Photo challenge gives us ‘companions on the journey’

By Sophia Agtarap, Special Contributor…

I have served since last September as minister of online engagement for the UMC’s Rethink Church campaign. My task? Reaching out, engaging in and encouraging conversation on social media with 18- to 34-year-olds who feel disconnected from the church—as well as those who have chosen to stay—about the intersections of faith, spirituality and culture, and what the church is and could be.

As a 30-something young adult who spends much of her life immersed in social media, I see over and over the ways the church looks past these social spaces. I know there are authentic ways for people of faith, people searching for faith and leaders in our faith communities to truly meet one another where we are in our individual journeys.

Sophia Agtarap

The 2013 Lenten season didn’t provide an easy entry. The invitation to self-denial, penitence, fasting and a deeper prayer life for 40 days isn’t necessarily what I’d lead with. It’s kind of a conversation killer.

So during Lent I took a cue from theologian Karl Barth and approached Lent with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Or a smartphone, rather. My attempt at engaging culture was this: a Lenten photo-a-day challenge.

The photo-a-day concept isn’t something new. Made popular by the Australian blog site Fat Mum Slim, daily photo challenges are a call to have fun, be creative and invite everyone to play. As someone who works for a global denomination, I can tell you that inviting everyone to play isn’t always easy.

Our invitation: “As we journey through this season of Lent, some will choose to give up something. Some will go about their lives as if it was ordinary time. Some will choose to be more reflective. Whatever your practices this season, will you join this photo-a-day challenge and share with the community how you perceive each word or phrase for the day? No explanation needed, unless you want to. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words. Tag us on your Instagram photos or on Twitter. We’d also love for you to share your photos on our Pinterest boards. . . . Let’s start this 40-day journey together, sharing glimpses of our lives with one another. Let this be an intentional time, even for a few minutes a day, to pause, remember and reflect.”

At the close of the project on Easter Sunday, we had 19,907 photos tagged with #rethinkchurch on Instagram alone. People from other denominations (or no denomination) participated, too—young and old, inside and outside the U.S.

This challenge sparked something in its participants, to say, “Yes, I’ll make some space to do this daily activity.” And that carving out of space during Lent that’s supposed to let God in so we could hear God

Chesapeake Church, an independent Presbyterian congregation in Calvert County, Maryland, sent in this image for the Lenten photo-a-day challenge. PHOTO COURTESY UMCOM

more clearly as we practice simple living and fasting? The hope was that this could happen by the simple act of centering ourselves on the word or phrase of the day. By allowing ourselves for just a moment to focus on something other than the frenzy of our daily lives, we could look within ourselves and the world around us, and perhaps be transformed as we began to see with new eyes.

The experience, based on feedback from about 200 participants who filled out a survey, can be summed up this way:

The 40 days of Jesus’ wandering in the wilderness isn’t unlike the “wandering” many of us find ourselves in today. It’s our story as people of faith. This photo-a-day challenge wasn’t intended to offer any sort of road map—just to provide more companions on the journey. And it did. A tweet from one participant, Stephanie, told us that she and her friends would keep blogging past Lent.

This experiment has met with great success in more ways than one could measure. But the question remains: What are the practices learned that will sustain us past this time, as we continue to grow in our faith and in the relationships we’ve made along the way?

To see some of the photos, visit and

Ms. Agtarap is minister of online engagement for Rethink Church with United Methodist Communications. She is also a candidate for deacon in the United Methodist Church through the Pacific Northwest Conference.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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