(RNS) For centuries during Lent, Christians have sought to grow closer to God through praying, fasting and giving to the poor.
Now they can also mark the 40-day period of penitence that precedes Easter by posting pictures to Instagram, reading a regular reflection in their email or watching a priest answer questions on Facebook Live.
This kind of effort “meets people where they are,” said Jen Sawyer, digital content manager at Busted Halo, a New York-based media ministry run by the Catholic Paulist Fathers that has Lent-related Instagram and Facebook projects. “It gives them a way to think about Lent that’s easier to grasp, a way to integrate faith in their daily life.”
In the past several years, more churches and Christian organizations have combined digital tools with Lent, which begins this year on March 1. Catholics and Protestants alike are using social media, email and websites to encourage people to pray and reflect in preparation for Easter, when Christians believe Jesus was resurrected.
For the first time this year, congregants at Christ Lutheran Church in Topeka, Kan., will get a word for each day of Lent — including “cross,” “theology,” “forgiveness” and “salvation” — and be encouraged to post a picture inspired by the word to Instagram or Facebook with the hashtag #hearingthegospel.
“I would probably say 30 to 40 people will participate” out of 180 to 200 regular attendees, said the Rev. Daniel Ross, the church’s pastor. He expects most of them to be teenagers. “I think some words will be more engaging than others.”
The project complements the church’s regular Wednesday night Lent services, Ross said, and fits with the overall purpose of the season: “to remember what Jesus did” in dying for sinners on the cross.
At the evangelical Biola University in La Mirada, Calif., the Center for Christianity, Culture, and the Arts’ online Lent Project is in its fourth year, with 10,000 daily subscribers last year.
“There are people in our community who say, ‘I don’t need a special emphasis or special focus.’ But other people say, ‘I desperately need this — I need to be encouraged and reminded and focused at this particular time,'” said Barry Krammes, planning coordinator for the CCCA. “I think attitudes in the evangelical community are changing about Lent.”
The Lent Project is a daily devotional, continuing through the week after Easter, with Scripture passages, written reflections, visual art, music and video.
“I think that combination has been what’s drawn people in,” Krammes said. “It helps the Scripture come alive.” He added, “We’re trying to draw from as many Christian traditions as we can. We’re trying to feature elements from different parts of the world as well.”
That desire for broad appeal also applies to Busted Halo’s efforts, according to Sawyer. For the fourth year in a row, the organization is doing an “InstaLent” challenge similar to the one at Christ Lutheran — starting with asking followers to “Show us your ash” on Ash Wednesday — and is also changing its regular “Daily Jolts” on Facebook and Twitter to encourage people to “fast, pray (and) give.” Its director, the Rev. Dave Dwyer, plans to answer questions about Lent during a Facebook Live event at 3 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday (Feb. 28).
“If somebody isn’t Catholic, they still connect with giving something up or letting something go,” Sawyer said. “We’re intentional about using really approachable language, using these general themes that people can grasp and think about in a deeper way.”
At a time of so much online rancor — political and otherwise — Lenten devotionals can also offer some much-needed breathing space, organizers say.
Catholic Extension, a Chicago-based organization that raises funds for poorer dioceses, is doing a weekly email Lenten Digital Immersion Trip that highlights different communities it serves. So far, over 1,200 people have signed up.
“The Digital Immersion Trip can be viewed as a more productive use of your time on your smartphone or online,” said Matt Paolelli, manager of digital communications for Catholic Extension. “Rather than spending time reading divisive political news or watching another trivial video, participants will be spending time in prayer and reading truly inspiring stories of other American Catholics who are sharing the same faith journey and traditions, even if they are living in vastly different circumstances and another part of the country.”
Whether Christians use any or all of these tools at their disposal, the goal of Lent remains the same, according to Sawyer.
“No matter who we are and how well we try to live our lives, we’re all going to fall short — disappoint ourselves and disappoint God,” she said. “(Lent) is our chance to take stock and think about ways we can improve our relationship with God.”
(Catherine Guiles is a writer and editor in Arlington, Va.)