Message spread fast

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 15, 2014

Imagine that you’re the pastor of a small church — say 135 members or so — and you’re preparing your weekly email message. You knock it out in about 10 minutes. You feel pretty good about it. You hit send.
And it goes viral.
That’s what happened to the Rev. Phil Ressler, the pastor of Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregation in Old Bridge, N.J.
Ressler wrote a simple list of 20 things to give up for Lent. And he doesn’t want you to give up these things for Lent, but for the rest of your life. Not soft drinks. Not facebook. Stuff like guilt and fear, envy and impatience. Doubt. Self-pity. Excuses. Worry.
Sounds like a pretty good idea, right? A lot of people thought so. Ressler published the list on Feb. 27. In just a few days, the Good Shepherd website hit more than 1 million visitors.
Ressler has some ideas on why the list struck such a chord with so many people.
“Many people in America have given up on church, but they haven’t given up on God,” he says. “All of us are wired to live in relationship with him. But many have gotten caught up in the trappings of religion. We have our traditions but many people are not sure how to connect the traditions with God. They are going through the motions. I believe the reason people connected with this article was because the article was not really about a tradition as much as it was about connecting with God. People are hungry for God even though they may not realize it.”
Perhaps because he’s a young pastor, Ressler has been taking advantage of social media. In addition to the church’s website, he posts to Facebook and Twitter.
“We need to be on social media as a church, because people are there,” he says. “I have shared with other pastors that most people will visit your website before they visit your church. How many people have not visited your church because they visited your website?”
And now he’s discovered just how powerful social media is.
“I knew social media was powerful, just wasn’t sure yet how to leverage it,” Ressler says. “We had more than a million visits to our website last week. In comparison, our church averages 135 in worship attendance on Sunday morning. As I walked from my car to our church building on Sunday morning, I tried to imagine what a million cars would look like. I could not do it. The Web and social media are a powerful platform that give the opportunity to reach audiences in numbers previously impossible to reach.”
When asked to share his overall take-away about this amazing experience, Ressler hesitates just to name one thing.
“I go back to Proverbs 16:3, ‘Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established.’ Whatever you do, do it for the Lord,” he says. “I could never have imagined reaching a million people on my own. God did the heavy lifting here. Our church may be small, but God is able to do incredibly more than we can imagine. It is not about our size or our ability. It is about him. He is opening a door and when God opens a door, it is time to step through.”
To read more about “20 things to give up for Lent” and the story behind the article, visit gs4nj.org and click on the links below the “e-news articles” heading.

Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.

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