‘Mushy’ millennials in the news

Honk if you’ve heard the phrase “more spiritual than religious.” That, not “WWJD,” appears to be the mantra of today’s young people, even those who call themselves Christian. The movement has significant ramifications for Christianity — and religion in general — in the United States.

So when a major survey comes along that confirms the trend, it’s pretty big news, right?

Yes, if you’re USA Today religion beat specialist Cathy Lynn Grossman, whose story on the survey made Page 1-A this week:

Most young adults today don’t pray, don’t worship and don’t read the Bible, a major survey by a Christian research firm shows.

If the trends continue, “the Millennial generation will see churches closing as quickly as GM dealerships,” says Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources. In the group’s survey of 1,200 18- to 29-year-olds, 72% say they’re “really more spiritual than religious.”

Among the 65% who call themselves Christian, “many are either mushy Christians or Christians in name only,” Rainer says. “Most are just indifferent. The more precisely you try to measure their Christianity, the fewer you find committed to the faith.”

The survey also drew notice in the religion press, from the Christian Post to World Magazine. I’ve also heard that Katie Couric and Glenn Beck referenced it, but I didn’t see those reports. Did you?

But in general, this story doesn’t seem to have caught fire in the media. I don’t find any other national media coverage in Google News (think Washington Post, New York Times, Associated Press, et al). I did come across a few interesting local reports, including one by a Pittsburgh television station and another by a Georgia newspaper.

Why the lack of coverage? Did USA Today get the scoop and scare off the other media? (That doesn’t seem to happen on other big stories, wink, wink.)

Is this latest survey too similar to other recent findings, including a study earlier this year by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life? Is it that a Baptist organization commissioned the survey? Is it the loss of so many Godbeat pros?

I don’t know.

But this survey and the place of millennials in the modern American religious landscape seem to merit wider attention.

Grossman’s story did an excellent job of framing the issue through the lens of experts such as Lifeway’s Rainer. But plenty of ground remains to be plowed, including putting a better face on these “mushy” millennials.

“More spiritual than religious” is one of those phrases that makes sense when you hear it. But reflect on it a bit more and you find yourself going, “Huh? What exactly does that mean?”

Religion writer Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal tackled that exact question in an enlightening piece last month — even before the release of the LifeWay survey. Smith cited an in-depth Bowling Green State University study:

Those who self-identified as “spiritual” — whether they were also “religious” — were more
likely to have been “hurt by clergy”; to have higher levels of education and income; and to
take part in mystical and group spiritual experiences.

And those who identify as “spiritual” and who reject “religion” are less likely to pray and hold orthodox beliefs and more likely to be agnostic.

Such trends alarm Christians who emphasize Jesus as the only source of truth and salvation.

“‘Spiritual’ has, in some sense, come to mean ‘my own personal religion with my own individual creed,’” said Timothy Paul Jones, associate professor of leadership and church ministry at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Now, that reference to “Christians who emphasize Jesus as the only source of truth and salvation” made me smile. “Are there any other kind of Christians?” I asked myself. Alas, I know the answer …

But back on topic: Have you seen any other major mainstream coverage of the LifeWay survey? Do you agree that there’s a religion ghost in the lack of headlines? Is it time for the media to get spiritual?

Print Friendly

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • http://blogs.chron.com/believeitornot Kate Shellnutt

    I thought it was too similar to the Pew Study. Maybe my mind is also numbed to headlines referencing “Millennials” because I know I’m considered in that group but would never identify as such.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Would you prefer Generation Y? What should we call you youngsters? :-)

  • Dave

    Just in case this is a harbinger of where the youth of this country is headed, could we get an age census of GetReligion principals and commenters? I’m 68.

  • will47

    I know there are space limitations on these sorts of things, but this article was unimpressive, and so was the poll, perhaps. It was taken in August 2009 and only released this month, to tie in with a book release, and the actual questions don’t seem to be on the LifeWay website. Plus, as you note, it’s not really clear what the terms used in poll mean to those polled. This is just not as thorough or as credible as the Pew poll.

    Dave — FWIW, I’m 38.

  • Jerry

    I thought the study was significant even though the Pew study covered some of the same ground. The questions and implications seemed more clearly laid out in this one and I was hoping for more medial discussion.

    For what it’s worth, I’m 65.

  • Ben

    Bet it didn’t get much play because it’s not reversing conventional wisdom at this point. Too similar to Pew. Dog bites man. –I’m 34. Based on the flimsy definitions of generations, I’m either X or Millennial.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    OK, I’ll play along. I’m 42, which I think makes me Generation X. Or, as my kids see it, really old.

  • Jon in the Nati

    Bet it didn’t get much play because it’s not reversing conventional wisdom at this point. Too similar to Pew.

    I agree… to anyone who has been paying attention (or hasn’t been living in a cave on Mars, or some darn thing), the whole “spiritual-but-not-religious” thing does have a bit of a dog-bites-man quality about it.

  • http://www.edstetzer.com Ed Stetzer


    The questions are all listed at the lifewayresearch.com website, as we always do.

    And, there is no book release. We generally release research and then write books on it, not the other way around. The book will be out in 2011.

    Other than that, you are right on. ;-)


  • will47

    Ed Stetzer: please post a link to the questions, because they don’t seem to be immediately linked from the Lifeway site and its search function doesn’t return them.

  • http://www.edstetzer.com Ed Stetzer


    It’s in my last comment, but here it is again: lifewayresearch.com. In the middle of the page. Underlined.


  • H. E. Baber

    I’m still trying to figure out what “spiritual” and “religious”, cited ad nauseum in polls and media reports, mean. What do respondents think these terms mean when they characterize themselves as “spiritual, not religious”? Why don’t journalists reporting on these results ever poke in to ask what’s meant?

    I’ve conducted my own informal surveys amongst my students and as far as I can see “religion” to them means, as they put it, “rules.” Rules for conduct, arbitrary restrictions and moralism. They also think of religion as narrowly parochial or tribal, and intolerant or dismissive of alternative religious traditions. What they mean by “spiritual” is harder to fathom. It’s something like curious about matters beyond the mundane business of passing courses, partying and getting a job after graduation; distrustful of rigor and clarity; feminine or effeminate; being a good person without buying into the religious Rules.

    I’d like to see a survey on what people understand as “religion” and as “spirituality”

  • Dave

    Prof Baber, as far as I can discern you’ve rightly captured (albeit with some broad brush-strokes) the meaning of “spiritual, not religious.”

  • will47

    Ed Stetzer: All that’s there is an article and a Powerpoint that highlights about ten or so questions, without fully expalining what the various categories you list mean, or the precise questions you used to create those categories. Given that, for example, 13 % of the people you list as non-Christian nonetheless strongly agree that “the written word of God and is totally accurate in all that it teaches,” the manner in which you arrived at those categories would be helpful.

  • http://www.edstetzer.com Ed Stetzer


    This thread is very old, but I will give one more run at the answer.

    You said it was timed to “tie in with a book release.” It was not.

    You then said the questions were not there. There were.

    Now, you ask about the categories. Fair enough. Let me see if I can help.

    The categories or subgroups used to breakout the data from a question come from other questions on the survey and in the PowerPoint. Broadly Christian, Other Religion and No Religion come from the religious preference question (slide 5). Christ as Savior and Other than Christ come from the beliefs about life after death question (slide 46). Attend Church are those who attend religious worship services one a month or more, and No church are those that rarely or never attend worship services (slide 7).

    If you want to do a story on the data, we are always glad to work with reporters if they have questions about other specifics or details. Just contact Scott at our office.