Christians top charts

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Worried by the culture wars? The top podcasts in the world are … Catholic and Christian – and they’re answering a real spiritual hunger out there in the world

For those who assume that religious faith and, specifically, the Catholic Church are increasingly perceived as irrelevant to the daily lives of people all over the world, it might be worth looking again.

Despite rising tides in hostility and marginalisation towards Christianity and the Catholic Church, two end-of-year media results in the US at the end of 2021 dispelled what might seem to Catholics and Christians as a depressing situation.

A billboard in New York’s Time Square spotlighting “The Bible in a Year” is seen Dec. 19, 2021. The billboard featuring host Father Mike Schmitz also encouraged people to read the Bible in 2022. (CNS photo/courtesy Ascension)

Just before Christmas 2021, giant televised advertising billboards measuring several storeys tall went up in New York’s Times Square, the iconic centre of one of the world’s most iconic cities.

The billboards were not advertising the latest Chanel fragrance or the must-have fashion from one of the world’s leading designer labels. Instead, they advertised a podcast hosted by an American Catholic priest who, for the second year running, was promising to take listeners through the entire Bible in 365 days.

Instead of Givenchy or Guerlain, no-doubt surprised shoppers and tourists flocking to Times Square found Fr Mike Schmitz, a priest based in a Midwest US diocese, smiling down on them as he urged them to consider signing up to the podcast he and colleagues had launched in collaboration with the Catholic multimedia publishing platform Acension Press at the beginning of 2020.

Jeff Cavins is seen in this undated photo. He is a Catholic Bible teacher who created a reading plan for “The Bible in a Year” podcast. (CNS photo/courtesy Ascension)

His podcast also uses a reading plan based on Scripture scholar Jeff Cavins’ Great Adventure Bible Timeline (Cavins also participated in each episode) to help listeners come to understand the sometimes-confusing history of the Bible and its major themes.

Fr Schmitz’s podcast sat at the No.1 spot in all categories on the iTunes charts during its first two weeks after airing in January 2020. Almost two years later it sat at the No. 1 spot in the Religion and Spirituality category, averaging more than 450,000 downloads per day.

By the end of 2021 it had attracted around 170 million downloads and 4 billion total listening minutes.

As 2021 wound to a close, The Bible in a Year had become so popular with listeners that it was advertised in Times Square and numerous other advertising outlets to help spread the popularity of Fr Schmitz’s show. An estimated 330,000 people a day walk through Times Square.

Fast forward to the beginning of this year. On 22 January, the second or third largest podcasting platform in the world, Podbean, released the list of its top 100 podcasts for 2021.

Beating all categories, including news, sports, entertainment, crime, fashion, lifestyle and the increasingly febrile category of news commentary was a Christian podcast called The Bible Recap. The Bible Recap sees its presenter, US evangelical Christian Tara-Leigh Cobble, host a daily 8-minute highlight of the Bible’s readings.

Those who subscribe to The Bible Recap also receive a daily reading plan which complements each day’s podcast hosted by Ms Cobble.

By the end of 2021 The Bible Recap had been downloaded by more than 62 million listeners around the world, propelling it to the top of the most popular podcasts hosted by Podbean for 2021. To make sense of the achievement, Podbean hosts more than 600,000 podcasts covering every known subject under the sun and making it one of the giants in the increasingly influential new media world of podcasting.

Interestingly, in Podbean’s Religion and Spirituality category, among the top 10 for the year was another podcast hosted by a US Catholic priest, Fr Larry Richards. Father Richards’ podcast is titled The Reasons for our Hope and presents in 6-8 minutes the readings for each day’s Mass together with a short homily. For busy commuters it offers a convenient grounding in their faith and presumably draws them closer to the heart of the baptised life, prayer and daily Mass.

Father Richards’ podcast came in at No. 5 in the Religion and Spirituality category, while another specifically Catholic daily podcast registered in the No. 8 position taking listeners through the Liturgy of the Hours. Simply entitled The Divine Office and founded by US layman Dane Faulkner in the early 2000s via his divineoffice.org website, the podcast is now also available on Spotify.

Meanwhile, coming in at No.2 in Podbean’s Religion and Spirituality category was another scripture-based podcast hosted by US pastor John Stange and simply entitled Audio Bible. In his podcast Pastor Stange reads through an entire chapter of the Bible, then reflects on its key themes and concludes with a prayer.

Father Mike Schmitz, a priest of the Diocese of Duluth, Minn., and a popular speaker and author, is seen in this undated photo. He is host of “The Bible in a Year” podcast. Each 20- to 25-minute episode guides Catholics through the Bible in 365 daily installments. (CNS photo/courtesy Ascension)

The runaway success of such specifically Christian presentations offers important information amid what might seem at times as a problematic picture: Christians increasingly find themselves targeted by activists, legal and political authorities and secular media throughout the developed and comparatively affluent nations of the world.

Yet the success of such presentations and engagements in new forms of media also demonstrate an important lesson that can too often be forgotten by Christians: there is a widespread spiritual hunger afoot in the world and Christians are engaging in exciting and innovative initiatives to offer men and women everywhere with credible answers to the questions of their lives.

Many may assume that the Catholic and other Christian churches have nothing of significance to share with them about life’s big issues, but the success of small-scale Christian podcasters is putting that assumption to rest in new and exciting ways.

For all Christian denominations this is surely encouraging.

Fr Mike Schmitz will be the guest speaker at an online event hosted by the Sydney Centre for Evangelisation, ‘Why make Disciples? What our Tradition tells us about calling and forming disciples”, on Saturday 28 May from 10am-11:30am. Register online here.

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