(RNS) — Jon Lee has some words for evangelical leaders who argue that Christian ethics like kindness, honesty and loving your neighbor don’t apply to culture-war politics.
“Good luck,” said Lee, a principal at Lerma, a cross-cultural advertising agency based in Dallas.
Lee is one of the chief architects of the “He Gets Us” campaign, a $100 million effort to redeem Jesus’ brand from the damage done by his followers, especially those who say one thing and then do another.
Launched earlier this year, ads featuring black-and-white online videos about Jesus as a rebel, an activist or a host of a dinner party have been viewed more than 300 million times, according to organizers. Billboards with messages like “Jesus let his hair down, too” and “Jesus went all in, too,” have also been posted in major markets like New York City and Las Vegas.
The campaign, funded by the Signatry, a Christian foundation based in Kansas, will expand in the next few months, with an updated website, an online store where people can get free gear if they forgive someone or welcome a stranger, and an outreach program for churches, all leading up to a Super Bowl ad.
Lee said organizers also want to start a movement of people who want to tell a better story about Jesus and act like him.
“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,” Lee said.
Jason Vanderground, president of Haven, a branding firm based in Grand Haven, Michigan, said the movement hopes to bridge the gap between the story of Jesus and the public perception of his followers. The campaign has done extensive market research and found that, while many Americans like Jesus, they are skeptical of his followers.
The market research split Americans into four categories: non-Christians (16% of the sample), people who are “spiritually open” (20%), “Jesus followers” (34%) and “engaged Christians” (30%). It showed a wide gap between the first three groups and the last category.
Most people in the first three categories said the behavior of Christians is a barrier to faith. More than two-thirds agreed when asked: “Followers of Jesus say one thing, but do not follow those things in practice.” Only 5% of the engaged Christians agreed. Most folks in the first three categories also agreed that Christians care only about stopping abortions, rather than caring for moms and their children. Only 6% of the engaged Christians agreed.
The recent scandal involving Herschel Walker, the former football star turned outspoken anti-abortion Senate candidate, who allegedly pressured a former girlfriend to have an abortion, seems to fit how many of those outside the church see Christians — especially after many of his supporters rallied around Walker, despite the scandal.
Ironically, the ideas that Jesus loved all people and warned about religious hypocrisy were seen as very important to engaged Christians and Jesus followers in the research but were not seen as very important to the non-Christians or spiritually open.
Vanderground said Christians see their faith as the greatest love story, but those outside the faith see Christians as a hate group.
“Jesus said people are going to know my followers by the way they love each other and the way they interact with each other,” he said. “I think when we look at American Christianity now, we don’t see nearly as much of that — and that concerns a lot of people.”
Lee said past faith-based campaigns, like the famed “the family that prays together, stays together” series of television ads, were aimed at getting people to go back to church. This campaign takes a more spiritual but not religious approach. Lee said organizers hope the ads inspire people to at least consider that Jesus might be relevant to their lives.
Those who see the ads can contact the campaign and get connected with Bible study resources to check out the story of Jesus for themselves, he said.
So far, said Vanderground, 100 million people have been exposed to the campaigns and about 30,000 have signed up for Bible reading plans. Of those, more than half have completed the reading plans. Those reading plans can help people get in touch with the real message of Jesus, he said.
“Our research shows that many people’s only exposure to Jesus is through Christians who reflect him imperfectly, and too often in ways that create a distorted or incomplete picture of his radical compassion and love for others,” said Vanderground. “We believe it’s more important now than ever for the real, authentic Jesus to be represented in the public marketplace as he is in the Bible.”
Vanderground hopes the ideals of Jesus, as portrayed in the ads, might help change American culture if they are more broadly accepted. He also hopes more Christians will begin to live out the teachings of Jesus.
“We believe that investing in efforts to ensure more people consider his life and movement as inspiration for their own will in turn help improve the lives of those listening — and begin to create the kind of cascade of love Jesus himself sought to generate,” he said.