DULUTH — At the beginning of 2021, political tumult, civil unrest and a pandemic had brought our country, and world, to the brink of despair. Where, many asked, was hope?
Then, from a quiet corner of northern Minnesota, a still, small voice — though seemingly at double speed — arose unexpectedly, turning the trajectory upward for many in Christendom.
The “Bible in a Year” podcast, voiced by an exuberant campus priest in his home studio near the University of Minnesota Duluth, was the top podcast in every category for two weeks straight in early January, and has been going strong ever since.
In an email, the Rev. Mike Schmitz said the impetus for the podcast emerged from his own need to focus more intently on Scripture in these times.
“I had proposed to Ascension (Press) that maybe other people would appreciate this, too — a chance to ‘just press play’ and let the Bible be read aloud to them.’”
Most of the daily podcasts run about 20 to 25 minutes in length, making them very amenable to the demands of modern life.
Schmitz said Ascension did not hesitate. “They’d been thinking about something like this for a while,” he noted, and quickly proposed structuring the podcast around Jeff Cavins’ “Great Adventure Bible Timeline,” which moves through salvation history in chronological order.
Cavins, of Maple Grove, Minn., said they started recording prior to the new year, and by the time the podcast launched, he’d moved onto other projects. “So when, on Jan. 2, our producer said, ‘You guys are No. 1 in the country,’ it didn’t even click,” Cavins admitted, figuring it was top in religious podcasts.
He was corrected. “No, No. 1 out of everything,” he told me, “including podcasts like Ben Shapiro and Joe Rogen. I couldn’t believe it!”
An avalanche of media requests ensued, with inquiries about how they’d pulled it off. “Our answer was, ‘I don’t know! I have no idea,’” Cavins recalled. “There’s definitely something more at work here than just two guys reading the Bible.”
People are hurting and looking for answers, he said. “And suddenly, in the midst of this darkness, the word of God goes out, and Jesus is raised up. And on a beautiful level, people responded.”
‘Bible in a Year’ in Times Square
Now until Jan. 9, even more will be exposed to the podcast with Ascension’s paid digital advertisement promoting it in the center of New York City’s Times Square.
Lauren Joyce of Ascension said the billboard is meant to serve three main purposes: celebrate the reach of the podcast to nearly half a million people; invite millions more passing through New York City during the holidays to consider reading the Bible in 2022; and to be a beacon of hope for Christians.
“Although we live in difficult times, God is still speaking to those who listen to his word.”
An element of joy and thanksgiving comes into it as well, Schmitz said. “This podcast became such a big movement, much more than anyone on the team expected,” he said, noting that they’re happy to offer believers “a piece of good news,” and remind them that the Bible still speaks to us today, and faith still matters to many.
Cavins said the billboard is “a beautiful thing, in the midst where everyone gathers,” especially at Christmastime.
Arlene Thomas, Fargo, said she’d never read through the Bible before, but was excited when she heard about the podcast in January. Her husband ultimately decided to join her.
Using their Spotify app, they project the podcast onto their family television, she said; sometimes their three kids, 13, 10 and 6, catch bits and pieces of it, too, making it a family affair. “We’ll talk to them about it, and pass on things to them that we’ve learned.”
But being committed to something for 365 days isn’t for the faint of heart, and occasionally, due to normal interruptions, they’ve missed a day here and there.
“It’s usually over vacations and holidays,” she said, “but when we get back on the road and have several hours to drive, we listen on the ride home.”
Thomas said she appreciates how the podcast has changed their family dynamics for the better.
“It’s given us more quality time together, and it’s been nice to have this in common with my husband.”
Sheila Jordan, a mother of five from West Fargo, said she also tried reading the Bible through several times, but ultimately got stuck.
“You get to the point at which you feel like none of it makes any sense.”
The podcast changed that for her, she said, with the timeline allowing her to connect the dots. “It was finally a moment of, ‘Oh, I get that now!’”
Often, her young children have listened in, too, especially when she’s cooking supper and listening. They’ve even begged her to play the podcast so they can listen to the Rev. Mike reading Scripture.
“I love the way (the Rev. Mike) does it,” she said. “He reads it, then there’s a little prayer, and then he breaks it down to where us simple, humble folk can get it; people who don’t have the scholarly knowledge.”
Jordan also commented about how real the reverend is, even laughing at himself, and making little mistakes on occasion, without re-recording, ending each podcast offering prayers for the listeners.
“He’s so down to the earth. He doesn’t ever give this air that he’s better than anyone else.”
A podcast gets personal
Both Cavins and Schmitz shared their own stories of how the podcast has affected them.
Schmitz said he was filling in at a parish near his parents’ home, and one day he walked into his parents’ living room and heard his own voice speaking through a device, reciting the Bible readings of the day, from the podcast.
“As I entered the room, they shushed me and let me know that the episode was almost over, so I sat there awkwardly listening to me give my parents some commentary on the sacred Scriptures,” Schmitz said.
Not only his parents, but a few siblings are also devotees of the podcast. “That just blows my mind; to be able to read the Bible every day to the people who not only taught me who God is, but who also taught me how to read!”
Cavins said he’s been surprised with how many people have stuck with it throughout the year, along with the depth of how the word of God has touched people.
“In one case, the husband (of a dying woman) sent her diary to Father Mike, and in her last entry, she said how (the podcast) had meant everything to her,” he said.
The age span of those following it also has taken him aback, ranging from “teens all the way to seniors,” he said. “It speaks to them, and that’s not about us, but the power of God’s word, which has a way of meeting all of us at different times in our lives.”
Cavins said people are looking for two things right now: a brighter future, and someone to trust; something not evident “in the midst of COVID and politics.”
“I would say, if you’re looking for that, the Bible gives you a foundation in which you can trust God, and he is inviting you to come to him,” Cavins concluded. “You don’t have to be a scholar or to know Greek and Hebrew. You just need to have a hungry heart, and God will meet you.”
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Dec. 24, 2021.]