“A faith experience can’t only be about learning the ins and outs of the doctrine. It has to be a celebration.”
So claims Bonnie Rodgers, the marketing and programming manager for CatholicTV, the Watertown, MA-based organization with 10.2 million viewers in 16 states. CatholicTV broadcasts the gameshow “WOW,” the network’s
answer to “Jeopardy!’’ — but for the younger set. Instead of queries about geography and science, they face questions about the Holy Spirit, Lent, and eternal happiness. Seven Catholic elementary schools are competing this season, including St. Jude in Waltham and St. Bernadette in Northborough. The show, in its seventh season, has expanded its reach as far away as Pelham, N.H.
The quiz show WOW covers a range of material about Catholicism and the children who compete get the questions a month ahead of time so they can study.
Some are simple things the children learned in first grade (Question: On which day each year do we celebrate the Resurrection? Answer: Easter).
Other questions are harder, and require diligent memorization (Question: What does ecce lignum crucis mean? Answer: Behold the wood of the cross). By the time the children finish studying, they can rattle off biblical phrases in Latin and Greek.
WOW “helps people know that our faith is radical, and it’s alive, and exciting, and can be fun,” explains Rodgers.
It is reassuring to see a seemingly-successful program (a) reaching out to young people and (b) trying to make the Catholic faith exciting and fun without sacrificing substance. About a month ago, Thomas Reese, SJ posted a great article over at NCR on declining church membership as evident from the Pew data (or as Reese put it, “The Catholic church is hemorrhaging members.”). Reese concludes, somewhat reassuringly for moral theologians, that people who leave the Church but remain practicing Christians (about half of those who leave) are not leaving mainly because of the Church’s moral teachings:
Dissatisfaction with how the church deals with spiritual needs and worship services dwarfs any disagreements over specific doctrines. While half of those who became Protestants say they left because they stopped believing in Catholic teaching, specific questions get much lower responses. Only 23 percent said they left because of the church’s teaching on abortion and homosexuality; only 23 percent because of the church’s teaching on divorce; only 21 percent because of the rule that priests cannot marry; only 16 percent because of the church’s teaching on birth control; only 16 percent because of the way the church treats women; only 11 percent because they were unhappy with the teachings on poverty, war and the death penalty.
People who leave the Church and remain Christian don’t necessarily want new doctrines; they want spiritual sustenance. Reese draws three conclusions from the data:
1. Spiritual nourishment is more important than doctrinal issues or liturgical reform.
2. Catholics are leaving to become Evangelicals in a large part because they want the Bible to be central to their faith. Catholics need to do a better job making Scripture a primary focus of the faith. (The article on WOW does mention that the children competing struggled with Scriptural questions: “When the children from St. John the Baptist School first received their questions, they were a bit hazy on some of the biblical references. Sister Ruth Creedon, the school’s religion coordinator, remembers asking one student what Mary wrapped Jesus in after his birth. “We’ve heard over and over again, ‘swaddling clothes.’ Well this fella says ‘straw,’ ’’ she says. Another child guessed that Jesus had been baptized in the Mississippi River.”)
3. Most who leave the Church to become Protestant do so before they are 24 years old. The Church needs to appeal to young people, and get them excited about being Catholic: “Current religious education programs and teen groups appear to have little effect on keeping these folks Catholic, according to the Pew data.”
CatholicTV’s WOW program seems to be a small step in the right direction. “If you build it, they will come,” writes Reese. Protestants for decades have done excellent work focusing on young people to make liturgy and religious education exciting. Catholics have a lot to learn from our Protestant brethren and a far way to go if we want to curb the massive exodus from our Church. For us moral theologians, maybe we can learn a lesson or two about creatively communicating the Church’s best moral teachings (especially its “best kept secret“) to our youth.
Beth, I especially appreciated your last line, so that hopefully future Bill O’Reilly’s won’t be able to say they never heard of distributive justice (to refer back to an earlier posting).
Indeed, Tobias. The whole time I was reading the WOW article, I kept wondering how many of the questions pertained to social morality. I’m betting only a few (if any), but it’s important that be part of education for the young. It would be nice if in ten years, college-age Catholics thought that whole “best-kept secret” line was trite rather than true.
In the five seasons of the game show “WOW” we have attempted to cover a wide range of Catholic themes…for example: The Incarnation, The Theological Virtues, The Hebrew Scriptures, Catholic Life, Catholic Social Teaching, The Mother of God, The Human Person, Sin and Forgiveness, The Mystery of Christmas, etc.
Each show uses 40-50 questions. The relative success of the series is dependent covering the theme in a general way with the questions simple enough for the kids to recall. The host then has an opportunity to comment/expand on the answer for the viewing audience.
It is our hope at The CatholicTV® Network to continue to develop the show with the assistance of competent experts to compose the questions and accompanying study guides. In addition to carrying the series on our own network, we want to make it available in as many outlets as possible for parents and catechists (VOD, DVD, iPad/Droid app, etc.).
Any and all suggestions and assistance will be gratefully received! Our ultimate goal is to provide a platform on TV, the internet and hand-held devices that displays all that is good and noble in the Catholic community.
See some episodes here: http://www.catholictv.com/catholic-kids.aspx
Thanks for replying. Like I said, I think this is a great idea and I am even more enthused to see a section on Catholic Social Teaching. My husband the Protestant minister is excited to see a section on the Hebrew scriptures. If you ever need the expertise of a couple of moral theologians, I hope you can turn to this blog and its contributors for a group of Catholic scholars anxious to communicate the Church’s moral teachings to the youth.
Keep up the good work while the rest of us get busy catching up on some episodes!
I am torn about the ideas here. On the one hand, I think you are on to something about finding good ways to evangelize and catechize about faith.
And I think spiritual sustenance is key – we need to draw deeply on the kinds of practices we’ve already got embedded in our traditions. Bible studies are a great thing – and let’s get some adult ed in while we’re at it. And maybe start volunteering to do the parish religious ed program more. People who teach catechetical programs find themselves spiritually nourished too, because they’re learning a lot of things that they didn’t know/remember from their own catechesis.
But I’m not sure about the point about younger generations. I think much of current Catholic youth programming is what it is because it has been wrongly trying to mimic programs from Protestant churches – precisely the same people who realized after a decade or two that their programming wasn’t very deep and they needed some more sustenance as well. (I’m thinking, for example, of Kenda Creasy Dean’s great book The God Bearing Life).
On a semi-related note, I’m equally as worried about bishops who decide to pose as CEOs of corporations rather than as, oh, say, shepherds of flocks – which seems to mirror what some Protestant groups were doing in the 90s about seeing the church in a business model. There’s a place for all those things, but it’s a limited place and need to be contextualized with the church as a whole.
As someone who grew up Protestant in a local church that was VERY committed to “reaching the young people ” I found that much programming geared toward keeping “youth” and appealing to youth was not based on anything theological. This led me to wonder what, after all, was the point of “belonging” to church, when it seemed pretty much like any other club. Which led me away from that tradition. And in fact, that tradition is now finding itself to be in a similar situation to that of Catholics: short on clergy, short on younger people.
I think there’s a larger problem here – or maybe several. Secularism a la Charles Taylor, perhaps, and something problematic about American churches in particular. My worry is that Catholics are looking to two decades ago in both mainstream and evangelical churches and trying to borrow from them, without seeing that many of those practices failed.
I am glad you mentioned Kenda Dean. I am very influenced by her Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church. Dean argues that kids are hungry not for fluff but for real theological substance (and service). She is critical of the typical Protestant youth programs (lock ins, trips to amusement parks, etc.) which, as you point out Jana, are frequently unsuccessful. What I liked (at first glance) about the WOW program is that it seems to be attempting to combine theological substance with “passion.”
My husband, who is a part-time Protestant minister in Boston with a background in youth ministry, is very critical of the idea of a purpose-driven church ala Rick Warren which basically tries to structure a church around people’s needs (if you build it they will come) rather than on service to God and neighbor. But the reality is, in Protestant churches, young people and families go to the church that has a great youth program for their kids. I think that if that is the reality, Catholics need to start taking that seriously and start organizing programs that will attract young people and families. I also think that such programs need not sacrifice theological substance in order to be attractive.
I also think that a big part of attracting the youth is giving them “ownership” over the church—training teens to teach the younger kids, for example, or giving the youth assigned roles in the liturgy (like reading, presenting the gifts, or leading singing). I know that when I was a kid, I got such a kick out of having “responsibility” at church, and I was much more passionate about serving than CCD. Dean picks up on the youth’s desire to serve, and this is where CST fits in nicely. Not only should youth programs provide kids with responsibility and leadership in the church, it should also get them invested in the common good. The kids at our church are off to work camp in a few weeks for “hands on training in the common good.” I know this annual trip really gets the kids “passionate” without sacrificing substance. I don’t think we need simply “crib” youth programs from our Protestant brethren but I think with a new generation of Protestant youth ministers and scholars wary of past methods and tactics, there is a lot to be gained by Catholics teaming up with them to think creatively about how to reach and teach this generation of youth.
Oh, and to add: my comment above is not specifically about WOW as much as youth work in general. It looks like WOW is doing a good job of trying to bring together a broad Catholic tradition and not simply reach out to youth for youth’s sake. So bravo – and let’s see what else we can be about.
That is a very exciting offer! You are most kind. We have just finished production, but will be working on another 13 episodes in early 2012. I just might take you up on that…
“…Catholics are leaving to become Evangelicals in a large part because they want the Bible to be central to their faith. Catholics need to do a better job making Scripture a primary focus of the faith…”
If you’re a serious Catholic, where do you go for a high quality study Bible? A slim travel Bible? A devotional Bible that speaks to a particular demographic (e.g. “women,” “teens,” “dads,” etc.)? Might we have a Bible and Missal free of ugly cartoonish art and atrocious typography?
Setting aside the translation and canonical issues, Protestant churches deserve credit for offering a great mix of Bible editions. The ESV is the gold standard in this regard. Our Protestant friends have shown that if you want the faithful to read the Bible, you need to offer them editions that meet their particular spiritual needs, while also embracing contemporary aesthetics to show that the Holy Bible speaks to today’s audience.