This is a nice short Substack by Aaron Renn on the He Gets Us campaign. The billion-dollar advertising gamble has generated lots of critical buzz. You can watch all the 30-second spots produced so far at the official channel here. All of them have been released twice with English and Spanish voiceovers. The view counts for each short ad average in the tens of millions. So, from a marketing perspective, clearly something is working.
The ads are surprisingly simple in construction. There’s no footage, only a voiceover plus black-and-white photos linked with quick-cut transitions. The aesthetic is distinctly urban, focused mostly on black and Hispanic faces. Through this lens, Jesus is recast as a rebel, an outcast, and a social revolutionary. The leader of a “gang,” but not that kind of gang. A man who was “killed for what he believed in.”
Some obvious problems present themselves here. There is nothing wrong on paper with the concept of an ad campaign designed to plant the truth that Jesus is sympathetic to the human condition, particularly people on the margins of society. The problem arises when Jesus’ true identity and purpose are obscured for a mass audience. One could watch all of these ads back to back and come away with the impression that Jesus was, at best, the one thing C. S. Lewis so memorably reminded us Jesus could not be. Further, the point of his sacrificial death is distorted almost to the point of heresy. I suppose you could say Jesus was “killed for what he believed in,” in the sense that he believed he was God incarnate come to redeem the sins of all mankind, and this didn’t play very well in Jerusalem. Somehow I don’t think that’s the vibe the ad makers are going for.
I think Sam James sums this all up pretty well here:
Scripturally, you can’t divide Jesus’ sympathy for us from our plight as sinners. He “gets us” not because we ourselves are close to what he’s like, but because we are far away. That Jesus gets us is a profound act of mercy, not coolness. The ads do not communicate this, and that’s not really their goal. A recent endorsement I heard about the ad campaign says that it exists to “increase respect and relevance for Jesus.” This is the kind of personal-brand, PR campaign language that evangelicals have been trying to disentangle from for decades now. The writers of the ads proceed from the assumption that if people think Jesus is more like them than unlike them, they will be intrigued to come to him in faith. That could happen, of course (Lord, let it happen!). But it’s just as plausible—perhaps even more plausible—that the ads set up most people to project onto Jesus their own psychology, their own definitions of happiness and meaning, and their own expectations for their lives. A truncated message that says “Jesus gets you” could easily be taken to mean, “Jesus is you.”
With all that said, I understand the point Renn makes in his post too. He doesn’t deny that this particular campaign is under-delivering. But in broad terms, it’s trying (inadequately) to do a kind of “pre-evangelism” that really is needed today, in a culture where people simply don’t understand why they should bother with God, Jesus, or the Bible. This might fail in execution, but it’s something Christians should keep playing with until they figure out how to get the balance right.
Tim Keller’s name inevitably comes up in these discussions, and Renn mentions how his book Making Sense of God was explicitly pitched as a pre-evangelistic follow-up to The Reason for God. Reason for God is a work of apologetics. But it’s easy to pour a lot of energy into putting together the perfect apologetics portfolio, only to realize people’s eyes are glazing over when you try to lay it out.
Most recently, this is the philosophy for the newly launched Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics. Keller himself narrates a trailer video here. It uses cute graphics to illustrate this basic thesis that whereas previous missional approaches were about “connecting the dots,” we are now forced to build even the dots back up from scratch.
I have lots of thoughts on the Keller Center, its aspirational goals, and the initial roster of fellows being tapped to spearhead it, but I want to save those for another post. For now, I want to go back to Renn’s concluding thoughts. Pre-evangelism is a noble goal, he believes, but there’s a problem: We don’t merely have to overcome ignorance and apathy. We have to overcome deep hostility. Projects like He Gets Us or the Keller Center are still in “neutral” gear, meaning they are still operating under the assumption that our main hurdle is a general lack of knowledge. In fact, our challenge is much steeper.
What does a solution look like? Renn throws the question out there, then admits there’s no clear answer. All too often, as Thomas Sowell reminds us, there are no solutions. This is no exception. One attempted approach has been a sort of higher-brow version of He Gets Us which pitches Christianity as the true “religion of the marginalized,” Jesus as the true champion of women, minorities, the poor, and so on. You can see this in work by some people in the Keller Center orbit like Rebecca McLaughlin, who frequently emphasizes that compassion for the marginalized is something positive we can still celebrate and capitalize on in our social justice milieu. Sure, people’s sexual ethics are lacking, but at least they have an earnest desire to speak up for the rights of “the LGBT community” and surely Christians can at least meet them halfway and apologize for all the ways “we,” collectively, have contributed to the oppression of this “community,” right? And surely, if we do that, that will show those people we really mean well and they’ll start to soften and maybe eventually come around to our sexual ethic, right?
This approach is flawed firstly because it’s wrong, and secondly because it doesn’t really work. It’s wrong, because it buys into many of the theological precepts, so to speak, of “woke church,” importantly blurring the distinctions between “justice” as modeled by Jesus and “justice” as modeled by left-wing activists. And it doesn’t really work, because the new religion of social justice is fundamentally merciless. It doesn’t matter how winsomely you make your pitch. As long as there is still something on which you’re willing to take a stand, the mob will come for you. Always.
This does not mean we shouldn’t say true things about Jesus’ love for the poor, for the oppressed, etc. Jesus does love the poor. Jesus does love the oppressed. The problem is not saying these true things. The problem is accepting a false narrative lens through which to interpret them.
So, back to Renn’s question: What do we do? Prayer is a good idea. Continuing to think about pre-evangelism is a good idea. It just needs to be done on the understanding that some people will just hate us, and some people just won’t believe. It’s really as simple as that. The danger is that in vainly trying to craft a sales pitch that will appease the mob by finding something good to say about woke politicking, we will waste valuable energy that could be spent on people who really are in that “neutral” zone. We will miss all the neighbors who are curious and open and willing to interact in good faith, including neighbors who will, if anything, be put off by cringeworthy attempts to hitch Jesus to a sales pitch with woke undertones. In all this talk of “reaching people,” this is a demographic that seems consistently overlooked. This is ironic, since in my own experience, they are among some of my friendliest and most intelligent interlocutors.
To be sure, there’s no magic formula for converting them, either. There’s no magic formula for any demographic, because people are not their demographic labels. People are people. People are individual. People are weird. People don’t always think the things you expect them to think or say the things you expect them to say. Broad-scale missional projects are well-meaning, may yield interesting ideas, and may ultimately accomplish some good things. But at the end of the day, there is no substitute for granular, face-to-face evangelism. There’s just not. And of its essence, that work will be slow, time-consuming, and slow to yield the “revival” we would all like to see.
I think this is actually pretty freeing. There are no solutions! So relax! Get to know your neighbor! Answer that nice e-mail from a stranger who liked a thing you wrote and wants to know more! Maybe you’ll lead them to Christ, and maybe you won’t. But this is not all on you. It never was. So take a deep breath, do your tiny, puny bit of trying, and leave the rest to God. For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.