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It does not take an expert seismologist to detect rumblings in America's denominations. In the past three decades, leading denominations have experienced membership losses of 20 percent or more. Many also face huge financial shortfalls.
Yet it does take an expert to help determine what denominations can do to stabilize. At least, that was the thinking at an August conference with Peter Drucker, one of the world's foremost authorities on organizational change, and Lyle Schaller, an expert on congregational culture.
"The Future of Denominations" conference brought together 75 leaders of denominations, seminaries, parachurch organizations, and publishing houses to consider what is happening to denominations today and how they can be strengthened.
"I am an optimist; I am a denominationalist," Schaller commented. Yet Schaller pointed to the gravity of the situation:
* There are 12 to 15 denominations, including many major ones, that could easily divide in the coming century.
* Most services traditionally provided by denominations—publishing, training of clergy, church planting, missions—are now provided by parachurch organizations and by independent churches. Denominations still control the credentialing process for clergy, but increasingly, many people question whether that system guarantees clerical competence or reduces the instances of clerical malfeasance.
* Many of the best examples of innovation and leadership in American church life are coming from independent churches.
In the peak years of denominational life in the United States—the 1950s-denominations had a monopoly as loyalties were inherited and powerful. Today, "fewer people remain in the denominations in which they were raised, [and] fewer people think their own denomination has a better grasp on the truth than other denominations," writes Princeton scholar Robert Wuthnow.
Conference conversations often turned to megachurches, because their rise has come at the same time as the decline of denominations. ...