(RNS) — The first time Annie F. Downs read through the Gospels in the space of a month was in 2020.
A Christian author, speaker and podcaster, Downs was no stranger to reading the Bible. But she wanted to be faithful about reading every day for her own spiritual growth and she wanted a reading plan she could complete in a month.
She started with three chapters a day.
And she just kept going every month, reading and rereading the same four books telling the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
When she starts over again in January 2023, she won’t be alone. She’s launching a podcast — “Let’s Read the Gospels with Annie F. Downs” — in the new year to encourage a wider audience to read along with her.
The form that will take over the next year remains flexible. She might read a different translation one month, or read the books in a different order in another. She’ll make those decisions as she hears from listeners what is resonating with them.
“One of the things we say around here is we say, ‘You don’t have to read the Gospels every day to be changed, but every day you read the Gospels will change you.’ And so that’s kind of the invitation we are making to people, saying, ‘Hey, if you want to be changed, get in the Gospels with us for as many days as you can,’” she said.
Like Downs, many Christians make New Year’s resolutions to read the Bible in the coming year. But while yearlong plans taking readers from Genesis to Revelation have been around for years, podcasts have more recently become a popular way to keep up with or better understand the day’s passages.
“The Bible in a Year” by the Rev. Mike Schmitz and “The Bible Recap” by Tara-Leigh Cobble appeared on several platforms’ top 10 most popular religion and spirituality podcasts for much of the last year.
“I think for a lot of people, the simplicity of ‘just press play’ is a big help,” Schmitz, a Catholic priest, said in an email to Religion News Service.
“When a person tries to read the Bible, you can get caught up on the strange names or old stories, or you can feel stuck in a particular section. When you’re listening to a podcast, you can just ‘press play’ and let God’s Word be proclaimed to you. Plus you have the sense that you’re not doing this journey alone — that there are hundreds of thousands of people who are reading and praying along with you.”
“The Bible in a Year,” which Schmitz recorded in 2021, topped all U.S. podcasts on iTunes in the first weeks of 2021 and 2022. The daily podcast includes Scripture readings from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible using a plan inspired by Catholic biblical scholar Jeff Cavins. Those readings are followed by a short reflection and prayer by Schmitz.
Schmitz, director of youth and young adult ministry for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Duluth and chaplain for the Newman Catholic Campus Ministry at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, said there are many reasons people resolve to read the Bible. Some from Christian backgrounds have a sense they “should” read the Bible at some point in their lives. Others might just be curious about a book that has influenced literature and cultures around the world and “offered wisdom and meaning to countless people for millennia,” he said.
Personally, Schmitz was wanting to immerse himself in the Bible, to drown out all the other voices that felt so loud, when he pitched the idea for the podcast in spring 2020.
“In the course of reading the entire Bible to record episodes for the podcast — well, being changed by God’s word is something that 100% happens. God’s word is living and effective — that’s no joke, that is a real thing,” he said.
Reading, reflecting and praying through the Bible in 2021 — and listening to it all again in 2022 — helped Schmitz see the world through the lens of Scripture, he said. In particular it helped him see “the dignity of human beings, the challenge to belong to Him, the reality of idolatry, the love of God, the compassion and justice of God,” he said.
Even the long lists of laws in books such as Leviticus and Numbers that many readers dread became meaningful to him as he drew parallels between his role as a priest and that of priests in the Hebrew Bible.
“It’s humbling, and inspiring, and definitely has impacted how I approach offering the Mass each day,” he said.
The success of “The Bible in a Year” has inspired similar podcasts.
Schmitz is launching “The Catechism in a Year” at the start of 2023. And Helen Lee, director of product innovation at InterVarsity Press, said in a message to RNS that the idea for IVP’s “Get in the Word With Truth’s Table” podcast came in part from the priest’s popular podcast.
Ekemini Uwan, a public theologian and one of the hosts of the “Truth’s Table” podcast, had a vision for an audio Bible narrated by women of color, Lee said. A podcast was more financially feasible, she said.
“Get in the Word” launched at the beginning of 2022, featuring daily Scripture readings and prayer by “Truth’s Table” hosts Uwan and Christina Edmondson.
While the podcast is coming to the end of its journey through the Bible this month, Lee said, “It will be an evergreen resource that people can utilize any time, any year.”
“Get in the Word” uses the New English Translation of the Bible and follows a plan created by Peter Schrock at Bible Study Together that follows the Hebrew Bible chronologically, adding passages from the New Testament readings that connect thematically.
“We were like, with all that’s going on in a pandemic, with political instability, the polarization, we need the Word. We need a supernatural intervention, and we believe that the Bible is the Word of God,” Uwan said.
She also felt it was important for people to hear those passages read specifically by Black women, whose voices were missing on other Bible reading podcasts and apps.
Listening to the Bible read aloud literally changes the way one hears it, depending on who is reading and what words they emphasize, Uwan said. One can hear the same old story in a new way.
And it’s communal. Scripture always has been read aloud in community, she pointed out. It’s only recently that Western cultures began to prize quiet time reading the Bible alone.
Uwan said it’s stopped being weird to hear from others that she’s part of their prayers and bedtime routines.
In fact, the “Get in the Word” podcast has become part of her own morning routine, listening to herself and Edmondson read the Bible and pray as she exercises in the morning. Their prayers are never scripted, she said, and sometimes they resonate so deeply, she’ll repeat them again and again.
The new year is “a time to reset,” she said.
“I think we all need those moments where we feel like, OK, I can begin again. I fell off the wagon, or I didn’t get to do this, and I really want to grow in my relationship with the Lord, and I know that spending time in his Word and reading the Word is one of many ways — one of the primary ways — that we hear from God and learn of God and learn about ourselves. It changes us and convicts us and grows us up.”
Downs, who recently interviewed Schmitz on her podcast “That Sounds Fun with Annie F. Downs,” said reading through the Gospels pushed her to want to complete the whole Bible by listening to “The Bible in a Year.”
Sometimes it got boring.
But it also was grounding in the middle of a confusing year.
“2020 was so confusing. And the Bible never changed. And these stories never changed. And Jesus’ response never changed,” she said.
Downs wanted to share that with others, she said.
“We’re hoping this podcast — the ‘Let’s Read the Gospels’ podcast — bridges people from wherever they are in their Bible reading discipline to a new level where they feel more able and more confident to read more of the Bible for more days in a row,” Downs said.
She’s happy to leave Leviticus to the professionals, though, she said.