What do LEGO® displays, comic books, family photos and stock images have in common this month? They are all a part of a special time of reflection and creative thinking around the holidays.
United Methodist Communications' Photo-a-Day Challenge invites social media users to participate in a meaningful spiritual practice of looking for visual reminders of God's presence. What started as a Lenten outreach program in 2013 was later expanded to include Advent. Subsequently, it's become a favorite tradition for many.
The challenge uses daily word prompts from the Revised Common Lectionary posted on the Rethink Church social media channels and website. Participants are encouraged to reflect and then post a photo on their social profiles that illustrates how they perceive each word using the hashtag #RethinkChurch. It's both a way to connect with holiday seasons while inspiring others.
"It's a joy to see how people have embraced this as a semi-annual reflection practice," said Chief Communications Officer Jennifer Rodia. "It's particularly exciting to see how local churches incorporate it into their programs."
The popular offering brings with it an increase in social media engagement -- and by participating, local churches may see similar results on their own social media channels.
"We launched the 2022 Advent Photo-a-Day Challenge on the first day of Advent and saw a 600% increase in engagements on our Instagram page alone," injects Ryan Dunn, UMCom's minister of online engagement. "We've also seen an uptick in engagement across all our platforms including Facebook and Twitter. For instance, our Facebook engagement in the first week of Advent increased 96% over the week prior.
"It's meaningful for people. I've even heard from Sunday school leaders who make it part of their curriculum for the season."
Dunn says it's humbling to see into people's spiritual lives.
"They share some real 'aha' moments and provide a glimpse behind their usernames, letting us see their families and relationships. It gets deep from time to time," he notes. "It has been fun to watch Instagram user bluedeltic53 who creates and posts LEGO scenes. Pet pictures are wonderful too!"
Another stand-out participant has been Rev. Drew Davis, the pastor at North Coast UMC in Oceanside, Calif. "This year, my daughter Annie and I have been posting images and pictures, talking through our interpretation of how the images link with each word. It has been a blessing to have this shared experience." The duo uses pop-culture imagery.
Davis says comics and popular culture provide examples of perseverance. "I feel as heroes journey to victory, they also serve as motivation for better things," said Davis. "It has been a blessing to see comic and pop cultural pages we follow responding to posts we have made. This has not just been a time of spiritual reflection for us but a time of unique outreach in many ways."
"I love the word-a-day challenges because they invite me to look for an instance of that word throughout the day. It brings about more purpose and focus to how I am seeing God showing up all around," shares Rev. Sara Pugh Montgomery, senior pastor at Centenary United Methodist Church in Macon, Ga. "Some of my congregation members have been sending me poems, or short devotionals, or images that they think I should use and then they're excited when I post theirs. They've also been using the challenge for their own reflection as well."
Jon E. Strother, Sound District Superintendent of the North Carolina Conference, has joined the challenge for several years and seen others take up the practice. "I participate every morning, so it allows for me to pray, think and reflect on words and images which create for me a portal to see through the words and images - to catch glimpses of the eternal in temporal."
United Methodist Communications staff members participate as well.
Stacey Hagewood, Director of Production (and a Christ United Methodist Church member in Franklin, Tenn.), has used the challenges as a daily devotion time. "I would try to go with my first thought, then spend time pondering it – looking up information, text, scripture and finding a companion photo to accompany my post. I always tried to carve out a quiet time and space each day, and it has helped me to make that a daily practice beyond those seasons."
"The photo-a-day spiritual practice encourages me to pause, reflect and think deeply about different words that relate to my faith. I've challenged myself to review photos already on my phone to see if I can find these specific spiritual themes in the everyday moments I captured while spending time with family and friends," shares Laura Buchanan, senior content specialist at UMCom and a member of Hillcrest United Methodist Church in Nashville. "It's been a nice way to review the past few months of my life, give thanks for the memories I made, and look at the images through a lens of faith."
Buchanan noted the need for some positivity and lightness after the heaviness of the pandemic years. "It's been such an inspirational practice, and in a way, it's even more meaningful than it has ever been for me because I've never been more aware of the preciousness of each day and the value of living in the moment."
*Brenda Smotherman is the Senior Public Relations Manager at United Methodist Communications.
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