Not long ago my colleagues published a book called Vanishing Boundaries. It was the story of the odyssey of Presbyterian baby boomers in and out of the church. It described one large group as "lay liberals:" people who did not believe the usual things researchers think Christians should believe. They were also very tolerant--and not very good church members.

The authors found these folks worrisome for the future of the church, but I found myself wanting to know more. Just what sort of Christianity is this? My research led me to discover a large segment of church people--about half the members of the churches we studied--who might be called "Golden Rule Christians."

On our survey, they said the most important attributes of a Christian are caring for the needy and living one's Christian values every day. The most important task of the church, they said, is service to people in need. In terms of their beliefs about the Bible, they are not especially orthodox. Few of them said it is the "inerrant" word of God. A quarter called the Bible a "useful guide for individual Christians in their search for basic moral and religious teachings."

When Golden Rule Christians express dissatisfaction with a church, it is rarely over doctrinal disagreements. More often they are angry over the failure of a congregation to care for someone in need.

Golden Rule Christians are less concerned with answers to life's great questions than with practices that cohere into something the person can call a "good life." As one member of a United Methodist Church put it: "I think all he [God] stands for makes you hope that you could be a better person." Said another, when asked to describe the essence of God: "[It's] the way you live your life. By that I mean, what good is it to know God if--you can study, you can be an excellent bible student, but if you don't practice what you have learned, then you aren't making a better world for yourself or for anyone."

The members of a suburban Catholic parish agree. In the class for new members, a discussion of salvation concluded that it was not a one-time experience, but a continuing process of demonstrating with your life the value of what you have learned about God.

This picture of Christianity crops up everywhere. A small-town newspaper put it this way, "[We] are proud to be labeled a 'Christian' newspaper. We take that to mean readers perceive us as a caring establishment that tries its best to uplift the community." The goal of Golden Rule Christians is neither changing another person's beliefs nor changing the whole political system. They would like the world to be a bit better for their having inhabited it, but they harbor no dreams of grand revolutions.

Golden Rule Practices

Living a virtuous life, by this definition, begins with care for friends, family, neighborhood, and congregation. It is being helpful and friendly, pitching in, welcoming newcomers, being ready to sacrifice in times of crisis, keeping one's own moral house in order. When Golden Rule Christians express dissatisfaction with a church, it is rarely over doctrinal disagreements. More often they are angry over the failure of a congregation to care for someone in need.

Central in the circle of care for Golden Rule Christians are their children. Religious and moral training is part of what they see as their obligation to the world.

In business and in the community, they value honesty. They believe good people give an honest day's work and do not try to cheat others. They say that their faith also means that they treat their coworkers and clients with more care than do others who are not religious. And they believe their faith provides them with principles by which they can make ethical decisions at work.

This emphasis on caring also defines their picture of God. God is seen primarily as a protector and comforter, something experienced most often in moments of need. Even beyond times of crisis, these church members talked about seeing God's presence in the ways "things just work out" or feeling more confident about everyday challenges because they know God will care for them. Among the survey respondents, preferred images of God included savior, comforter, and father.

This emphasis on caring relationships tends to mean a narrowness in the circle of care occupied by Golden Rule Christians. It is focused primarily on family, friends, neighborhood, and church. In some cases, this is an attempt at protection from threatening "others." In other instances it is an attempt to create a community in which mobile people can be rooted.