Where would Christians even be without dishonest marketing campaigns? If they weren't allowed to be dishonest, they wouldn't be able to say anything at all.
Not long ago, I spotted a Christian ad campaign on a meme site. Called He Gets Us, the cringe-worthy campaign tries to make a particular flavor of Christianity look interesting to modern young adults. Finding information about this campaign, especially exactly who runs it, proved elusive. I’m not surprised. With a brand as hopelessly tainted as theirs, Christians have to do everything they can to sell their product without revealing their full identity—or their own self-interest.
(See endnote at the bottom of this post for a funny postscript to this story.)
Where I saw He Gets Us (told me a lot right up front)
Amazingly, I saw this ad campaign on eBaumsWorld.com, a meme-sharing and young-adult alt-news site that’s been around since about 2001. I was there to check out a gaming article that’d turned up on my Google News aggregator. And there, right up front, was this ad campaign. At first, I thought it was one of those really artsy perfume ads.
Sure, the ad certainly could have been served to me because of my general browsing and search history. Whatever search engines I use, their algorithms must soon come to some interesting conclusions about where I stand on the topic of religion. But the ad was, in fact, on eBaum’s World, not CNN. I haven’t seen it anywhere else, though readers tell me they’ve spotted it while watching stuff about Battlebots, atheism, and wrestling.
Some very interesting placement if you ask me.
As soon as I spotted this ad and realized it wasn’t selling perfume, I forgot all about why I’d gone to the site in the first place. If you offered me a million dollars to tell you the name of even one game out of the 15 mentioned in that headline above, I’d fail miserably. The article didn’t matter, though. Not anymore.
Laughing like a child, I took a whole mess of screenshots of the ad campaign. I figured I’d look up the details of it later on, but oh, I
wanted needed to document this dog’s dinner of emotional manipulation right away.
What even is He Gets Us?
Very quickly, I realized who He Gets Us aims its message at. Indeed, the placement of these ads tells us a great deal about the campaign’s intended audience.
Consider the placement I myself encountered. According to SimilarWeb, about 44% of eBaum’s World visitors are between the ages of 19-34. They also think that 68% of the site’s visitors are men. I’m sure that on wrestling, Battlebot, and atheism videos, the ads skew similarly or even more so toward young men.
PRNewsWire.com ran a story about He Gets Us this past April. It’s actually been around since early spring, and as of April it had cost its donors over USD$100M.
The title of the campaign is meant to make viewers feel empathy toward Jesus, as well as make them to wonder if this imaginary character really does understand them as they are. Like, OMG, y’all, Jesus was totally judged and canceled and abandoned by his friends, just like we are today! See? HE GETS US!
At that PRNewsWire site, we also learn that Ed Stetzer, a longtime made man with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), advised the people behind it. Now, that is extremely telling. While he worked for the SBC’s Lifeway division, Stetzer failed miserably at every single attempt we ever saw him make to slow the SBC’s endless, decades-long decline. Somehow, that failure translated into a very cushy gig at the very evangelical Wheaton College. There, he chairs and executive-directs Wheaton’s new Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.
Whatever else is going on with this ad campaign, I knew it was going to be evangelical-adjacent. It’s really hard to imagine Stetzer being friendly to mainlines, after the trash he’s talked about “cultural Christians” for so long.
Diving further into He Gets Us
PRNewsWire also tells us that a group called Servant Foundation runs He Gets Us. So I looked them up online and ended up on their site. The URL includes “okc” in it, which made me think they’re based in Oklahoma City. And indeed, I found an address based there at the bottom of that page.
In fact, it turns out that the site for Servant Foundation is already on the church’s own website. For as long as I’ve tangled with modern evangelicals, it still didn’t occur to me that someone would pick “Church of the Servant” as a name. But someone did, and then this church’s leaders made up this nonprofit group to handle church business. And now, apparently, this nonprofit also handles their He Gets Us ad campaign.
It’s extremely difficult to tell exactly what on earth this Servant church believes, doctrinally-speaking. Their statement of beliefs is vague to the point of nonsense. (That vagueness might be purely intentional; hardline evangelicals will know immediately to steer clear, and by doing so spare both sides a lot of hassle.)
They don’t seem awful or anything. But it’s just a little odd that they’re so careful about refusing to take any stance in the culture wars. As the saying goes, silence is violence.
About the Servant Foundation itself
The “About us” page of this ad campaign tells us that it “started with a diverse group of people passionate about the authentic Jesus of the Bible.” Great. All fervent Christians are like that, no matter what flavor of the religion they fancy.
But the blurb doesn’t tell us who any of these diverse, passionate people actually are. We only know a few names: Ed Stetzer, along with Bill McKendry and Jason Vanderground, two Christians behind the design of the ads themselves. Of the latter two, Vanderground at least appears to be a fervent evangelical; he shows up at the usual Millennial-aimed evangelical sites like Relevant and Moody, where he offers the usual horrifying side-steps of the Problem of Evil. We don’t learn these names through the campaign’s site, incidentally. Besides the sources given here, Julie Roys has also uncovered the ad campaign’s other ties to big-name evangelical groups.
Yep, none of that’s suspicious or strange at all. Not a bit!
With all of that said, in several places we learn that this Servant Foundation is run by the Oklahoma United Methodist Foundation. That gives us a bit more solid information. From what I can tell, the Oklahoma United Methodists are indeed evangelical-leaning, but nowhere near as culture-warry as Southern Baptists. The Font of All Knowledge, Wikipedia, thinks United Methodists are mainline!
So I suppose Ed Stetzer not only held his nose for Team Jesus, but he also apparently helped a rival denomination in an enemy tribe with a recruitment campaign.
Looking closer at this Servant Foundation, I also found a list of its officers. Their Chairman and Founder, William F. High, is a very fervent Christian lawyer who works in estate planning. He’s also contributed to a book about “a return to Reagan Conservatism;” its Amazon blurb demonizes liberals and progressives as freedom-hating traitors “encroaching upon” and “disrupting” TRUE AMERICANS™ like, presumably, himself.
A beloved game of TRUE CHRISTIANS™: OUR Jesus is better than THEIR Jesus, except they’re all the same Jesus really
Over at the website for this ad campaign, we discover this statement of intent:
He Gets Us is a campaign designed to create cultural change in the way people think about Jesus and his relevance in our lives.“About us“
Whoever wrote this page, they were super-impressed with themselves for happening upon the remarkable strategy of making Jesus look super-relatable to kids today. They repeatedly stress that they’re not trying to funnel anyone into any particular denomination or church. Instead, to put it in Christianese, they just really just want everyone to really just get to know just the real Jesus who just really for real existed and totally just experienced all the things people have just always experienced. The campaign asserts that everything people think they know about Jesus is wrong—unless, of course, it matches what these folks think they know about him.
But this ain’t new, baby.
The idea of a super-relatable Jesus who suffered just like people do today isn’t new. It isn’t even revolutionary. It’s the same sales pitch that Christians have used for millennia now. Though the word and concepts behind being “canceled” didn’t exist when I was a teenager, the ideas of Jesus getting rejected by almost everyone before his death and suffering like everyone always has were ones I heard often—and even used myself in my own evangelism attempts.
He Gets Us just plasters modern slang on top of old spiels, then expects everyone to applaud their amazing cleverness.
And their other favorite game: More Hardcore Than Thou
The attempt to paint other Christians as less-than because their idea of Jesus is different isn’t new either. It’s just another entry in the high-stakes game of More Hardcore Than Thou that Christians have been playing for years. Christians have always torn down other Christians to make themselves look like Jesus’ favorites. That game’s been part of their religion since its very beginning. Ever since their decline began in earnest about 15 years ago, they’ve really stepped it up.
However, it’d be really hard to imagine any group of Christians who don’t say all of this same stuff about their version of Jesus. Catholics certainly think Jesus suffered like everyone always has. Presbyterians think so as well. And so, of course, do hardline Calvinist evangelicals. Jesus’ essential humanity, and his life’s similarities to all people’s lives, is part of every single Christian belief system out there.
For that matter, every flavor of Christianity features the same belief framework. All that differs are the specific cultures built around the same basic ideas. And active membership in one of those cultures is the actual product that evangelists sell.
So He Gets Us is really trying a “It’s Toasted!” advertising gambit here.
I suppose they’re really hoping that nobody realizes that literally all Christians believe exactly what He Gets Us presents, and thus that everybody living in a Christian-dominated country has already heard these talking points.
And the untrue promises found in He Gets Us
In the “About” page for He Gets Us, we also find some advertising promises. If only our government held religious groups to the same standards as multi-level marketing schemes (MLMs)!
But Christians can make sky-high promises all they want. Like this utterly irresponsible one:
His [Jesus’] teachings and how he lived just might help you with your job, family, or relationship challenges, as well as issues like rejection, anxiety, depression and more.He Gets Us
Of course, as a behavioral modification program, Christianity is a colossal failure. Jesus doesn’t change anybody through magic, and Christian cultures’ roadmaps to personal change categorically don’t work. Participating in Christian culture, even at the maximum level their groups offer, actually functions as a weak substitute for self-improvement.
And when people facing anxiety, depression, and rejection issues join these groups and fail to find comfort or lasting change through them, the group will blame these folks for Jesus-ing wrong somehow. Worse, the group will likely demonize objectively effective therapy that actually can and does help with these problems.
I wonder if that’s why the specific wording is so weasel-y: “just might help you.” Hey, they didn’t say it actually would help you.
It “just might.” Or it might not. It really kinda depends on how Jesus’ tummy is feeling that day.
I find these promises of magical help for real-world and serious issues to be reprehensible, grotesque, and extremely cruel. But it’s just business as usual for evangelists.
That 4-14 window is closing fast, and He Gets Us won’t reopen it
He Gets Us has a number of lofty goals:
- Making young adults more open to the idea of joining a Christian group one day (before the 4-14 window closes forever)
- Persuading young adults that Christianity is completely relevant to them
- Convincing young adults that sure, Christians constantly get Jesus’ message completely wrong and behave in ways he would be very unhappy to see, but they should just focus on Jesus himself and not ever notice all the ways that he himself acted like a raging asshat to everyone around him, and especially they shouldn’t let Christians’ constant inability to enact their stated goals be a hindrance to joining their groups
- Somehow making supernatural claims-without-evidence sound believable to people who know increasingly well that supernatural is just another word for imaginary
- Offering young adults a vision of Christian affiliation that almost no church groups have ever been able to put into lived reality
- To shame existing Christians into Jesus-ing the way they think is the bestest way
As far as I can tell, nothing this campaign is doing is persuading any young adults in America to change their minds about Christianity. In its five months of life, I’ve heard no conversion or rededication stories from it at all. The only people talking about it are heathens, who are not discussing it in favorable ways.
PRNewsWire tells us that 100M advertisements turned into 2M visitors to the website of He Gets Us, which in turn turned into “tens of thousands” of actual engagements (texts, chats, etc). If engagement is the specific desired action, then those numbers don’t sound like a fantastic conversion rate. But we don’t know exactly what the campaign’s specific desired action even is.
Nor have I ever seen any stats about how many of those people were in the age group desired, had the disaffiliation with Christianity desired, or gave the kind of engagement desired.
For all we know, the only people engaging with He Gets Us are fervent Christians giving a high-five to the campaign’s organizers. Or maybe they seek evangelism tips.
But I understand the secrecy behind He Gets Us
You know what just makes me laugh, though? Seriously makes me laugh?
All this blahblah on the He Gets Us site and in the interviews that have all these Christians gushing about how totally non-judgmental Jesus totally is, how loving and kind, how supportive to his followers, how nurturing to everyone.
And then I look up info about the people involved. I mean, I look up the people who actually get publicly named as being part of the campaign. Most of them, again, never get identified at all.
When I check out the few names provided, I encounter stuff like that thunderous denunciation of liberals/progressives as evil traitors who hate everything good about America just because it’s good and well, they’re ickie gross evil baddies. (Much loving, very non-judgmental, so very Jesus-y.) I encounter folks I don’t trust at all, like Ed Stetzer and the Luis Palau evangelism group.
Really, the secrecy here is completely understandable. These folks don’t maintain secrecy because they’re all just sooooo intent on their Jesus-flavored mission. Instead, it seems more like they know skeptics will immediately recognize what a bait-and-switch this ad campaign really is.
Remember what matters most, though: $$$$
But remember one thing above all. Heathens, that vast swathe of religiously-unaffiliated people in America, are not really the audience that matters to any of these evangelism efforts.
The evangelists themselves can say whatever they please about the matter. We’re still not giving a red cent to He Gets Us or the Servant Foundation or Luis Palau’s thing or Wheaton College. We’re not subsidizing a single church or pastor or evangelism campaign, beyond the perks and tax breaks Christians get for running and donating to these Jesus-flavored businesses.
The people paying for these campaigns are the ones who matter. They’re the ones these campaign organizers and creators must convince of their effectiveness.
As long as these donors feel like their money’s well-spent, that’s all that matters to the people selling this stuff.
If not one single atheist college student ever converts because of He Gets Us, the campaign’s creators will just tell everyone they planted seeds for Jesus. Nobody in Christianity can argue with that! Nor will a single Christian hold these advertisers accountable for their failures.
And then, evangelists will hold their hands out for donations to fund their next big failure, all while their religion continues to hemorrhage more members and credibility by the year.
I really should check email more often. Today, while going through my inbox, I found this:
It was sent out through Christianity Today, an evangelical news site. Since I subscribe to it for my work, I got this invitation to become a “partner” of the He Gets Us campaign. At the provided link, we find a lot of talk on it about getting “resources” and “signing up,” but no mention of how much any of this stuff costs.
Since these “resources” include 10-week training guides, they aren’t free. Either the “partners” pay for it at the point of joining, or deep-pocketed donors do ahead of time. But I guess it’s not very Jesus-y to bring up “the sordid topic of coin” in an evangelism push.
Also, I can’t help but notice that the site’s claims of reach and engagement seem to differ a bit from the citations I found for this post. If they’re true, they highlight one truth above all, and they do so with even more glaring clarity:
five now six months of life, this campaign doesn’t seem to have made much of an impact at all on the people its creators claim they want to reach. It seems to exist solely as a way to separate Christians from their money and make them think that someone’s actually doing something to reverse their decline. In that way, it’s just one of a long line of similar ventures posing as evangelism ministries.