Sheila Svoboda hopes people will slow down and connect with God during Lent.
And she believes that connection can be made via social media.
“Sometimes we hear people say that technology takes away from personal relationship building, but it can help us build relationships with each other and, we believe, with God,” said Svoboda, director of Christian education at Akron’s Westminster Presbyterian Church. “We’re using social media as a tool to communicate with people and share with them things that can encourage and inspire them and remind them that we are here [as a church] for positive interchange.”
In recent years, as participation in Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest and Instagram has grown, more religious institutions have engaged in digital strategies to build relationships and to expand outreach. Some — like Westminster, Tallmadge Lutheran Church and the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown — will put that technology to work during Lent, which begins Wednesday.
Brian Corbin, executive director of Catholic Charities Services in the Youngstown diocese, is encouraging parishioners in the six-county diocese to download the CRS (Catholic Relief Services) Rice Bowl mobile app for Lent as a guide for daily prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Corbin is reaching out to the nearly 200,000 parishioners in the diocese via church bulletins, the diocesan website (www.doy.org), Facebook and Twitter (@DOYoungstown).
Rice Bowl — known for its cardboard rice bowl used to collect money to fight global hunger and poverty — has been the official Lenten program of Catholic Relief Services, the international humanitarian arm of the U.S. Catholic church, since 1977. This year, the program has gone high-tech for the first time, providing a mobile app that allows participants to access daily reflections for prayer, a way to set goals and track their progress, meatless recipes for Fridays and stories of people who have been helped by prayers and almsgiving through CRS.
“This app is a new way to bring Lent and the Rice Bowl program to life,” Corbin said. “It’s just one of today’s realities: Technology has changed the way we communicate and how we get information. As a faith community, we are working to utilize modern technology as a way to help people incorporate God’s life in their daily lives.”
‘We go where people are’
The Rev. David Zachrich, pastor at Tallmadge Lutheran Church, agreed with Corbin that the use of technology is a necessary means of communication for churches these days. The church (www.tallmadgelutheranchurch.org) has a volunteer dedicated to a digital strategy, which will include tweets (@Social_TLC2012) and Facebook postings of daily devotions and Lenten events.
“We use the tools that we have to proclaim the gospel of Christ. If that’s Facebook or Twitter, then that’s what we use. It’s a communications issue; we go where people are,” Zachrich said. “It would probably be interesting to stand on an orange crate at the corner of Main and Market to get the message out. But I don’t think it would be very effective.”
Lent, which commemorates the 40 days that Jesus retreated into the wilderness, is a time of reflection when Christians rededicate themselves to God and a time of preparation for Easter. The season of spiritual purification through fasting, prayer, meditation, repentance and almsgiving is considered an opportunity to give up worldly luxuries as a form of penance and an act of devotion to Jesus.
40 days of quotes
At Westminster (www.westminsterakron.com), Svoboda and Germaine Wilson, communications director, have a plan to tweet (@WestPresAkron), email and post on Facebook “40 Quotes for 40 Days,” to help parishioners stay on track spiritually during Lent.
“It’s so easy to start out strong and then let up,” Wilson said. “These daily reminders are meant to help people focus on a reflection that will inspire them to deepen their prayer life and do something to help others. We are also encouraging people to forward the emails, retweet the quotes and ‘like’ and ‘share’ them on Facebook.”
The quotes, from St. John Baptist De LaSalle, are intended to help participants examine their hearts throughout the Lenten season and to make necessary adjustments to experience spiritual renewal.
Svoboda describes several of the quotes as universal — not specific to any denomination and useful to the unchurched as well as those who attend church.
“Things like, ‘Don’t be discouraged by anxieties and troubles. Life is full of them,’ and, ‘Inspire and lead others by encouraging them’ are words that can speak to anyone. This is about touching the lives of our members and reaching out to others,” Svoboda said. “It’s ultimately about relationship-building. Our goal is to have people take a moment out of their busy lives to breathe and contemplate words that can enrich their lives and further their Lenten journey.”
To be added to the email list at Westminster Presbyterian, email email@example.com or call 330-836-2226.