It’s not hard to find a Vacation Bible School during the summer. Driving through town, a parent can immediately notice a wide variety of churches that seem to share material from the same VBS publishers. Identical flashy banners can sprout up on the front lawns of Methodist, charismatic, and nondenominational community churches. But parents have recently been surprised to notice these same banners planted firmly in the front lawns of Catholic churches—even when the material is produced by evangelical publishers.
At first glance, this might be the cause for rejoicing, a triumph of Protestant evangelical theology. But a disturbing fact has emerged: Several evangelical VBS publishers have quietly released Roman Catholic versions of their curriculum, using the same graphics and games but substituting Catholic doctrine. The story told here is a sad one—a triumph of marketing over gospel content.
Preaching Two Gospels
Gospel Light Publications was founded by noted Bible teacher Henrietta C. Mears, who built a large Sunday School at First Presbyterian Church, Hollywood, Calif. Despite the company’s Reformed roots and lengthy evangelical doctrinal statement, the company has recently broadened its focus.
“We understand there are differences in the body of Christ,” says Gary Greig, senior editor of Bible and theology for Gospel Light. “For us, the choice is clear. We’re evangelical, and evangelizing children though Vacation Bible School and Sunday School is our goal.”
Then Greig adds, “We’re going to work with any stream in the body of Christ to allow us to do that.”
Nine years ago, Gospel Light began a publishing relationship with Ligouri Publications, a Catholic publishing company run by the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, a community of religious priests and contemplative nuns known for their devotion to Mary.
Donna Lucas, children’s publishing director for Gospel Light, describes the relationship as a “licensing partnership,” noting that “they use our theme and Bible content and then add the tenets of their faith for the Catholic curriculum.”
A customer service representative for Ligouri Publications confirmed that Gospel Light is responsible to develop the theme, basic outline, graphics, and music of their shared curriculum. Then the material is transferred to Ligouri for changes that will earn the curriculum formal approval by Catholic Church officials, who certify that the rewritten material is free of doctrinal or moral error (from a Catholic perspective). The resulting imprimatur (Latin for “let it be printed”) from the Archdiocese of St. Louis gives Ligouri permission to market the materials to Roman Catholic churches.
“We are writing the content to emphasize Catholic identity,” says the Ligouri representative. “If people want the Catholic version, Gospel Light tells them to contact us.”
Hans Christoffersen, editorial director for Ligouri, explained the rewritten material in a recent interview with the National Catholic Register. “We added the sacramental experience,” Christoffersen says, “especially focusing on the Eucharist.”
The resulting programs are marketed with two slightly different logos. For Gospel Light’s 2010 VBS program, SonQuest Rainforest, the evangelical version is branded with the Gospel Light name; the Catholic version of the logo is identified as Ligouri Publications.
Group Publishing has a similar relationship, releasing its 2010 High Seas Expedition VBS in a “Totally Catholic” version through publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Jim Knowles, a marketing manager for Group, refers to this as “a licensing agreement with Harcourt Religion, allowing them to make Group’s VBS material available to their customers, who are primarily Catholic.” The Group website identifies Knowles as “special markets manager for Catholic ministry.”
Group’s Catholic curriculum shares the same logo, graphics, and basic layout as its evangelical version. Even the Bible themes and Scripture verses are the same. But after the traditional version is finished, editors write a Catholic version that incorporates a “Catholic ID” for every lesson (“highlights beliefs and practices of our Church to promote Catholic identity and helps kids connect faith and life”).
Last year, the two curriculum versions shared the same lesson titles, such as “Jesus Dies and Rises to New Life,” in both teacher’s books. For a lesson on this topic, evangelicals would expect to see a traditional description of the gospel and a call to personal salvation. But the Catholic version inserts new material that says, “Each Sunday, at the end of Mass, the priest raises his hand to bless us in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as we physically sign ourselves with the cross.” The teacher’s book also points to numbered sections of the catechism of the Catholic Church, and offers additional resources at the Catholic version of its website.
Harcourt Religion Publishers is known primarily for its line of Catholic Church education products. Earlier this year, parent company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing sold its religious division to Our Sunday Visitor, a Catholic publisher. “This brings together two of the nation’s leading Catholic publishing groups,” said a press release announcing the sale. As a result, Our Sunday Visitor now functions as the parent company for Group’s Catholic materials.
When asked for a response for this article, Jim Knowles replied with an e-mail stating, “Group works with many Christian denominations and they use our resources for their churches because they work. We publish materials, emphasizing what denominations hold in common, not what divides.”
Knowles, who was executive director of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry prior to joining Group in 1991, emphasizes a subtle distinction between the evangelical and Catholic versions. “Group follows an historically biblical approach to salvation, relying on key texts, such as John 3:16 and Ephesians 2:8–9,” Knowles says. “This approach is consistent through all the materials published by Group.” He also points to the company’s 80-word statement of belief, which ends with the phrase, “We believe people receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life through Jesus.”
Sadly, Group’s emphasis on “what denominations hold in common” could also be seen as a deliberate lack of theological precision on essential gospel truths. Because Group’s statement on salvation avoids any description of the atonement or justification, the statement can be embraced equally by Catholics, evangelicals, and mainline Protestants.
Standard Publishing was long considered a venerable evangelical publisher. Standard had loose ties to the Christian Restoration movement and sold most of its materials to groups such as the Disciples of Christ, the Christian Church, and Church of Christ. (For many years Regular Baptist Press used Standard as a print vendor.)
In 1964 Standard was part of an initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange, making it one of the first publicly traded Christian publishers. Then in 2006 a New York private equity firm purchased the company and formed the CFM Religion Publishing Group, a corporation that soon acquired four privately held Catholic publishers.
After Standard released a Protestant version of its God’s Big Backyard VBS in 2008, it cooperated with new sister company RCL Benziger to produce a Catholic VBS using the same title in 2009.
Augsburg Fortress, a publisher affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is also producing a line of Roman Catholic materials. Its 2010 Baobab Blast program has been released in a second version marketed as a “Catholic Vacation Bible School” and distributed by Our Catholic Visitor. The Catholic materials feature an “imprimatur on all components” and are “DRE approved” (meaning that Catholic parish officials have approved them for use in Catholic churches).
Visitors to the Augsburg website www.TheVBSplace.org will notice a colorful link at the bottom of the page, inviting customers to “check out the Catholic VBS materials” at the parallel site www.TheCatholicVBSplace.org. But when customers reach the Catholic version of the website, one is struck by an interesting omission: There is no corresponding link inviting anyone to “check out the Protestant Lutheran VBS materials.”
The Influence of Evangelicals and Catholics Together
Gary Greig, who taught Hebrew at Fuller Theological Seminary prior to his editorial position, describes Gospel Light’s dual curriculum in relation to a movement known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together. The group produced a series of ecumenical statements in 1994 and 1998, attempting to bridge a theological gap that has existed since before the Protestant Reformation. Many independent Baptists (along with a larger movement of conservative evangelicals) have rejected the language of these documents. For conservative evangelicals, the ECT statements are a one-way street, just like the VBS websites pointing Protestants to the Catholic material, but offering no link in return.
Greig, however, embraces the ideas of ECT. “The differences between our evangelical position and the Catholic position expressed in the ECT are not so far apart that those differences compromise the way we present salvation in our material,” Greig says.
Greig admits that there may still be an observable difference between the gospel content in the two programs, but notes that the Gospel Light material relies heavily on the words of Scripture related to salvation. Greig believes that these Scriptural truths survive the editorial transition, even though they are combined with the Catholic catechism and teachings about the Eucharist Mass.
“We’re kind of radical in that we believe the Holy Spirit has a shot at bringing these kids to salvation,” Greig says. “Our goal, regardless of what language they use to describe the gospel, is to get the Word of God before their kids.”
Hiding Relationships from Evangelical Customers
Despite Greig’s references to Evangelicals and Catholics Together, most of these publishers go out of their way to avoid connecting their two product lines. A visitor to the Gospel Light or Group websites will find no mention of the Catholic products they have produced. If one searches their current (Protestant) catalogs, no Catholic products are listed. Or try typing the word “Catholic” into the search window of the company websites. No results, just this automated response: “Your search – catholic – did not match any documents. No pages were found containing ‘catholic.’ ” One could consider this to be a triumph of careful web design, since a person can manually type in www.group.com/catholic for access to the Catholic section of Group’s website.
Meanwhile, these jointly produced products are easily found on websites devoted to Catholic church education, and can be found by Googling the phrase “Catholic VBS.”
Some evidence indicates that these materials are not well received among thinking Catholics. In a National Catholic Register article devoted to the trend, several Catholic leaders questioned the wisdom of making Catholic versions of Protestant VBS materials.
“There’s a big difference between a program that is permeated with the Catholic faith and one that has a Catholic overlay,” said Ken Ogorek, director of catechesis for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
The article also quotes William Keimig, director of the Association of Catechumenal Ministry in the United States and Canada. “Protestant vacation Bible school is non-sacramental, and it’s a distinctly non-Catholic way of learning how to grow in virtue,” Keimig said. “There’s never the bottom line that the Eucharist is going to make you holy.”
Lisa Hendey, the founder and webmaster of CatholicMom.com, expressed a similar preference for Catholic-written materials that wholly emphasize a study of the saints, Catholic catechism, and the sacraments. Hendey said, “It’s nice to send a child to vacation Bible school and know they are going to be taught this and not come home and ask, ‘Mommy, am I saved?’ ”
One is immediately struck with respect for these comments—not for the accuracy of their theology, but for their philosophical consistency. What do these Catholic leaders know that evangelicals have not learned? Why are Catholics eager to teach their children a pure form of their theology—and we are not?
Making the Gospel Central to Christian Education
The controversy forces a larger question: So what is evangelical Christian publishing? Is it merely a marketing engine to produce slick graphics, engaging websites, and music with Hollywood production values?
Critics used to complain that Christian publishing had become all style and no substance. Now it has become an industry of all style and interchangeable substance, where virtually any content can be swapped in between the graphics, where our art departments are rented out, at will, to the highest bidder.
“When evangelicals emphasize branding, whose values dominate?” asks Rick Jackson in Understanding Christian Media. He suggests that “if evangelicals are going to practice advertising and branding, then they had better agree on the essential values for the evangelical brand.”
Jackson, a journalism professor at Seattle Pacific University, concludes his analysis with a penetrating question: “How can branding not sanitize Jesus and distort the call to pick up our crosses and follow Him?”
We agree with Jackson’s assessment. We believe that some evangelical publishers have left the fold, giving us a sanitized Jesus brand that weakens the gospel. We believe that Christian Education should be a careful program of discipleship, an essential part of spiritual development, a practical dose of theology that encourages children to become more like Christ. We labor to proclaim the gospel accurately and rightly because it is central to spiritual growth. The gospel cannot be victim to cut-and-paste partnerships with publishers who hold significantly different beliefs on fundamental truths.
We believe that any evangelical publisher who enters into a joint operating agreement with a Catholic publisher has a fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel.
Our criticism should not be taken as a mere grab for more market share (Regular Baptist Press also produces VBS materials). Rather, we continue to rejoice whenever the Bible is taught rightly. We continue to rejoice whenever the gospel is preached accurately. We are grateful for several good publishers who continue to do this. Rather, our criticism is a call for churches to reform their ministry practices to conform to the clear teaching of Scripture. We should support publishers who support a clear teaching of the gospel!
“We grieve for companies that appear to be abandoning core truths,” says John Greening, national representative for the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches. Greening noted that his first reaction to the growing controversy was quite similar to Paul’s response in Galatians 1:6: “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel.”
“But business decisions can be reversed,” Greening added. “We call on our brothers and sisters in the church resource industry to return to the centrality and exclusivity of the gospel.
“Staying the course in these areas provides us with a North Star that should not be viewed as outdated. These core ideas are essential in keeping us from losing our way.”
Evaluating the Core Ideas of Christian Education
As parents drive by those church banners on a hot July day, it is hard to quickly evaluate the quality of a VBS program. On the surface, it is possible to notice the visual elements, games, crafts, and the music that accompanies the basic teachings of a church.
But these drive-by evaluations are not enough. When it comes to the essential truths of the gospel, we cannot settle for generic God talk. We must teach Christ’s substitutionary atonement simply and precisely, emphasizing to children that Christ died once for all (1 Peter 3:18). Our evangelical understanding of the gospel cannot be reconciled with Catholic views of the gospel, even if it seems we share similar language.
Myron Houghton, senior professor of systematic theology at Faith Baptist Theological Seminary, addresses this ambiguous language in “The Catholic View of Salvation.” He suggests that Catholics may speak of trusting God, but the object of their trust is God, rather than the death of Christ. “The nature of this [Catholic] trust emphasizes assent to teaching rather than reliance on the Son of God who died for our sins, and the character of this trust is church-related rather than individual,” Houghton writes.
Here we offer hope for cynical parents who have lost faith in their church structure. Our salvation does not depend on human or church tradition—institutions that are pockmarked with human failure. Rather, we offer a gospel that depends on God’s actions for us. By doing this, we offer children a systematic set of beliefs that are based on something that does not and cannot change: The finished work of Christ. We believe a right proclamation of the gospel offers hope to people who have no other escape.
When evangelicals and Catholics try to reconcile their views on the gospel by agreeing that God’s salvation is by “grace alone,” we must ask them to also agree that it is by “faith alone.” We teach important doctrinal terms with New Testament definitions that are simple but also precise. We explain justification as God’s work, a change in God’s records on the basis of Christ’s finished work on Calvary.
Then having declared a pure gospel, we build our entire program of education around these essential truths. We can do no other. Otherwise, we are left with a generic gospel that neither saves nor satisfies.
Kevin Mungons is managing editor of the Baptist Bulletin and editorial director of publications for Regular Baptist Press.
- SOURCES for this article