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. In many ways, large churches have become new "denominations," such as the Willow Creek Association or Calvary Chapels. For that and other reasons, large churches are often held in suspicion, even within their denominations.

Drucker told conference attenders the development of "the large pastoral church" may be the most significant event in American society in the past 20 years.

"Is there a future for denominations?" Schaller asked. "That depends largely on denominations." He recommended several actions for denominations and their congregations:

* Address spiritual needs. The second half of the baby boom (those born between 1955 and 1964) are returning to church and are looking for help with their spiritual pilgrimage.

* Expect a lot from churchgoers. Typically, churches that expect a lot find that people rise to those expectations. Drucker urged congregations to "use laity as a resource."

* Do not apologize for a distinctive belief system.

* Offer choices, including the time and style of worship services. As Drucker put it, "Any enterprise begins to die when it's run for the benefit of the insiders rather than for the benefit of the outsiders."

* Expect that the lives of people will be transformed. Christianity is, in Schaller's words, "a transformational religion." "Denominationalism is perhaps the most central phenomenon of religion in the United States," scholar Julia Mitchell Corbett notes.

But as this conference points out, for America's denominations to turn around, they need to shift, in Drucker's words, "from churches serving denominations to denominations serving churches."

Drucker ended the conference with a startlingly upbeat note: "We have been looking at the Protestant church as an institution in trouble, needing a turnaround. That may be true, but fundamentally, the turnaround has happened, and now it is our job to run with the success. Maybe I'm a little premature, but whenever we go to work, the walls of Jericho will fall very fast."

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