Tipton to discuss effect of social changes on church attendance



Over the years, the way Americans pray has changed almost as much as the way they live.

Steven Tipton will discuss these changes through the lens of the Methodist Church at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy. His lecture is titled “Close to the Heart of Humankind.”

“If you ask, ‘What’s going on in American religion?,’ it’s not a story of decline and fall,” said Tipton, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Sociology of Religion at Emory University. “It’s partly a story about immigration and people carrying different forms or modes of faith with them. Almost all of them are convinced that, however different the worship they offer the creator, what God wants of us is love of neighbors, mutual responsibility, and care for the common good.”

Tipton is a 2011 recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship. His studies in the sociology of morality have led to a collaboration with Robert Bellah: Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, which was a finalist for the 1986 Pulitzer Prize.

Tipton’s research on  Methodism produced Public Pulpits: Methodists and Mainline Churches in the Moral Argument of Public Life. He is currently at work on The Life To Come: Re-Creating Retirement.

In Methodism and other religious groups, changes in social norms — such as the age and frequency at which people marry and have children — contribute to changes in church attendance, Tipton said.

“For more than a century, America has been riding a great wave of rising population, while lengthening the ride of a lifetime, and Methodism has flourished,” he said. “Then, in the 1960s, baby boomers start to drop out, turn on, and tune in to new spiritual wavelengths, or so the story goes.”

This trend has led denominations to lose large portions of their congregations, including 6½ million Methodists. They have decided that they are “spiritual, but not religious,” Tipton said. However, he thinks this trend is reversible if churches can find a way to bring young people back into the fold.

“We need to open up to young and not-so-young singles in [their 20s and 30s], hungry for communion they can count on in a social world of maximum mobility and uncertainty, driven by the rising winds of contingent courtship and marriage coming later in life and less often for keeps,” he said.

This kind of openness from the church, Tipton said, is a possible solution to shrinking memberships.

“In this new century, then, let us give our hands to each other, open our arms to our neighbors, and our doors to the world,” he said. “Let us reach out to touch the heart of humankind.”