If they aren’t buying what you’re selling, that’s a crisis

Looks like God‘s in crisis.

Census reports from 2010 indicate that in the Buffalo area, though likely elsewhere too, there’s been a dramatic falling away from traditional religion since 2000.


Elton John, in the song Levon sings Bernie Taupin‘s words, “When the New York Times said God is dead.” The Times of course never said that, a book reviewer in 1966 simply asked it about an author. But if your business is religion of any kind and one measure of success is how many people fill the seats every Friday, Saturday, Sunday or five times daily, this is a crisis.

Nearly half the residents in the Buffalo Niagara region are considered “unclaimed” by a religious group — a stunning change from just a decade ago, when the percentage of the population affiliated with a faith tradition was higher here than in any other metropolitan area in the country.

Catholicism, most mainline Protestant denominations, Judaism and some evangelical denominations in the Buffalo Niagara region experienced huge membership declines between 2000 and 2010, according to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, which last week released the results of the latest U.S. Religion Census.

The Catholic Church’s shortcomings and conflict with modern American and European society have been well documented, ranging from priestly sexual abuse and rape, to conflicts over church closings, birth control, treatment of nuns and redistribution of wealth. In some circles, being Jewish has become more cultural than religious. The same is true for other Christian denominations.

This represents a crisis in its most basic form. If people by the millions turn their backs on what you preach, if they walk away from the dogmas you espouse, if, in short, they aren’t buying what you’re selling, the entire foundation of your organization becomes swampy.

If people don’t believe, they don’t follow precepts that tend to come with contributions. Weekly collections falter. Organizations like Catholic Charities and the United Jewish Appeal weaken. Religious-based schools close or consolidate. And places of worship go empty.

The Buffalo Niagara region had a population loss of less than 3 percent — about 34,000 people — between 2000 and 2010. At the same time, membership in a religious tradition fell by 31 percent, or more than a quarter of a million people.

These votes with their feet add up to seismic shifts. Those who dislike religion in general and some sects specifically will find this a good change. But many societies rely on religion for their moral compass and teachings. Some would argue that crime, divorce and voting rates can be tied to diminished religious influences in people’s lives.

As with any crisis, the real question is how to deal with it now that it’s here. This isn’t a crisis that arose yesterday and can be contained by Friday. It will take dramatic changes. Like many institutions — newspapers, television, libraries, marriage, universities, automobiles — religious outlets have been slow to change with the times, and it shows.

People communicate in new ways, respond to outside influences differently and tend to identify more with their family and friends than with religious trappings. How to return people to church, temple or mosque is a far deeper subject than we have time, space or knowledge for.

But accepting that you have a crisis on your hands is the first step. Next is taking action.


About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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