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Numbering the blessings, not the people

From the October 2018 issue of The Christian Science Journal

Have you ever been tempted to measure the impact of a church in algorithmic terms, perhaps with variables for number of congregants, size of Sunday School, and so forth? I know I have. In a society of billion-member social networks, where value is often assigned by quantifying followers and likes, perhaps we can understand the desire to validate the worth of a church through such a formula.

By this logic, a church service attended by 27 people might have 42 percent more impact on the community than a church service attended by 19 people. The algorithm would likewise conclude that the gatherings of early Christians held in homes had only about 1 percent of the impact of today’s megachurches that can host 5,000 congregants at a single service.

Instinctively, we rebel against such shallow analysis. Yet what would we think about a church service attended by only one person? If we’re using our algorithm, not much. But what if that one attendee happened to be your mom, your sister, your child—and one thing she heard in that hour transformed her thought and led to healing? What if that single healing experience so stirred this individual that she was inspired to help others find new hope and healing in their own lives? Now how would we measure the impact of that church service?

As soon as we recognize that each individual has infinite value, we see that algorithms and analytics aren’t able to tell us much about the value of Church—either its current impact or its future possibilities.

Christ Jesus didn’t seem to care whether the need before him was one man struggling alone with leprosy or a hungry multitude of over 5,000. He was “moved with compassion” in each moment, as the Bible records on a number of occasions. And the result, again and again, was healing—healing that transformed lives in ways that must have been unique to each individual.

In one of his parables about the power of God’s redeeming love, Jesus seems keen to help his followers keep their focus on the glorious result of healing for a single individual: “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth” (Luke 15:10).

As of 1867, the Christian Science movement apparently numbered two people: Mary Baker Eddy and her first student. As she recalls in the Preface of the Christian Science textbook, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, “The first school of Christian Science Mind-healing was started by the author with only one student in Lynn, Massachusetts, about the year 1867” (p. xi). 

What if Mrs. Eddy had decided she would begin teaching Christian Science only if she met a quota of 10 students, or 50 students? Would there ever have been a movement?

What I take from these examples is that the Science of Christianity, including its development in church experience, is not a function of numbers. As long as there is one individual in need, there is an opportunity to demonstrate the power of Church and witness it affording “proof of its utility” (see the definition of Church in the Glossary of Science and Health, p. 583).

We may not know all the reasons why Mrs. Eddy included in the Manual of The Mother Church a prohibition against “numbering the people” (p. 48). “Christian Scientists,” the By-Law reads, “shall not report for publication the number of the members of The Mother Church, nor that of the branch churches. According to the Scripture they shall turn away from personality and numbering the people.”

But one thing seems clear. Numbering congregants or Sunday School students can be stultifying, regardless of whether the numbers appear small or large. Without the heartfelt acceptance of the worth of each individual, we may be discouraged by small numbers. However, even with what is perceived as a large congregation and Sunday School, there is the risk of complacency—coasting on the fumes lingering in an empty tank of energy that earlier workers had once filled.

But what if, despite our deep commitment to Christian Science, as well as our conviction about the value of this Science for each individual, we still feel discouraged about the picture of empty pews or Sunday School tables?

Algorithms and analytics aren’t able to tell us much about the value of Church.

Several years ago, I brought a small group of friends and family to a concert by two of my absolute favorite artists, Sergio and Odair Assad. These brothers from Brazil are two of the top classical guitarists in the world. On other occasions, sometimes the best I could do was get a seat in the balcony far away from the stage. But on this occasion, something weird happened. It must have been an under-the-radar concert, with very little publicity provided by the small suburban college that hosted it. The concert hall could have accommodated many hundreds, but when it came time for the concert to begin, there were only about 15 of us there. We were clustered in the first few rows, with miles of totally empty seats behind us.

At first, I felt bad for these two amazing artists. I also felt bad for my guests. They had taken a leap of faith to come to the concert, and the hall was empty. But with the first notes from Sergio and Odair, all doubt vanished. There was only love—their love for the music and for us as listeners, as well as our love for the privilege of being there. I remember looking to my right and seeing a man with his head in his hands, seemingly overcome with gratitude to be so close to such lyrical, collaborative virtuosity.

I have never felt more grateful for the beauty of music than I did that night. Did it matter that there were so many empty seats? Not really. I think it just made those of us who were present more resolved to invite others the next time.

Reflecting on this concert, I’ve found it to be analogous to some of the experiences we may have with church, Sunday School, Reading Rooms, or lectures. When we hear of a single experience of healing, or of one visitor to Sunday School leaving with a renewed sense of worth, our gratitude for that one demonstration, with all the promise it holds, means more than any algorithm could compute.

The term man (God’s spiritual image and likeness) includes everyone, and man is, as it says in Science and Health, “the compound idea of God” (p. 475). So any one individual being receptive to Christ, Truth, demonstrates a law of receptivity that applies to all God’s children. Conversely, if I am harboring any doubts about someone’s readiness for church, then in a way I am denying anyone’s receptivity to the Christ—including my own. That’s not something I want to be doing!

Several years after that guitar concert, when I was a few months into a three-year term as First Reader conducting the services for our branch church, a business trip to the other side of the country gave me some time to reflect on this new chapter in my church experience. I had begun to feel comfortable with the routine of preparation for Sunday services and Wednesday evening meetings. But I was also wondering, What if I became too comfortable? What if this responsibility became more a duty than an inspired activity? With my professional work demanding so much of me, how could I make sure serving as Reader never felt like a burden?

As I considered these questions, at some point a suggestion appeared at my mental doorstep: Well, if only the congregation were a bit larger, then your efforts would be worth it. But then a word popped into thought: starfish. I recalled an essay by Loren Eiseley called “The star thrower.” One of the many adaptations of the story tells of a child on a beach, picking up stranded starfish and throwing them back into the ocean to save them. A man approaches him, eager to point out the futility of it all. “There are thousands of starfish on this beach. Your effort won’t make a difference.” But the boy, undeterred, picks up another starfish and throws it into the surf to safety. “It makes a difference to this one,” the boy replies.

The message was clear. So long as the focus is on a congregation or Sunday School in the abstract, as an amorphous collective without regard to the individual, then an usher or Sunday School teacher or Reader might sometimes feel a sense of futility. But as soon as we see that there is even just one individual ready for the healing love found in Church, and who really needs to feel that love in a fresh way, our whole perspective can change.

Not long after returning from this trip, I began a practice of reading one or two testimonies from the “Fruitage” chapter of Science and Health during quiet preparation time before our Wednesday testimony meetings. Considering how the Christian Science textbook had transformed one individual—and doubtless also uplifted others who were acquainted with this individual—was enough to remind me of how a single testimony can lift a family, a church, a community.

And sometimes, as I began the readings on a Wednesday night or the Lord’s Prayer on a Sunday morning, I felt I was the one who most needed to feel the healing power of Church as expressed in a joyously sung hymn or a heartfelt testimony.

So I’ve stopped numbering the people, and started feeling renewed gratitude for each prayer, each testimony, each moment of church. Church does hold the promise of healing for each individual, and therefore for all humanity.

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