A (not so brief) history of 40acts

This little acorn began 6 years ago, to turn Lent upside down, on it’s head and instead of giving up, the idea was to give out with a simple generous act for 40 days. And so 40acts was created.

No one at Stewardship would have predicted that within 7 years over 100,000 folk would sign up and embrace Lent so differently.  The acorn planted, put down firm roots, opened up and unleashed a wave of international generosity.

Purple clad bishops at Leicester station gave out sweet treats to amused commuters,  school children in Exeter to Dumfries paid each other compliments. Gardens were weeded, chocolate distributed, new friendships created, old friendships renewed, presents delivered, skills shared, barriers removed, love exchanged and reconciliations made.

‘40acts is a fantastic excuse to go and do something slightly out of the ordinary, to step out of my comfort zone and to start a conversation’, observed one keen supporter.

40 days of generous acts has become an antidote to our self absorbed lives with our ‘to-do lists’, agendas and me first attitude.

When Debbie Wright began working for Stewardship, Lent was approaching and she heard the familiar conversations among her friends about whether to give up coffee or chocolate, TV or Facebook, and it struck her again how odd it all was. Yes, she thought, sacrifice and discipline are all well and good, but somehow Lent seemed to have more to do with health kicks than spiritual preparation. It all felt a little too inward looking and about myself.

A fortnight into her new job at Stewardship, and her decision to take the post seemed in some way related to her Lent musings. “I didn’t want to be in a job where generosity was solely about how much money you could give. Fortunately for me, Stewardship wanted to talk about generosity in a broad and holistic way, focusing on being generous with your time, talents, skills and attitude as well as money. That’s what convinced me to take the job.”

Debbie’s thoughts about Lent burned deep enough within her to consider sharing with her boss, Daniel Jones. He’d been wrestling too, wondering how to get good teaching on generosity into churches. Having tried to reach church leaders, he was steering Stewardship towards a different route: trying to reach the people in the pews directly.

“I didn’t know Daniel very well at the time,” says Debbie, “but I floated the idea and suggested publishing forty reflections as a challenge over Lent. Without a minute’s hesitation, he said yes!” Other team members bought into the vision and between them they came up with a list of forty people to write the reflections – about a quarter being staff and the rest church, work or family connections.

And so 40acts was born. The plan was simple; to send to subscribers a Bible-based reflection on a particular aspect of generosity twinned with a practical challenge to benefit others. That first year was a hand to mouth affair, with only half the contributions written by the time Lent began, but there were already signs that pairing Lent with generosity was a compelling proposition.

Mike O’Neill, Stewardship’s Chief Executive, knew that if the campaign were to spread, it would need support and others quickly came on board. That whole first year made me I realise that the essence of 40acts is relationships. In giving out, you open up someone’s ability to receive and in that process a conversation starts.”

‘Generosity is incredibly infectious and every year we are taken aback’ reflects Daniel. ‘Just before Lent begins, I always wonder if we have done the right thing or everyone will have moved on to something else, but then the number of subscribers jumps up and up. We have never had any formal marketing or advertising, people just share the idea, email to email, text to text, twitter retweets and good old word of mouth.  There is just something incredibly compelling and attractive to live a life that puts generosity first, puts others first’.

1500 people signed up to give out rather than give up with 40acts in 2011. In 2012 that number jumped to 5,000. By the time 2016 came around, subscriber numbers exceeded 103,000. By giving permission to break free from our reserved culture, 40acts has helped people speak to strangers, forge deeper relationship with their neighbours and take risks that they might otherwise have stepped back from.

Over the years the campaign has received awards and accolades, but the real trophies are the stories that come from participants themselves. Like the time in 2014 when two 40act-ers independently started giving out chocolate to strangers on the same crowded commuter train for Chocolate Tuesday, sparking a surge of Twitter interest and appreciation.

Then there was the Muslim man in the fourth year who wrote to say that signing up to 40acts had played a key role in helping him learn to admire the Christian faith and become more tolerant. And the girl in her 20s in Northern Ireland who came back to faith as 40acts created something that was relevant, community based and focused on others.

Over the years 40acts has partnered with a number of different organisations, but the connections have been more than strategic or tactical. Instead, 40acts has grown because individuals have caught the vision for themselves. For Sam Donoghue of Childrenswork magazine, this new view of Lent made perfect sense.  I’d done the giving up bit and was more than ready to take on something new. I loved the kids’ resources in the campaign – kids really get generosity and the graciousness of God.”

Despite growing bigger with each year, the original team remains in place. More significantly, they can testify to the enduring, infectious benefits of embracing generosity in this way.

40acts helps turn observers into givers, and strangers into receivers. It is as accessible as it is infectious, and is only just beginning.