AdventWord - moving from selfies to spirituality
In the late fall of 2014, I responded to an online prayer initiative that changed my entire understanding of what digital ministry could be.
The initiative was AdventWord – a daily invitation from the Brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE) to pray along with others around the globe during Advent. What made this initiative so different – and so mindset-changing – was that through it, I realized that the ongoing story of the people of God must be told by the people of God; and that sometimes the best stories are told without words. This realization changed my whole understanding of the potential of digital ministry and, in no small part, influences the work I do every day.
This year is a particularly exciting year for AdventWord. Responsibility for the initiative is being transferred from SSJE to Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS). To better understand both the history and the future of AdventWord, I spoke with Jamie Coats, the Director of the Friends of SSJE, and with Sarah Stonesifer who is the new Project Coordinator for AdventWord as part of her job as the Digital Missioner at the Center for the Ministry of Teaching at VTS.
Jamie Coats' Favorite AdventWord is Encourage
When asked about the inspiration for AdventWord, Jamie talked about the original concept of teaching meditative practices to a new generation and the idea of bringing spirituality to the world of selfies. While the Brothers of SSJE had piloted other initiatives, what was unique about AdventWord was that it attempted to reflect a liturgical call and response on an open platform in a way that was both beautiful and safe. It was a pioneering attempt to address the question of whether can you bless the prayers of the people writ large.
Clearly the answer was a resounding yes. Since its inception, AdventWord has grown to encompass many different languages, cultures, and countries around the world. Jamie explained that the Brothers of SSJE always saw the AdventWord initiative as a gift to the world, freely given. They were open to partnerships with other entities, which drove the project’s growth and influenced the various translations available. The Archbishop of Taiwan for example, wanted AdventWord in Chinese, so the Brothers facilitated a partnership.
The Brothers also took great joy and satisfaction in unofficial partnerships. Although they didn’t provide an official Welsh translation, for example, they began to see responses in Welsh. As it turns out, St. David’s, a church in Cardiff, was translating the world of the day, writing it on a sandwich board outside of the parish, and inviting people to join. They did and became part of the AdventWord phenomenon.
When asked what surprised him about AdventWord over the years, Jamie said he has been most surprised by the sheer amount of joy that has come back and the way in which AdventWord transcends linguistic differences. By focusing on the imagery, participants can understand a response in Chinese even if they can’t speak Chinese.
Finally, I asked Jamie if passing responsibility for AdventWord on to VTS was bittersweet. He replied with the analogy of raising children and hoping that they will be well-behaved enough that you can send them out into the world. In other words, he says great things happen when the spirit is moving, and you aren’t possessive of it. More than anything, he believes we need to learn how to pray together as a world and that in so doing, we can come together for something really beautiful.
I then turned then to Sarah Stonesifer, who is thrilled that VTS will extend the AdventWord initiative.
Sarah Stonesifer's Favorite AdventWord is Messenger
Familiar with AdventWord as a participant and excited to be a part of this project, Sarah loves that it upholds praying not only with our voices but with our phones, and that it prompts us to notice God in a visual way.
She also pointed out that participants use AdventWord in different ways. Some use it as a more forward-looking prompt, taking the word of the day and using it to be on the lookout for God in their daily life. Others use it more as a reflection, looking back through their year to where they saw evidence of God. It’s a powerful tool for reflecting on gratitude, considering everything learned over the year and where God has been present.
Sarah believes that VTS is a good fit for AdventWord because it allows the seminary to give the gift of prayer and spirituality to the church. Often the seminary focuses on intellectual gifts and gifts of leadership; AdventWord, even though it is only 23 days, gives the seminary a chance to offer a deeply spiritual, prayerful, meditative gift – which is an opportunity that the seminary values as an organization.
In wondering what lies ahead for AdventWord, Sarah hopes to continue the practice of fruitful partnerships, especially those connections afforded by the Center for Anglican Communion Studies, which will be celebrating its 25th anniversary. She looks forward to drawing on these connections to allow AdventWord to represent even more voices.
Sarah loves the what AdventWord has to offer to the world – in what can be a season of separation, AdventWord calls people into communion with one another not just pushing information out, but letting shared prayers ascend. It’s humbling and awesome to realize the thousands and thousands of people it touches, and the extraordinary hope and joy it creates during Advent.
What is Your Favorite AdventWord?
Won’t you be a part of this global phenomenon? It begins on December 3, the first Sunday of Advent.
To help you get started here is a great article from our friends at Building Faith with instructions and suggestions for participating in AdventWord! What will your favorite word be? What stories will you tell as we together move through this season of anticipation and wonder?
- Lisa Brown
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