Challenge: Meet the rapidly growing demand for online, streaming church services with a delightful online experience that loads in milliseconds and never crashes.
Solution: WordPress-built content hub, with real-time traffic monitoring, hosted on WP Engine’s Digital Experience Platform.
Results: With in-person services heavily impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic, Harvest Chrisitan Ministry has grown its online attendance by biblical proportions. 1.3 million people were in virtual attendance on Palm Sunday 2020, and every week, thousands of new parishioners join Pastor Greg Laurie for Bible study and prayer.
Harvest Christian Fellowship has grown from a home Bible study group of 30 people into a massive Christian ministry that reaches people all around the world. Led by Senior Pastor Greg Laurie, who started the small study group in 1973, Harvest sees regular Sunday attendance of 15,000 people (and growing) across all of its locations. With a huge uptick in online audiences due to COVID-19, Harvest also reaches hundreds of thousands of people every week with streaming webcasts.
It’s the eighth-largest church in America and the third largest in California, with satellite campuses in Eastvale (Corona, California) and Woodcrest (Riverside, California) and a dedicated campus in Orange County (Irvine, California), as well as its newest campus on the island of Maui, Harvest Kumulani.
"Being able to ensure we’re scaling at the rate we need has been a breath of fresh air. We have high traffic monitoring in place, which is one of the most confidence-boosting things in the world. We know we have a team monitoring our site, ready to scale up if needed.”
—–Josh Morris, Director of Marketing and Communications, Harvest Christian Fellowship
Reaching the multitudes, from the start.
Since its humble beginnings nearly 50 years ago, the mission of Harvest Christian Ministry has remained the same: spread the message of the Gospel and the teachings of Jesus Christ to as many people as possible.
In this pursuit, the church, led by Senior Pastor Greg Laurie, has been blessed with abundance. Today, Harvest reaches hundreds of thousands of people around the world, and while the church’s efforts are mainly focused on the U.S., people from South America to Russia engage with Harvest’s online content and take part in its virtual activities.
The church has long embraced technology as a means of spreading the Gospel. In 1996, Harvest launched its website, and in 1998, a dedicated team of Harvest staff began webcasting Sunday services to a local audience in Riverside, CA.
From a tech perspective, Harvest’s initial setup was a custom, in-house solution—something many organizations in the non-profit sector didn’t have in place back then.
“It was ahead of its time,” said Harvest Director of Marketing and Communications Josh Morris, “and we had a hard-working team, who would often work overtime to develop content and push it live on the site.”
As Harvest’s online audience grew, so did the demands on their team, over time, they also found that keeping their in-house solution up-to-date and in-line with the functionality of other websites was an ongoing challenge.
“We realized we had undershot our growth potential,” Morris said. “So we started to look at tech stacks found in the for-profit world, and we started to implement things like SEO and marketing optimization to make us more discoverable by more people.”
“Most of all, we needed to scale,” he added. “By 2016, we had started streaming weekly services and classes as well as one of our largest annual events to individuals and other churches around the country, and it was catching on. Hundreds of thousands of people were tuning in and we weren’t able to scale as fast as the audience was growing.”
A new website, a new chapter.
Amid the rapid growth, Morris and his team knew they needed to make a change, and quickly.
“We knew we needed a world-class solution—something that was intentionally outside of our organization—that could ensure scalability and elasticity,” Morris said.
“Our goal is to reach the world with the message of Jesus Christ,” he added, “and we wanted to be focused on that goal only.”
In 2018, Morris and his team began to evaluate a total site rebuild, with the express goal of outsourcing their web hosting so they could focus full-time on their ministry.
“That’s where WP Engine came in and truly saved the day,” Morris said. “We rebuilt our site on WordPress, and WP Engine has served as both a hosting solution and a staffing solution ever since.”
From a hosting standpoint, Harvest uses a dedicated solution built on AWS cloud infrastructure as part of a WP Engine Enterprise Plan. Harvest utilizes an active-active configuration on AWS to ensure the reliability and scalability of its website during peak traffic times. From a staffing perspective, this includes regular check-ins with a dedicated account team, white-glove, live technical support 24/7/365, and consistent access to WordPress experts who can help Harvest plan for the future, as their audience continues to expand.
The new site was well-equipped to meet the scaling challenges Harvest had previously faced, and because WordPress is so flexible, updating content and adding new functionality to the site was much easier than it had been before.
“Using WordPress suddenly opened up a new door for our team and allowed them to self-serve in a lot of new ways such as building web pages or adding content to our website instantly,” Morris said. “Because WP Engine takes care of everything on the backend—website maintenance, backups, and even security, these are things that no longer keep us up at night.”
A shining light in uncertain times.
All of this work was thankfully in place when the Coronavirus pandemic hit in early 2020. As businesses around the world shuttered their physical sites, religious organizations also faced the challenge of shutdowns anda need among many parishioners to stay home.
“At first, the situation caught us a little off guard,” Morris said. “We had a great foundation in place, but our livestream has always been a live event, and the announcement that services would be closed came less than four days before our Sunday service.”
Morris and his team acted fast. They called Pastor Laurie and the church’s worship team, and immediately recorded two services back-to-back.
“We recorded until 1 a.m., just to have services we knew we could broadcast,” Morris said.
While the church’s online attendance for the Sunday morning livestream had been consistent prior to that, at around 50,000 people, their broadcast on March 15th, the first Sunday that church services couldn’t be held in-person, saw nearly 230,000 online attendees.
“For the first time ever, people weren’t able to go to church, and they all tuned in to Harvest,” Morris said. “We wanted to give them a relevant message, that spoke to people where they were at, and so we taught on the Coronavirus and what it meant for us as Christians.”
From there, attendance has continued to skyrocket, week after week, without issue on the technical front. The following week saw nearly 360,000 attendees, and the week after that, nearly 625,000 people tuned in.
Then, ahead of Palm Sunday, staff from the White House reached out to the Harvest team to inform them that President Trump was about to announce via Twitter that he would be tuning into their Palm Sunday service.
“They asked us if we could handle the massive influx in traffic his tweet would surely generate,” Morris said. “They had specific metrics, and asked us—can you handle this much traffic? We told them yes, we use a world-class provider called WP Engine and our site is ready to handle any traffic that’s thrown at it.”
On Palm Sunday, the site was indeed ready, and Harvest shattered its previous records for online attendance with 1.3 million people tuned-in to the online service.
“And it went off without a hitch,” Morris said. “We had more than 11,000 people respond to the Gospel on Palm Sunday alone, and it was just as successful as any in-person event we’ve held.”
With 99.99% uptime, and real-time traffic monitoring to spot issues before they become problems, Harvest is ready for the next big event, be it a holy day or a regular Sunday service.
“Being able to ensure we’re scaling at the rate we need has been a breath of fresh air,” Morris said. “We have high traffic monitoring in place, which is one of the most confidence-boosting things in the world because we know we have a team monitoring our site, ready to scale up if needed.”
“The worst thing in the world would have been for the president to tweet a link to our services and then have it not load for him or for anyone else. But the confidence WP Engine gives its clients gave us the confidence to relay to the White House that there wouldn’t be an issue, and it’s why we feel Harvest Chrisitan Fellowship is in such good hands.”