There has been such an incredible response to our 40 Things to Give up for Lent and Beyond Devotion Series that I thought it might be good to pause and share a bit of the back story and to praise God for all he is accomplishing.
I started at Good Shepherd about 10 months ago as the new pastor. Good Shepherd is a small church. Average attendance on Sunday morning is about 135. God has blessed our church and we have grown over the past few months. One of the things we continued to pray for is that God would continue to grow our church and fill the empty pews on Sunday morning. But we learn that when we pray for something, God often has something bigger in mind. We don’t have nearly enough pews to accommodate everyone who has been touched by these posts and signed up for the daily devotion.
The vision we have established over the last 10 months has been to KNOW Jesus, GROW as His followers, and to GO out as missionaries into the world. It is KNOW, GROW, and GO. The idea behind this is that we believe everything starts with Jesus. We we come to know him we discover the incredible difference he makes in our lives. When we discover that incredible difference we naturally want more. We strive to grow in terms of what it means to be his follower. As we grow and continue to discover God’s blessings, we will want to share it with others wherever we go.
As we approached the season of Lent, I began to pray and consider some ways I might meaningfully observe this season of the church year. I have long had a blog, but only occasionally posted. I have never put much effort into it. As I prayed over all this I felt God was leading me to share what I was learning. Certainly I share what I am learning through the sermons I preach and the Bible Studies I teach, but I believed the blog another avenue to be used. So I made a commitment to God and myself to blog everyday what I was learning during the season of Lent.
At first, I thought I would use the Good Shepherd Daily Bible Readings as the inspiration for my posts. I typically write something everyday on these readings, but I keep my writings in a personal journal. The difference now was I would make a concerted effort to share what I was writing. Writing is the easy part. The more difficult part for me was actually sharing. But I prayed to God that if he gave me the words, I would share what gave me. While I thought the Bible reading guide would the the inspiration, I would soon discover God would give me some new inspiration.
The Viral Post
All this took place a week and a half before Lent when I made that commitment. I was not sure anyone would take the time to read what I was going to share. But that really did not matter. Ultimately, this was about my own personal journey. If someone else was blessed by what I would share, then great. So I started to write daily on my blog in anticipation of Lent.
At the same time I send out a weekly email newsletter to the members of Good Shepherd and other people who are interested in subscribing. This email newsletter had 211 people who subscribed. Each week I share a devotional thought along with a few announcements about upcoming events at our church. The email would typically provide a link back to our church website drawing traffic to the site.
Like most weeks I sat down to pray and write my weekly email newsletter article. The topic this week was going to be on Lent which was a week away. We had Ash Wednesday worship coming up. I also wanted to talk some about how people were preparing to observe Lent. I knew that many people traditionally give something up for Lent. So I wanted to speak to that, but put a new twist on it. I ended up writing the original article entitled 20 Things to Give up for Lent. See posts on YouTube.
The topic was something which had been swirling around in my mind for some time. I cranked out the article in about 10 minutes and posted it on our church website. I did all the normal things I do. I posted it on Facebook and Twitter and scheduled the weekly email to go out the next day. So the article was posted on the website on Thursday. The email went out on Friday.
As a small local church our website would generally see about 40 people logging on each day. On the days of the week I would send out my email, we might have 120 hits. On a really good day, we might surpass 200 people checking things out.
On the Thursday I posted the article, our website hit 404 visitors. All these visitors on Thursday came mostly via Facebook as the weekly email had not yet gone out. I knew then that this post had really struck a nerve. After the weekly email went out, our website generated 644 visitors on Friday. This was all very exciting, but this was just the beginning.
The weekend came and on Saturday the momentum really started to build. 5,523 visitors came on to the site. This was a new record for our website. There was a lot of buzz on Facebook. People were starting to comment on the site. Sunday came and on this day we had 35,973 visitors on the site. The momentum was building.
The weekend came to a close. The beginning of the work week came and this was when everything went wild. Monday saw more than 280,000 visitors to the site. We had emails and phone calls coming into the church at an incredible pace from all around the world. I stood in amazement at all this.
Following God’s Lead
On Monday night I received a video conference call from a Chaplain Jim Buckman, a friend in the US AirForce currently stationed in Qatar. Pastor Buckman was calling me because I have been helping him out with an effort called Worship with Warriors which is a ministry which live streams Bible Studies and Worship Services with our deployed personnel overseas using Ustream. Worship with Warriors also has a Facebook Page.
As I was consulting Pastor Buckman on some of these things he might do with his email distribution, I started to share with him the story of what was happening with the 20 Things to Give up for Lent post. I contrasted how small our church was to the incredible audience which had been generated in the last few days.
I don’t remember the exact words Pastor Buckman used, but they went along these lines. He told me that God was blessing this and I needed to consider the impact this was having on people. I needed to readjust my priorities to God’s priorities.
So often we have our priorities in life. Then we ask God to come alongside us and bless what we want to do. But here was a case of God showing me a priority of his. Now it was up to me to come alongside what God was doing rather than asking God to come alongside what I was doing.
Pastor Buckman told me I needed to seriously consider changing my schedule to be able to give my time to this door God was opening up. As a full time pastor, I am working very hard to grow a small church. I had to swallow really hard here. The week ahead was full of meetings and Bible Studies. I also had Ash Wednesday worship and a funeral to officiate. How was I going to fit anything else in?
Jim suggested I write a book based on the original post. The original post had struck a nerve and certainly there was interest. As I thought about it some more, I liked this idea. I just needed to adjust my priorities to fall in line with what God was doing. Instead of 20 Things to give up, I could write 40 Things to Give up for Lent. It would be a Lenten Devotion book. I could write one devotion for each of the 40 days of Lent. And then share each post on the church website and send it out as an email.
At this point in time it was about midnight. I went to bed and set my alarm clock for 6am. I would need to get started early. Ash Wednesday was now 24 hours away and that was all the time I had to make this happen and get the first email devotion out.
But my mind was racing. I lay in bed for an hour and could not sleep. After an hour, I gave up. I got up at 1am and started to create an email distribution list and start putting everything together. When I originally set it up at 2:30am in the morning I made it a paid service. I did this to be able to compensate for the extra time I would need to set aside for this and to pay for the potential costs related upgrades in web services.
I went to bed at about 3am that morning. I woke up the next morning around 7am. Already we had 100 people who had paid and signed up for the emails. But something stirred in my heart that God would provide for all this and that we did not need to charge anything. So I made the email list free. It was only $3 had been asking, but we didn’t want anything to get in the way of people being blessed.
So we were started. Now the only problem was I needed to actually sit down and write the series. At least, I thought that was the only problem …
Nothing Worth Doing is Ever Easy
As I interacted with the website that morning (Tuesday) I noticed it was running slow. Not just slow. It was running frustratingly slow.
I worked to clear my schedule as much as I could for the next couple of days to prioritize this. I did a few Monday morning housekeeping matters. And then I got the text message I did not want to get.
“Problems with website. Am talking with tech support.” -Tony
Tony Hansen, our IT volunteer, was away on a business trip to England. But he got an email alert that our website had crashed. I will not bore you with the technical details of all of this. To put it in the most easily understood terms, we had been paying for a website that was like a garden hose. But now with the increase in traffic we were trying to hook that garden hose up to a fire hydrant. It just was not able to handle the traffic that was being generated.
After working with tech support Tony was able to get the site working again. I am thankful to Tony for his hard work through all this. At this time no upgrades were done. We thought we were ok. But over the course of this day, our website generated more 380,000 visits.
When I arrived home late that evening around 9pm, I learned that once again our site had crashed. And there was no way around it this time, we had to upgrade to a new server if we were going to keep the site live. So after paying for the upgrade and a delay of about 2 hours we were up and running again with a brand new server.
In the midst of all this craziness I was able to prepare a devotion for the first day. The first days post was about giving up our fear of failure. It was about the easiest thing to do in the midst of all this, because much of this hoopla had arisen through Jesus helping me to overcome my own personal fear of failure. I had lived with the story. I got the post uploaded to the website and scheduled the first email to be sent out. God is good! I went to bed that night feeling good!
The Power of Prayer
The next morning at 6:03am my phone beeps with another text message:
“Site is down. Am talking with tech.” -Tony
My heart sank. At this point in time it seemed there was not much left for me to do. Actually, there was a lot for me to do. I arrived in my office that morning. I was there with another member from our church. We started to pray together for all the technology to work. The Devil was not going to win. So we prayed. In the middle of this prayer my phone beeped. I had forgotten to turn my ringer off. But in that moment, Tony was texting me from England that the site had been fixed. Praise God. What a testimony to the power of prayer. In all the rush I don’t think I ever paused to specifically pray for the technology in this except in that one moment. Maybe this was God’s subtle way of reminding me that this is on him and not on me.
It turned out that when we had upgraded the server the night before, there were some manual settings that we did not realize needed to be updated. This caused the site to be compromised. But in the end, God won out.
Over the course of the week, we had more than one million visits to our website. This happened in spite of the fact that our website crashed several times on the busiest two days.
Our email distribution list has surpassed 9,000 people and is now approaching the 10,000 mark.
We have heard back from people all over the world how instrumental and transformational these devotions have been. Several people have reached out for help and support for various challenges they are facing. We have been able to help minister to them and pray with them them.
People have been generous. Even after making the list free, many people have donated. There are many more people who have not donated, but that is ok. We are not doing this for the money. We want to do this to bless others. The donations have enabled us to make the necessary upgrades to our server and email service provider.
We use a service called MailChimp to send out our emails. It is a free service, but now that we are sending out more than 9,000 emails a day it is no longer free. We became paying customers. They even sent me a free t-shirt. I need to take a picture captioned: “I wrote a viral post on the internet and all I got was this t-shirt.”
For everyone who donated, we want to thank you. You are a blessing. It is through your generosity that we have been able to provide this resource.
I am not sure where all this leads yet. I will be in prayer over the next couple of days and weeks for the vision for this. I don’t believe this to be a destination, but rather the start of an incredible journey. God is moving. It’s time to see where that is and then follow the leader.
The reason I write this post is I believe it is important to keep a record of God’s faithfulness. This is an opportunity to reflect on lessons learned. As I shared at the beginning of this post, I had made a commitment to share what God has been teaching me. So here are a couple lessons I learned:
- God honors commitments made to him. When you make a commitment to serve him and others, he will prosper the commitment. The problem is the commitments we make are often centered on ourselves rather than on him.
- Come alongside what God is blessing. Sometimes we focus on strategic planning. We make our plans and then ask God if he will be a part of those plans. There was no strategic plan here. It was just simply following God where he was leading and watching to see the doors he was opening up.
- There are no coincidences. Instead of coincidences, we will call them God incidents. I will not go into everything here, but all the pieces were in place to make this happen. Yes, the site was not totally ready to handle all this. But there were enough pieces in place we could quickly respond and take hold of this moment for the glory of God.
- There is a hunger and thirst for Jesus. There is much said and written about the decline of “religion” in America. But someone once told me that there is a God-sized hole in every person’s heart. Only God can fill that hole. We can’t fill that hole with religion. It is only a relationship with Jesus that satisfies. I attribute amazing response to this post to the great desire to find the hope that is only offered in Jesus. We must move past the trappings of religion and point to Jesus.
- Share what you are learning with others. God blesses you so that you can be blessing to others. You really want to learn something well, then start teaching it. You will be amazed how people respond.
- God answers prayer. I already knew that, but every time I see him come through it gives me even greater assurance.
I pray you have been blessed through the resources we have been able to offer. We would love to hear how the 40 Things to Give up for Lent has touched you or blessed you. Feel free to share in the comments below so that others can hear your story. If there is any way we can pray for you. If there is any way we can offer support and encouragement, please do not hesitate to email us.