Overview:

A hilariously bad article at Christianity Today lauds the supposed runaway success of 'He Gets Us' marketing campaign. We examine the article on its own merits, finding it completely lacking.

Diving deeper, we discover a potentially very dark and ominous evangelical hope that may explain why they're willing to sink $1B into this pathetic turkey of a campaign over three years.

Reading Time: 14 minutes

He Gets Us is a billion-dollar evangelical ad campaign that has been running nonstop on social media and television for about a year and a half. It undoubtedly pays the salaries of a great many artists, managers, and consultants—and, of course, the so-called ministers who scheme from the shadows behind it in their so-called “ministries.”

A recent story at Christianity Today extolled all the runaway successes of He Gets Us. But as I read, I noticed a curious absence of information. And then, my gaze swept up to the very top of the page—where I spotted something that suddenly made complete sense of what I was reading. Ah yes, I thought. Our old evangelical pal Self-Interest has come a-callin’. Again. H’ain’t he wore out his welcome yet?

He Gets Us creates success of a very different kind for evangelicals. And that success bodes very poorly for the rest of us. Let’s examine this story on its own merits, and then let’s dive beneath the surface to see what’s likely really going on.

(Author’s note: I use the term “heathens” to indicate non-Christians or lapsed Christians. The term also has a specific meaning of Germanic pagan reconstructionism, but that’s not what is meant here.)

Quick recap of the dire importance of recruitment in evangelicalism

For about five years, evangelicals have been pushing very hard on the flocks to do more recruitment. They call this personal evangelism, which is Christianese for person-to-person recruiting largely done by amateurs.

Personal evangelism is a bit like if a major fast food chain stopped running advertising, marketing, or publicity of any kind and instead relied solely on word of mouth from its current customers to get new ones. Except now they only sell bags of rocks painted to look like food. And everyone in the restaurant, from the manager down to the servers and the other customers, is rude. It wouldn’t take long for the restaurants’ personal evangelists to start getting the cold shoulder.

In response to these increased calls for personal evangelism, the flocks have nodded in agreement, smiled, and then almost completely ignored their Dear Leaders’ commands.

A long time ago, noted evangelical leader John Stott moved the evangelism goalpost to make things as easy as possible for the pew-warmers. Instead of scoring a recruit, now all he asked was for the flocks to at least make a recruiting attempt. He hoped that’d make the idea of personal evangelism less daunting to evangelicals.

But it didn’t help at all.

Evangelical pew-warmers do not want to recruit. They don’t like recruiting. It’s embarrassing, destroys their relationships and credibility, obviously violates others’ personal boundaries, and largely only results in rejection and worse. Moreover, there isn’t a thing their leaders can really do to them if they don’t do it. So they don’t do it.

(Related: Meet the Southern Baptists’ EVANGELISM TASK FORCE; The year when Southern Baptist leaders demanded one million baptisms; The “reset button” won’t make the flocks like evangelism.)

If evangelical leaders are correct, and personal evangelism is all that will save Christianity from its decline, they are in big trouble.

Quick recap of He Gets Us

He Gets Us is supposed to redeem evangelicals’ beyond-tainted brand. In marketing, a tainted brand is one that is mired in controversy and problems. Think like Bud Light in their latest fracas over Dylan Mulvaney. Months after the controversy began, the brand is still facing huge problems as their core consumer demographic continues to reject their product. Evangelicals are in that kind of situation with their own brand, except their decline has lasted longer, has more roots than just one social media post or stray comment by an executive insulting their core fanbase, and involves a whole lot more scandals and political control-grabs.

In the case of He Gets Us, the campaign consists of many millions of dollars’ worth of advertisements in prime media spots like the Super Bowl. These advertisements seek to present Jesus as a hip Zoomer/Millennial kinda guy who totally “gets” people today. Just like Zoomers/Millennials feel disaffected and lonely, he was too! Just like Zoomers/Millennials feel like the world is getting more hostile, he’s right there to tell them how to make it better! They wanna change the world? So does he! See, he gets them!

The campaign has three ostensible goals:

  1. As the campaign creator has said, “obviously” to persuade people to join Christianity (or become more active in it, if they’re inactive Christians)
  2. To raise interest in Jesus himself, apart from icky politics, which should make heathens more amenable to Christians’ recruitment attempts
  3. To get Christians to do good deeds for others to hopefully improve Christianity’s tattered reputation

The ‘Project Sparkle’ of Christianity

In a way, the campaign reminds me of one of my favorite Dilbert cartoons, “Project Sparkle.” In this 1997 cartoon, the Pointy-Haired Boss (PHB) makes an announcement:

He Gets Us displays the same kind of mismatched priorities. Nothing about He Gets Us actually tackles the reasons for Americans’ growing distrust and dislike of evangelicals: their ever-increasing politicization, their constant skewing ever-more-rightward, their belligerent bigotry, sexism, and racism, their hatred of the poor that Jesus told them to help, their utter hypocrisy regarding the selfsame rules they want to force the rest of us to follow, their wingnutty denial of science and reality, and their leaders’ constant abuse scandals.

Worse, most Americans probably have a decently-positive opinion of Jesus as a sort of Ultimate Good Guy of the Universe, though perhaps they shouldn’t, in my humble opinion. It’s hard even to fathom why anyone thought evangelicals needed an ad campaign about something most Americans probably already accept.

Also of note, He Gets Us operates a website that sends free stuff to Christians who claim to have done various good deeds for others. This stuff includes He Gets Us-branded hats, shirts, water bottles, and other such inexpensive goods. They don’t check up on whether or not the recipient has actually done whatever good deed is claimed.

One of the “payment” screens for free stuff from He Gets Us

On the site, interested parties can also connect with local churches and ministries, as well as chat with whoever the campaign has hired to hang out on the site for that purpose.

A glowing assessment of He Gets Us

At the time I spotted it, this Christianity Today story ran on its site’s front page. Its title makes it sound like quite an important story, too: “5 Critical Insights for Church Leaders: How the He Gets Us campaign is influencing culture and changing churches.”

Neato, I thought. Has someone finally released some actual meaningful research about this campaign’s effectiveness?

Because it’s been running for a year and change now. An evangelical group, The Servant Foundation, began it in March 2022. It even has its own Wikipedia page, which notes that the people behind the campaign intend to waste a mind-blowing one billion dollars US on it over three years. I’ve even written a few pieces about it.

From the get-go, the whole campaign sounded like a bunch of sinecures for a bunch of evangelicals—a way to get free money to waste on pet projects that would make evangelical big-money donors feel like they were truly advancing Jesus’ kingdom on Earth with their donations. Nobody even seemed to care that the campaign had no real measurable goals or even metrics for performance. So I was actually eager to dig into the story.

Then, I discovered that it was complete fluff. It talks a lot about the Super Bowl ad they ran, name-drops creepy, ineffectual Ed Stetzer as one of the campaign’s advisors, and then plunges into claims that the campaign has totally changed evangelical churches for the better.

Hilarious claims that do not connect with evidence in the least in He Gets Us story

To demonstrate the campaign’s effectiveness, the story tells us this:

He Gets Us certainly achieved its goal of sparking conversations about Jesus. By centering Jesus’ humanity, the ads prompted viewers to explore questions about his divinity. The result? Google searches for “Jesus” surpassed Christmastime searches and were on par with Easter, experiencing an increase of 1,200% or more. Prominent media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal and USA Today took notice of He Gets Us, amplifying the campaign’s message. The Super Bowl itself became the most-watched TV event in history, exposing approximately 115.1 million viewers to the ads that highlighted the importance of child-like faith and Jesus’ love for others, including our enemies.

Movement Making: 5 Key Takeaways from He Gets Us,” Christianity Today, archived June 7

Are they serious? They’re using Google searches for “Jesus” as the metric by which they are measuring their ad campaign’s success? And they’re using that as their metric in a year when a prominent Christian movie with the word “Jesus” in its title, Jesus Revolution, came out, along with various shows about Jesus like The Chosen and The Chosen One?

In fact, I did what the hucksters behind He Gets Us hoped nobody would do: I went to Google Trends to find out just what was going on with search terms. That’s when I found out that Ed Stetzer isn’t just creepy and completely ineffectual. He’s also a fibber. Here is the Google Trends report for searches for “Jesus” between Christmas 2022 and mid-April 2023 (Easter was on April 9th; the Super Bowl was on February 12th):

I see no real spike, particularly not one rivaling Christmas or Easter. Unsurprisingly, searches spiked hard on the former and way lots hard on the latter, but not much was going on for Super Bowl Sunday.

For kicks and giggles, I also ran a search for “Jesus” vs “He Gets Us” for the same period. I figured that if the ad campaign got a lot of attention it’d show up on searches as well:

It’s not surprising that a tiny bit of interest spiked around the time of the Super Bowl, but otherwise it hasn’t attracted much interest at all. That is likely how the donors to the campaign prefer it; they’ve remained largely anonymous.

Unfortunately for Ed Stetzer and his pals at He Gets Us, nobody can tell if the Super Bowl ads “prompted viewers to explore questions about [Jesus’] divinity,” any more than we can tell from searches of the term “Jesus” that people are exploring any specific traits of his.

It’s obvious that the campaign’s research team hasn’t explored such connections at all, or if they have that they found no connection. If they had and one existed, then they’d have told us all about it.

When evangelicals brag about evangelistic success, listen to what they do not say.

What He Gets Us marketers do not say (speaks volumes)

As just one example, consider this success claim in the story:

139 million Americans are now familiar with the campaign, and in that group, there has been a significant shift. After watching the ads, viewers are more likely to: see Jesus as a worthy example, agree that Jesus loves everyone, believe Jesus understands them, and express interest in reading about Jesus in the Bible.

Movement Making: 5 Key Takeaways from He Gets Us,” Christianity Today, archived June 7

Wow, that sounds impressive, right? But is it?

Super Bowl 2023 viewership numbers range from 115 million (Fox Sports) and 200 million (NFL.com). Anyone watching Super Bowl ads during the game would have seen the ad, of course, and a lot of people like watching the ads on their own anyway.

We don’t know how He Gets Us marketers know about this shift. We don’t know if the people involved were already Christian, or if they were heathens who were just wonderstruck by Jesus’ incredible Jesus Aura. The paragraph does not say that these respondents changed their minds about Jesus or that they’ve decided to start reading about him after never having read about him before. It only says they agree with those points. Existing Christians seem extremely likely to say all of that after viewing such ads.

In 2019, Pew Research estimated that there were roughly 167 million Christian adults in America. There also appears to be quite an overlap between football fans and evangelical Christians. Thus, a bunch of heathens were likely at no risk of seeing the ads in the first place.

The story does not specifically say that heathens saw or agreed with the ads. So we can assume they did not. Rather, the ads made existing Christians, particularly evangelical Christians, happy. But they already agree with the claims the campaign makes.

The 5 supposedly “critical” and “key takeaways” of the He Gets Us post

Again, listen for what is not being said in these takeaways.

1. People are open and hungry to learn about Jesus. The campaign has opened doors for important conversations, and church leaders need to be prepared to engage with curiosity and sensitivity.

Which people? And how exactly has the campaign opened those doors? How are those open doors manifesting?

2. The campaign is opening doors to a conversation, that Jesus followers need to be ready for. Church leaders and Jesus followers can engage with curiosity, sensitivity, and mindfulness of how they are representing Jesus.

It’d be nice if the post noted that a lot of those conversations will center around the campaign’s utterly ridiculous budget—and its backers’ active participation in the evangelical culture wars. A few months ago, Chrissy Stroop speculated that Zoomers would be asking some very pointed questions along those lines. I agree. Every sign points to Zoomers viewing evangelical bigotry and -isms with ever-increasing distrust and revulsion. This campaign looks like evangelicals are trying to sell young adults Good-Guy-Jesus to get them in the church doors, then bait-and-switching them with the reality of evangelical bigotry, authoritarianism, and cruelty-being-the-point.

Also: Scope the “Jesus followers” thing. That’s the ultra-hardcore TRUE CHRISTIAN™ way to call oneself a Christian.

3. The best conversations start simple – and include shared experiences. Effective conversations about Jesus don’t require theological expertise. Asking great questions allows for meaningful engagement.

That bit has the whiff of Ed Stetzer’s involvement. For years, he’s pushed for personal evangelism to start with bad-faith conversational openers that lead into unwanted sales pitches. Gen X and Millennials took a while to catch on to this predatory sales technique. However, Zoomers seem to understand it innately. It didn’t really work in previous generations, and it really doesn’t work now.

Also, evangelicals are largely incapable of having real conversations with anybody. They’re too authoritarian to allow for a genuine engagement of two-way information.

4. Think of the ads as part of your ministry strategy. The ads can be powerful tools for sermons, small groups, outreach training in today’s culture, and serve as a catalyst for prayer.

Translation: Please, for the love of tiny orange kittens, do something—ANYTHING—with our ad campaign!

More realistically, I suppose the ads “can be” all that. In reality, they are just rah-rah for existing Christians. They also have a much darker purpose that we’ll explore in a minute here.

5. Embrace your role in the movement. As leaders, pastors play a critical role in bringing the messages of He Gets Us to life by embodying Jesus’ love and reflecting it in their relationships.

Firstly, it’s not a “movement.” As we’ve already seen, it didn’t even budge the needle regarding Google searches for “Jesus.” This item sounds a lot like them pleading with pastors to please start pushing their ad campaign in church sermons and outreach efforts. And that makes me wonder just what pastors’ involvement rate is here. I bet it is abysmal. But of the ones who do participate, they’re feeding into that dark purpose I mentioned above.

He Gets Us has not actually helped evangelicals at all

Coming back to that “movement” claim, I’d like to know where this “movement” even is.

I watch evangelical news like a hawk. I’ve seen absolutely nothing about this “movement” anywhere. However much free swag the campaign is giving individuals, it hasn’t done a thing to help with recruitment. It doesn’t even appear to be a factor in improving the retention of existing evangelicals.

In addition, I’ve heard absolutely no conversion stories involving He Gets Us. Not one. Even Chick tracts, those pathetically oversimplified, offensive little cartoon booklets, have a few conversion stories attached to them. So do even those awful roadside billboards that hardline evangelicals and Catholics love to inflict on drivers. But after a year-and-three-months since this campaign began, I’ve yet to hear a single conversion story claiming to be the result of these ad spots.

For that matter, I haven’t even heard any evangelicals claim that the ads have had a marked effect on their own success in recruiting heathens. If these ads are sparking what they like to call gospel conversations, which is Christianese for any exchange of words that might one day eventually perhaps maybe lead to a recruiting attempt in some far-flung future multiverse version of our reality, then nobody’s reporting them to He Gets Us.

I’ve not even heard a word about all these supposed good deeds inspired by the ads, either. If some churches use the campaign as a ministry tactic, they’re being awfully quiet about it.

And now, the self-interest in the story

After I read those five key super-critical takeaways from He Gets Us, I shook my head in utter derision. And my gaze flitted up from there to the top of the page at Christianity Today. That’s when I spotted the detail that explained everything about this story:

PAID CONTENT FOR HE GETS US

And at the bottom of the story, a disavowal from Christianity Today:

The editorial staff of Christianity Today had no role in the creation of this content.

Right above that disavowal, He Gets Us links readers to three more paid advertising spots with other fake stories about their marketing campaign.

Of course. That’s why the story has no relation whatsoever to reality. It’s just wishful thinking from marketers who’ve sunk a whole lot of money into this utterly, spectacularly failed campaign.

This story, along with those other paid ad spots, is what the marketers behind He Gets Us really hope that evangelicals will think of their campaign. They hope with all their hearts that evangelicals think that He Gets Us is accomplishing the impossible: Making normies feel more warmly toward evangelicals, and making normies more open to evangelicals’ recruiting attempts.

These ad spots live up to their creators’ hype as poorly as apologetics books and evangelism how-to guides do.

Hucksters push He Gets Us to make sales to evangelical donors, not to viewers of the ads

But it doesn’t matter to the creators of He Gets Us if their ads do anything that they claim it does. Similarly, results don’t matter to the creators of apologetics hand-waving routines or failtastic evangelism guides.

All of these hucksters have already made their money from the one and only market they must reach.

For apologetics books and evangelism guides, that market is evangelical purchasers. Once an evangelical has purchased one of these products, its creator can leave with that person’s money. Heathen normies don’t pay those hucksters’ bills. Existing evangelicals do.

The campaign’s hucksters are saying the campaign will cost a billion dollars over three years. But their target market isn’t heathens. No, they aim instead for deep-pocketed evangelical donors.

All they need to do is make those donors think they’re getting their money’s worth, somehow.

Reforming evangelicals’ terrible reputation will require more than some small good deeds

By now, it almost seems pointless to say that He Gets Us is not going to reverse membership declines. That’s been obvious since its first day of existence. Nor will it boost Christianity’s credibility as an ideology, or even warm people to the notion of Christians as a group worth joining. Its claims of success seem to derive entirely from existing Christians.

The campaign particularly won’t improve evangelicals’ tainted brand in any way. The soft-focus Ultimate-Good-Guy Peacemaker Wise-Outcast Poor-Folks-Loving Jesus that these ads peddle is one that evangelicals themselves already reject out of hand.

Nor will a few good deeds redeem evangelicals’ reputation as a group. The campaign’s creators clearly want heathens to see those good deeds as part of evangelicals’ Jesus Aura. Evangelicals push this imaginary association constantly. They desperately want heathens to see Jesus’ love shining out of their behavior and outlook. They’ve been trying to figure out a way to make it happen since I myself was Pentecostal in the late 1980s and mid-1990s.

And they’ve always completely failed because evangelical hype about themselves collides so consistently and catastrophically with evangelicals’ actual behavior.

A billion dollars, though, is a ton of money for a project that seems doomed to absolute failure. So maybe something else is going on here.

Why He Gets Us matters to the rest of us

Up until now, we’ve largely considered He Gets Us on its own terms, as if we took its central premises seriously.

But He Gets Us is like a malevolent iceberg of dark motivations. When we dive beneath its surface to view its underside, we can understand why it matters enormously to the rest of us.

First and most importantly, money is a nonrenewable asset. The billion dollars evangelicals will eventually pump into He Gets Us isn’t going directly into their ongoing, nonstop culture wars and attempts to seize temporal power in America. Politicians and political campaigns cost money. Funding groups to sneak indoctrination into public schools costs money. This is wasted, useless money going straight into some scheming, grifting evangelicals’ pockets.

I don’t think evangelicals are absolutely blithering stupid. They wouldn’t be spending that kind of cash without some kind of goal. Their endgame is always going to be grabbing back their lost temporal power and cultural dominance. Eventually, I believe that those evangelicals will plunge whatever they get from He Gets Us into politics. The evangelicals running He Gets Us already use part of their donations to fund their other political and culture-war endeavors.

As well, the money appears to be going into a few key so-called ministries designed to lure in curious internet explorers. Once they sign up for the campaign’s various websites and engage with them, the sites capture their information, develop marketing profiles for them, and funnel their findings to several marketing ministries. Once those ministries have enough of that information, then the people behind He Gets Us will be better primed to fling marketing nonstop at those people.

The explanation that snaps everything into place

And suddenly, we understand exactly why the campaign gives away all that free swag. That’s how they get users’ addresses, email and social media profile names, and other personally-identifiable information. Remember: If you’re on a site that is free to use, particularly one offering free services to you, then you are not the customer of that site. You—and your precious personal information—are the product the site is selling to their real customers.

He Gets Us isn’t just some touchy-feely, lovey-dovey uwu marketing campaign aimed at promoting Sweet Li’l Jesus the Divine Cuddlebug. It looks a lot more like evangelicals’ latest attempt to regain what they have lost. Don’t be fooled by its hype. Don’t buy in, and definitely don’t engage with the campaign’s websites.

That goes double if you’re Christian or at all alarmed by evangelical shenanigans.

Credit: Made with IMGFLIP

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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