'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?

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