2016-06-30

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.

Beyond the immediate circle of care, Golden Rule Christians are more than willing to do small things to relieve the suffering of the world. Their efforts usually consist of donations and volunteer activity. They give food and clothing to food pantries and clothes closets, and contribute money to charity. Some of them work in a senior center or on a soup line or in other volunteer activity.

"Helping the needy" sounds, of course, very middle class and suburban. And in fact, Golden Rule Christianity is more likely to be found in the suburbs than in the center cities, among the better educated and better off. But it is no more likely to be found among women than men, among old than among young, or among white than among black. It is present among Protestant and Catholic alike.

One consequence of this ethic is tolerance. When Golden Rule Christians make judgements, they are based on behavior, rather than on dogma. People in two otherwise-different churches in our study specifically mentioned tolerance for diversity as a virtue of their faith tradition. Methodists noted that Methodism (at least in their view) does not impose a rigid creed on its members, and Catholics talked about the diversity of spiritual experience among Catholics--from visions of the Virgin Mary to charismatic renewal to ordinary Mass-going.

Golden Rule Religiosity

If Golden Rule Christians are characterized by their moral practices and their lack of creed, why call them Christian (or even religious) at all? Could they not be members of a lodge or community club just as easily?

There are at least two reasons to reject that argument. The first is that they insist on joining churches. They know they could stay home on Sunday morning; they often do. They have the resources and social connections to pursue friendships and good deeds through other organizational means. Why do they still join a church? In part, habit. In part, conformity to community norms. But in large measure, they see no other organization that puts caring for others so clearly at the center of its life.

The more important reason to take Golden Rule Christianity seriously, however, is that Golden Rule Christians have a sense of spiritual longing. They were sometimes fuzzy on what they experience, but they almost always came up with answers about God. Some said that they feel close to God in Sunday worship. It is a time when they feel God's presence or find new insight and understanding. Many mentioned the music, and some mentioned communion. A few mentioned sermons. The church's "sacred space," along with the "sacred time" for worship, seem to combine into an opportunity to set priorities in order, to "feed the soul," and to know that they have been in a presence greater than themselves.

Not surprisingly, they also sense this presence in times of difficulty. Many of those we interviewed mentioned times of sickness and death as moments of particular closeness to God. As one woman put it, "it just seems to me that when I need something, or when things are really difficult and they get worked out right, it's just like somebody had to be helping you do it." A Golden Rule Christian is no less sure than an evangelical of God's presence, just less precise in describing it.

The lack of language for describing God is, along with their tolerance, the biggest problem for Golden Rule Christians, especially when it comes to passing their faith on to their children. They have typically been brought up in a saturated religious environment. They learned the stories of the faith, and now they have those religious images on which to draw.

Their children, however, are often given nothing more specific than the sorts of Golden Rule principles we've been talking about. The emphasis on practices of the faith can result in children who "catch on," but do not know what it is to which they have caught on. Golden Rule Christians only participate in Bible study groups, on average, several times a year. Many never do. Their usual mode of church participation is reasonably regular Sunday morning attendance--nothing more. While that time of worship may offer them a sense of God's presence, it does not offer opportunities for conversation with others about the role of religion in their everyday lives. This lack of ongoing religious conversation may undermine their ability to continue to practice their faith (and ironically, to pass it on to their children).

Golden Rule Congregations

This sort of in-depth and intimate religious conversation is, then, something Golden Rule Christians need, but may not know they need. What they do know they are looking for in a congregation is fourfold: a caring environment in which relationships (especially families) are supported, opportunities to serve (or contribute to serving) people in need, dynamic worship, and attractive activities for children.

Golden Rule congregations are very child-centered. From a bright, pleasant nursery with competent workers, to children's choirs and confirmation classes, to regular teen social gatherings, a good deal of the congregation's energy and money goes into "family-centered" activities. Over and over, when we asked people why they chose a given church, they said they were looking for a place that would be good for their children.

But the parents also want a place where the worship is meaningful for themselves. The congregations of Golden Rule Christians often put considerable energy into liturgical innovation, good music, skillful preaching, and services that will make their members pause for reflection. Further, adults in these congregations want to be able to turn to the church for help in nurturing and healing relationships.

Finally, Golden Rule Christians want their churches to be involved in serving the community. They like the idea of hosting food pantries or organizing work teams to help elderly people care for their homes. They want the church to collect money to send in times of disaster.

Building on Golden Rule Strengths

It should be no surprise that a large body of American church-goers are less than orthodox in their beliefs and not convinced that any given institution is critical to their salvation. Some church leaders may decide this is a good reason to purge the rolls and concentrate on the "serious" Christians. I think, however, that such a strategy would be a mistake.

First of all, these are people who have a basic sense that being Christian should have something to do with how you live your life--not a bad place to start. More troublesome is the fact that they are not currently investing much energy in sharing their lives with other Christians with whom they can collectively work out the practical implications of their faith. They are too often using up old religious "capital" that has accrued from their childhood upbringing.

Living by the Golden Rule is no easy matter. Church leaders who care about them need to offer opportunities and incentives for building up the store of moral resources on which they can call for living the good and caring life to which they say they aspire.

Second, despite their doctrinal fuzziness, Golden Rule Christians can be captured by stories. They may be unwilling to debate the doctrine of the Trinity or the Virgin Birth, but they can embrace as their own the stories of Mary's trip to see Elizabeth or Job's fight with God. Just because they do not have a literalist view of scripture does not mean that they do not think the Bible is important. Building on that conviction can produce real and growing engagement with the faith.

Finally, church leaders would be mistaken to give up on a group whose spiritual yearnings are real even though they are vague. There is room both for spiritual experimentation and for good, old-fashioned ritual. Golden Rule Christians know they need sacred space and time; they know that they need to be called to account by God. Church leaders who value the spirituality they do have, calling them deeper in a journey of everyday faith, will, I am convinced, be rewarded with the joy of newfound companions on the Way.

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