(RNS) – The first time Jennifer Quattlebaum saw an ad for “He Gets Us,” a national campaign dedicated to redeeming Christianity’s savior stamp, she had one thought on her mind.
Show me the money.
A self-described “love more” Christian and ordinary mom who works in marketing, Quattlebaum loved the message of the ad, which promoted the idea that Jesus understands contemporary issues from a grassroots perspective. But he wondered who was paying for the ads and what their schedule was.
“I mean, Jesus gets us,” she said. “But which group is behind it?”
Over the past 10 months, “He Gets Us” ads have appeared on billboards, YouTube channels, and television screens — most recently during the NFL playoffs — across the country, spreading the message that Jesus understands the human condition.
The campaign is a project of the Servant Foundation, an Overland Park, Kansas-based nonprofit that does business as The Signatry, but donors supporting the campaign remained anonymous until recently: As of early 2022, organizers only told Religion News Service that the funding came from “like-minded families who wish to see the Jesus of the Bible represented in today’s culture with the same relevance and impact he had 2,000 years ago.”
But in November, David Green, the billionaire co-founder of Hobby Lobby, told talk show host Glenn Beck that his family was helping fund the ads. Green, who was on the schedule to discuss his new book on leadership, told Beck that his family and other families would help fund an effort to spread the word about Jesus.
“You’ll see it at the Super Bowl — ‘It catches us,'” Green said. “We mean – being a lot of people – it gets to us. He understands us. He loves who we hate. I think we need to let the public know and create a movement.”
Jason Vanderground, president of Haven, a branding firm based in Grand Haven, Michigan, which is working on the “He Gets Us” campaign, confirmed that the Greens are a major funder, among a variety of donors and families who have got Behind.
The project’s donors are all Christians, but come from a wide range of denominational backgrounds, Vanderground said.
Organizers have also signed up 20,000 churches to provide volunteers to follow up on anyone who sees the ads and asks for more information. Those churches, however, are not funding the campaign.
The Super Bowl ads alone will cost an estimated $20 million, according to organizers, who originally described “He Gets Us” as a $100 million effort.
“The goal is to invest about a billion dollars over the next three years,” he said. “And this is just the first stage.”
One of the ads that aired during the NFL playoffs was titled “That Day” and tells the story of an innocent man who is executed.
“Jesus rejected resentment on the cross,” the ad says. “He takes us. All of us.”
A three-year, billion-dollar campaign would equal the advertising budgets of big brands like Kroger grocery stores, said Lora Harding, an associate professor of marketing at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.
“That’s a pretty big ad spend for a religious organization or just a nonprofit in general,” said Harding, who worked on the “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” campaign for the United Methodist Church .
Religious themed announcements have been relatively rare at the Super Bowl. The Church of Scientology has run ads in the past, and in 2018, Toyota ran an ad with the message, “We are all one team,” featuring a rabbi, priest, imam, and saffron-robed monk heading to a soccer game. where they sat next to some nuns.
Closer to the “He Gets Us” model was the Christian Broadcasting Network’s $5 million nationwide campaign to promote “The Book,” a repackaged version of the living Bible translation, featuring a catchy theme song sung by country legend Glen Campbell .
Harding said that despite the cost, the Super Bowl commercial made sense for “He Gets Us.” The organizers want to reach an attentive mass audience. Super Bowl commercials have become part of the glitz of the big game.
“There simply aren’t any more ways to reach an engaged, caring audience of that size,” he said.
He also said that the group’s anonymity behind the ads plays to the group’s advantage. It would be easy for viewers to ignore an ad from a religious organization or religious group. “He takes us” ads wait until the end to mention Jesus and do not indicate any specific church or denomination.
“That makes it even more powerful and it hits the message really convincingly,” he said. “I think it makes Jesus more relevant to today’s audience.”
Some viewers, including some evangelical Christians, are skeptical. Author and activist Jennifer Greenberg advocates the idea of trying to reach those outside the faith, and she wants people to understand that Jesus takes them. But this is not the whole message of Christianity.
“Yes, Jesus can relate to you,” she said. “But what did Jesus mainly come to do? He came to die for our sins.”
Connecting emotionally with Jesus is great, she added. But that won’t save your soul.
“I can look at Buddha or Sarah McLachlan or Obama and I can find things in common with them,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean they’ll save me.”
Michael Cooper, author and missiologist, agrees. While Cooper is a fan of the ads, claiming they strongly communicate the human side of Jesus, they leave out the divinity of him.
“I began to wonder, is this the Jesus I know?” he said.
Cooper and a colleague offer what he called “constructive criticism” of the campaign in an upcoming article for the Journal of the Evangelical Missiological Society. That article calls for clearer messages about Jesus’ divine nature.
“This wasn’t just some great teacher or preacher who incarnated,” he said. “This was God Himself.”
Ryan Beaty, a former Assemblies of God pastor and current doctoral student at the University of Oklahoma, said he was fascinated by the ads and wonders how the country’s political polarization might affect how ads are aired .
His conservative friends, he said, see the ads – such as one portraying Jesus as a refugee – as too political. Other people who are more liberal feel that ads don’t go far enough.
Beaty also wonders if people outside the church will find the ads more persuasive than true believers.
“People without faith – or with moderate learnings about faith – will find them more interesting than people who identify with the Christian faith or strongly identify with politics,” he said.
Seth Andrews, a podcaster, author and secular activist based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, said the campaign appears to market a version of Jesus that is more in touch with modern American culture than older, more dogmatic versions.
“They’re holding on to this touchy, suitably vague designer Jesus,” he said.
Andrews asks the question what Jesus would think about the amount of money spent on ads. Would he prefer that money be spent on providing for people’s physical needs or making the world a better place?
“Or would he say, no, go ahead and spend $100 million to tell everyone how good I am?”
While the ads are aimed at reaching what Vanderground called “spiritually open skeptics,” a secondary audience is Christians, whose reputations have fallen on hard times in recent years.
“We also have this goal of encouraging Christians to follow Jesus’ example in the way they love and treat each other,” he said.
For her part, Quattlebaum said she’s ultimately a fan of the ads, because they focus on the core message of Christianity.
“Everything goes to Jesus,” he said. “And if everything returns to Jesus, everything returns to love”.