Coming this December to theaters across the country: Peter was an average commercial fisherman struggling to make ends meet — until he met someone who would change his life forever. The unlikely Peter would become the “Rock” for an entire church growing around the world, looking to him for guidance. He would need help from a remarkable woman — who was now in her last days on Earth — the Mother of God.
Not your typical big-screen blockbuster. But that might be changing. A recent pre-screening of “Full of Grace” at a theater in the Chicago suburbs was packed, Eric Groth told the Catholic Anchor last month. Groth is the 45-year-old executive producer at Outside da Box, a Catholic, not-for-profit, teen-focused video ministry that produced the 83-minute feature film.
Groth traveled to Anchorage last month to present at the Alaska Catholic Youth Conference in Anchorage. He challenged teens not to compartmentalize God but make him part of “every breathing moment.”
Additionally, he urged them to get to know their spiritual family, namely the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints.
Those messages, found in Groth’s films, are resonating.
The recent Chicago-area screening took place in 900-seat theater and “we had to turn five dozen people away,” Groth said.
It’s a particularly striking response given the latest news on religion. According to a new Pew Research Center national survey — the 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study — faith among younger generations is declining.
“As the Millennial generation enters adulthood, its members display much lower levels of religious affiliation, including less connection with Christian churches, than older generations,” the report explained, adding that 36 percent of young Millennials (those between the ages of 18 and 24) are religiously unaffiliated.
Groth said that a big part of the problem is that “we under-challenge our young people” when it comes to faith. “We’ve got a parish of 3,000 families where I’m at, and I can scan any Mass and maybe find five or ten young people sitting in the pews. And it’s not because we’re over-challenging them” in youth ministry, he said. “It’s because we’re not reaching out enough and we’re boring them out of the pews and we’re not giving them something worthy to really sink their busy lives and time into.”
So Outside da Box seeks to reach and challenge those teens with “really good Catholic content” — specifically, in video — that “looks at things from a relevant eye.” The group’s mission: “to bring Jesus Christ to the young church through digital media.” To do that, Outside da Box (outsidedabox.com) employs the communication tools teens use like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. Over the last 10 years, Outside da Box has produced about 150 short films, two to eight minutes long, on subjects from confession to the pitfalls of relativism to what makes a saint. The videos are used in youth ministry programs and rallies. For the last four years, in conjunction with the Diocese of Wheeling, West Virginia, Outside da Box has produced a 48-film series based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The V-Cat or Video Catechism series includes 12 films each on the Creed, the sacraments, morality and prayer.
IN THEATERS SOON
The latest endeavor — feature-length films — began two years ago, arising from a conversation Groth had with Bob McMorrow, church history teacher at Lumen Christi High School and director of evangelization and catechesis at St. Benedict Church in Anchorage. Outside da Box plans to produce and release about two dozen across the next 20 years. They will focus on the lives of the saints. The first — “Full of Grace” — centers on Saint Peter, the first pope, and his struggles as the Early Church grew. In December, it will hit theaters, major stores like Target and Walmart, video-on-demand services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, and Catholic bookstores across the nation. To reach audiences across the world, Outside da Box will submit its feature films to international film festivals.
Already “Full of Grace” has been nominated as one of three international films in the “Best Film” category in an Italian film festival. One of Outside da Box’s producers attended an awards ceremony in Rome last month — and met one-on-one with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to discuss the movie.
Groth said the goal of the feature films is to inspire viewers, including teens, to spiritual greatness by showing “the human side of these really important figures of our church history.” He explained: “These people weren’t born with halos around their head, they were real like you and I. And we want to present visually and in narrative form the opportunity for the viewer to really connect and relate on a human level to these people, so that they can see they too are called to be a saint and it’s possible.”
BRAVING THE DIGITAL WORLD
In the early 1990s Groth began looking for ways to engage teens in their new digital world. A campus minister and religion teacher at a Catholic high school, he found little Catholic content — like videos — available anywhere geared to teens. So he started making his own.
Later at Cultivation Ministries, where Groth spent nine years training parish youth ministers, he continued producing content for parish youth programs. Ultimately Groth thought he should start sharing these with a wider circle. That’s when he formed Outside da Box.
To be sure, Groth believes looking outside the box is essential for parishes to connect with and inspire youth.
“If you have a program and you put an announcement in the bulletin and if you expect that they’re going to show up, they’re not,” he said. “We have to be very intentional, we’ve got to be creative, we’ve got to speak their language, we have to be relevant.”
Groth believes teens should be invited to be “integrated” into parish life; they need to know they are capable of contributing, that their parish needs their skills. And Groth stressed that dioceses and parishes need to use communication tools youth use to draw them in.
At the same time, Groth believes it’s critical not to dilute the message.
“We have to be real. We don’t need to be phony. We don’t have to be colloquial,” he said, adding, “The teens can sense a phony in a heartbeat.”
The most powerful message and the strongest medium is authentic Christian love, Groth observed. Recalling his own teen and young adult days, he said that the youth ministry leaders who meant the most to him weren’t necessarily those close in age, “but the thing that really drew me in was that they loved me, they cared about me, they wanted Christ in my life, and they challenged me. They didn’t just entertain me, but they challenged me to grow in my faith.”