In case you haven’t seen it yet, there’s a $100 million advertising campaign that launched this year across the United States and is aimed at helping rescue Jesus’s reputation from the “damage” done by His followers. It features a website, billboards in major cities, and ads that have been viewed 300 million times. “He Gets Us,” as the campaign is known, is funded by anonymous donors. If you haven’t seen the ads yet, you likely will soon.
Many Christians immediately have a problem with the idea that Jesus would in some way be “marketed.” As a former marketing executive and adjunct market research professor, I don’t necessarily think such a marketing campaign is inherently problematic. Marketing is simply the discipline of effectively getting a given message to a given audience. If your church has a website, you’re “marketing.” If you have a board in front of your church that announces the weekly sermon subject, you’re “marketing.” If you pass out tracts about Jesus, you’re “marketing.”
In other words, if donors are paying to tell the world about Jesus on a grand scale so that more people may come to a saving knowledge of Him, praise God.
But the message shared better be an accurate message about Jesus, lest you’re actually leading people away from Him in some way.
And therein lies the problem with He Gets Us. The Jesus of this campaign is nothing more than an inspiring human who relates to our problems and cares a whole lot about a culturally palatable version of social justice.
Since many people will be discussing the campaign in coming months, I want to highlight seven significant problems to watch out for and to share with friends who may be misled by what they see.
1. The fact that Jesus “gets us,” stripped from the context of His identity, is meaningless.
The name of the campaign alone should raise at least a preliminary red flag for Christians. Generally speaking, when people or churches focus on the humanity of Jesus—an emphasis on the idea that “He was just like us!”—it’s to the exclusion of His divinity. But Jesus matters not primarily because He understands what it’s like to be human, but because of who He is. In other words, it’s only His identity as God Himself that makes the fact that He “gets us” even relevant.
If Jesus wasn’t God, it doesn’t matter that He understands what it’s like to be human. Literally every other human has experienced humanity as well! Who cares that this Jesus fellow “gets” humanity like everyone else? But if Jesus was God, the incarnation becomes an amazing truth, because the God of the universe also experienced the nature of humanity.
Of course, if the campaign simply had a title which lacked clarity but its execution was something very different, there wouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Read on.
2. Jesus is presented as an example, not a Savior.
There’s nothing I’ve seen or read in the campaign that presents Jesus as God Himself or a Savior for humanity. The questions asked and answered on the site include things like: Was Jesus ever lonely? Was Jesus ever stressed? Did Jesus have fun? Did Jesus face criticism?
But again, if Jesus was nothing more than a human, why are we even asking these questions? We could just as well be asking, Was George Washington ever lonely? Was George Washington ever stressed? Did George Washington have fun? Did George Washington face criticism?
The campaign wants you to care about Jesus because He’s a great moral example. They say, for instance, “No matter what we think of Christianity, most people can agree on one thing. During his lifetime, Jesus set a pretty good example of peace and love.”
But if that’s all Jesus is—a good example—don’t spend millions on a campaign to tell people about Him. We can find good human examples all over the place. Jesus is a good example—the ultimate example—but most importantly, He’s the Son of God. That’s why His example matters.
3. The campaign reinforces the problematic idea that Jesus’s followers have Jesus all wrong.
Jon Lee, one of the chief architects of the campaign, says the team wanted to start a movement of people who want to tell a better story about Jesus and act like him. Lee states, “Our goal is to give voice to the pent-up energy of like-minded Jesus followers, those who are in the pews and the ones that aren’t, who are ready to reclaim the name of Jesus from those who abuse it to judge, harm and divide people.”
For 2,000 years, people have done terrible things in the name of Christ—things that Jesus Himself would never have approved of. There’s no question in that sense that people have “abused” the name of Jesus for their own evil purposes.
But in today’s culture, there’s a popular notion that Jesus was the embodiment of love and all things warm and fuzzy, whereas His followers who talk about judgment, sin, objective morality, the authority of Scripture, and so on, are hopelessly at odds with what He taught. The He Gets Us campaign plays straight into that misconceived dichotomy.
Christians who adhere to clear biblical teachings on hot topics like the sanctity of life, gender identity, and sexuality, for example, are consistently accused of “harming” others by even holding those beliefs. Those who speak the truth about what God has already judged to be right and wrong are accused of being “judgmental” themselves. Those who understand Jesus to be the Son of God—the embodiment of truth, not warm fuzzies—are accused of being divisive when rightly seeking to divide truth from error as the Bible teaches (1 John 4:6).
So the question is, when Lee says that he wants to rescue the name of Jesus from those who “abuse it to judge, harm and divide people,” does he mean that he wants to give people a more biblical understanding of Jesus, or does he want to rescue an unbiblical, culturally palatable version of Jesus from followers who proclaim truth that people don’t want to hear?
I think the answer is clear from my next point.
4. The campaign reinforces what culture wants to believe about Jesus while leaving out what culture doesn’t want to believe.
Whereas the campaign is seeking to give people a fresh picture of Jesus, all it really does is reinforce the feel-good image culture already has. A representative web page, for example, talks about how Jesus “invited everyone to sit at his table.” The text talks about how “inclusive” Jesus was, how the “religious do-gooders began to whisper behind his back,” and how “the name of Jesus has been used to harm and divide, but if you look at how he lived, you see how backward that really is. Jesus was not exclusive. He was radically inclusive.”
Of course Jesus welcomed everyone around His table. And surely people need to hear that. But He welcomed everyone because everyone needs to hear His message about people’s need for repentance and salvation! Meanwhile, He Gets Us presents Jesus’s actions as though they merely represented an example of how to get along well with others: “Strangers eating together and becoming friends. What a simple concept, and yet, we’re pretty sure it would turn our own modern world upside down the same way Jesus turned his around 2,000 years ago.”
Of course, if you’re nothing more than a human (see point 1), there’s not much more to take from Jesus’s actions than a social example of playing well with others.
5. The campaign characterizes the so-called culture war in terms of secular social justice rather than underlying worldview differences.
On a page titled, “Jesus was fed up with politics, too,” it says, “Jesus lived in the middle of a culture war…And though the political systems were different (not exactly a representative democracy), the greed, hypocrisy, and oppression different groups used to get their way were very similar.” The page, like many others on the site, has hashtags “#Activist#Justice#RealLife.”
For those familiar with Critical Theory and how it roots secular social justice ideas, this a pretty clear statement of the mindset from which He Gets Us is coming.
If you’re not familiar with how secular social justice ideas and manifestations differ from those of biblical justice, please see chapter 10 in my book, Faithfully Different: Regaining Biblical Clarity in a Secular Culture; I don’t have the space here to fully reiterate how opposed they are. But the bottom line is that secular social justice is rooted in the idea that the world should be viewed through the lens of placing people in “oppressor” and “oppressed” groups based on social power dynamics. The problems we have in society, according to this view, are that societal structures have produced norms that oppress certain groups, and those groups must be liberated. For example, in such a framework, those who feel oppressed by the gender binary need to be freed from society’s norms of “male and female.” Women whose access to abortion is limited need to be freed from constraints on “reproductive justice.”
The fact that He Gets Us believes culture wars are about the “oppression” different groups use to get their way presupposes a (secular) Critical Theory understanding of the world. In reality, it’s the opposing worldviews in culture that lead to such fundamental disagreement. As I explain throughout Faithfully Different, cultural “wars” over things like the sanctity of life and sexuality are ultimately rooted in disagreements between those who believe in the moral authority of the individual (the secular view) and those who believe in the moral authority of God and His Word (the biblical view).
6. The campaign’s stated goal is about inspiration, not a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
The president of the marketing agency behind He Gets Us has explicitly said, “Ultimately, the goal is inspiration, not recruitment or conversion.”
Now, as someone with a professional marketing background myself, I very much understand the fact that not every campaign has the goal of getting someone to “purchase” (or, in this case, “convert”). Marketers know that people generally go through preliminary phases of awareness, then interest, and then desire before committing to action. So if this campaign were only working at generating more and deeper awareness of or interest in a biblically faithful Jesus, that would be no problem. But if your goal is inspiration, you’re going to generate an awareness of and interest in a Jesus completely detached from the one a person should be giving their life to.
If it’s not immediately clear why, you can see the outcome of such a problematic goal on the page that asks, “Is this a campaign to get me to go to church?” Their answer is, “No. He Gets Us simply invites all to consider the story of a man who created a radical love movement that continues to impact the world thousands of years later. Many churches focus on Jesus’ experiences, but you don’t have to go to church or even believe in Christianity to find value in them. Whether you consider yourself a Christian, a believer in another faith, a spiritual explorer, or not religious or spiritual in any way, we invite you to hear about Jesus and be inspired by his example.”
Jesus is God of the universe and the exclusive path to salvation (John 14:6). He’s not just a nice guy relevant for “inspiring” people regardless of whatever errant worldview they happen to hold.
Some people reading this may try to be charitable in suggesting that if the campaign were more explicitly about Jesus’s divinity and the need for salvation up front, not as many would get interested in learning more. In other words, maybe the campaign funnels people to places that can deepen and clarify their understanding of Jesus. If that were the case, it would be a horrible, misleading approach. Every marketer knows that the goal is to generate accurate awareness. He Gets Us presents not just an incomplete Jesus, but the wrong one.
Even so, let’s look at where the campaign eventually takes people.
7. The next steps offered by He Gets Us could lead someone far away from truth rather than toward it.
When people become interested in learning more about Jesus, they’re directed to a “Connect” page.
Hundreds of churches have signed up to respond to people who fill out that connect form. Clearly, an important question is where those people are directed. However, there is no theological criteria or statement of faith that churches must adhere to in order to take part. The president of the marketing agency says, “We hope that all churches that are aligned with the He Gets Us campaign will participate…This includes multiple denominational and nondenominational church affiliations, Catholic and Protestant, churches of various sizes, ethnicities, languages, and geography.”
As I explain in Faithfully Different (and discuss with Dr. George Barna in my recent podcast), 65% of Americans identify as Christian while only about 6% have a worldview consistent with what the Bible teaches. Dr. Barna’s research has also shown that a dismal percent of pastors have a biblical worldview. If you have no theological criteria for where you’re sending people, you’re actually more likely than not—based on statistics—to be sending them to a church whose teachings don’t line up with those of the Bible.
In other words, you’re sending unsuspecting truth seekers to places where they won’t hear truth.
Yes, Jesus was fully human, but He was also fully God. When you remove half the picture of His identity (as this campaign does), you give people the understanding they want but not the fuller understanding they need. Because of this, He Gets Us has the potential to actually harm the public understanding of Jesus. People need to know that Jesus is our Savior, not a compassionate buddy.