Washington - (RNS) Unless mainline Protestant churches can refocus theirenergies and trim their public agenda, they risk losing their historicand important voice on social issues, scholars said at a conference hereon Friday (March 16).

For decades, the mainline churches -- Methodists, Lutherans,Presbyterians and others -- have quietly fed the homeless, nursed thesick and pushed a progressive social agenda in Washington. They rarelysought publicity for their work, and largely agreed to work with anyonewho shared their mission.

But there is a growing sense that perhaps the quiet voice of themainline churches is not loud enough in the public sphere, and thatmaybe the churches have taken on so many projects that their influencehas become diluted.

"We have to ask whether by taking on everything ... the mainline hasspread itself too thin and therefore has fewer success stories toshare," said James Wind, president of the Alban Institute, anorganization which studies congregational life.

The two-day conference on Capitol Hill was sponsored by the AspenInstitute, a Washington think tank.

In an age when denominational labels matter less and less, Wind saidthe mainline churches must link with Roman Catholics and evangelicals onprojects where they can be truly effective.

That's the same strategy being discussed by the venerable NationalCouncil of Churches -- a group of 36 mainline, Orthodox and historicallyblack churches -- as it recovers from financial chaos and searches for anew mission in the 21st century.

Together, the mainline churches represent a potentially powerfularmy of 22 million members in 75,000 congregations. They take in $11billion in collections annually, and mainline Protestants are morelikely than evangelical Protestants to be involved in civic affairs,volunteer programs and community organizations.

Robert Wuthnow, a Princeton University scholar and leading mainlineresearcher, said the churches must learn to work with, and not simply onbehalf of, groups they are trying to support. In particular, Wuthnowsaid, mainline churches have long been committed to racial justice buthave been unable to craft an alliance with predominantly black churchgroups.

"Of all the issues we studied, this was the one in which mainlineefforts had the least success," Wuthnow said. Sometimes the churchessuffer from a bad case of "moral laryngitis," he said.

There is evidence that decades of membership decline in the mainlinechurches has leveled off, and that attendance on Sunday morningsactually may be on the rise.

In the past 20 years, the mainline churches have been eclipsed bythe larger-than-life personalities of the religious right. But Wuthnowsaid most mainline Christians are more comfortable with working behindthe scenes than the more public ventures of Pat Robertson and JerryFalwell.

"There is reason to be happy with what the mainline churches havebeen doing; there is reason, too, to get busy and think harder aboutwhat the churches should be doing in the future," Wuthnow said.

"There is still reason to believe that God is with the church,guiding it and sustaining it in these challenging times."