A hall became available in the immediate community of two of the members, many miles from the original church. For a small payment each week they rented it, and started a new group, which immediately started to grow. They were free from long journeys and heavy expenses, and their new church group was an expression of joy from the start, touching members of the community who were new to Christian Science. For them it was definitely a forward step.
I know the answer to your prayer will be equally clear to you. And it will be good to hear from others who have had to face the same questions.
RESPONSE 2: ELISE MOORE
Isn’t it interesting that consecrated prayer can lead dedicated and spiritually-minded church members to consider both sides of a human question as the answer to their prayer? Whether called a group, church, or Society, I’m wondering what the underlying issues are. Has the number of active members dropped below 16 or is there no Journal-listed practitioner? Are there not enough members to maintain the Reading Room or no children in the Sunday School? We can all think of branch churches and Societies which have addressed these issues through prayer and been transformed into vibrant congregations regardless of whether designated as a Society or church. . .and others where the answer has been to close and start afresh. Perhaps the answer is not in the designation. How are we thinking of our congregation-- as the Titanic, a butterfly, or a lion?
If we think about our congregation as the Titanic, icebergs of criticism need to be melted with divine Love. It’s never too late to repent of ego and restore humility. Humility will keep the individual and the congregation afloat. Even if a congregation is sinking, Christ comes with life boats of spiritual truths to save and protect each member and attendee. Your congregation was ordained by God and is reinforced with the armor of divine Truth and Love.
If you’re thinking of your congregation as a butterfly, the transition from buggy to beautiful might seem slow and mostly unseen, but trust that the transformation is taking place. By nurturing affirmative thought and cherishing Christ healing in ourselves, others will be blessed. The individual transformation of thought expands into a butterfly experience for everyone your thought touches. You can trust the eternal and gently wrap each one in a cocoon of love. Even the most tattered bug will blossom in an atmosphere of persistent, unrelenting Love reflected in love.
Or perhaps the congregation seems like a lion, roaring at adversity. There’s something to be said for moral courage, undisturbed by human appearance, fearless in the face of challenges, resting in God’s fertile field. Where one person sees problems, another sees God’s goodness in action. It’s simply a different perspective. The lion is the “king of the mental realm” (Science and Health, p. 514). Perhaps moral courage is the king of church or Society progress.
Should your congregation be a church or Society according to The Manual of The Mother Church? I can’t answer that question for you. But I would encourage your members to repair Titanic thinking, patiently nurture and protect butterfly activity, and deeply value and respect lion qualities of thought. Your congregation is a healing community, which God will guide all the way.
RESPONSE 3: LORENZO RODRIGUEZ
The designation of Society or Church is purely organizational. Whether you are one or the other is immaterial! What is important is how you are fulfilling the requirements in the definition of “Church” in Science and Health (p. 583). Are you striving to afford proof of your utility and “rousing the dormant understanding”? And how do you do this? It is not merely by holding services, sponsoring lectures, or having committee meetings. These things are important, but the most important thing is to go out into your community (literally!) and spread the message of Christian Science. It is to go boldly, knowing that Christian Science is a solution to the world’s challenges. That it is practical; that can be used by anyone, regardless of their religious affiliation. This work begins inside--in the consciousness of your members. It is a solid conviction that the Christ is leading each and every one of you to give your community, and the world “a cup of cold water” (Science and Health, p. 436).
In the parable of the leaven, Jesus talked about that a small measure leavens the whole thing (Luke 13: 20-21). Well, there is your answer. Regardless of the number of members you have, you can leaven the world to the understanding of Christ!
The other thing that I would recommend to your group is to never yield to discouragement. Actually discouragement is part of the lie that the world wants to impose on God’s children. God’s activity does not include discouragement or disappointment; it is always progressive. And everything is His activity. Keep going; the victory is Christ’s!