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'He Gets Us' responds to backlash
Julia Fullerton-Batten

'He Gets Us' responds to backlash

Spokesman Jason Vanderground on leading with love instead of doctrine.

In his 2010 book "Jesus: A Biography from a Believer," the Catholic historian Paul Johnson comments on Christ's famous dictum that “greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13):

But by friends he meant all without exception. There was nothing exclusive about Jesus and his teaching. His message was the most inclusive of all such communications. No one before had, and no one since has, so confidently and warmly and indeed naturally opened his arms to the entire human race.

Only the Son of God could love the entire human race, but it's always been up to mere men to bring them together; the story of Christianity is largely the story of Christians adapting whatever means are at their disposal to spread the good news.

While "He Gets Us" is not the first effort to harness the reach of mass media in communicating Jesus' message, it is certainly one of the most ambitious. Launched in 2022 with a budget of $100 million, the campaign evangelizes using all the sophisticated techniques of the modern agency.

"We can treat each other with respect and dignity, which actually doesn't mean that we have to give up our beliefs and convictions. Jesus never deviated from his mission."

After a ten-market test campaign at the end of 2021, "He Gets Us" went national with spots during the 2022 NCAA March Madness tournament; that summer, baseball fans encountered "He Gets Us" signage in stadiums across the country.

Live sporting events are a crucial focus for the campaign, "He Gets Us" consultant and spokesman Jason Vanderground tells Align. "We're just looking at the media of today and saying, how can we get that message out in the places where people pay attention?"

The campaign's most prominent media spend has been on the Super Bowl telecast. After making a splash with its first Super Bowl ad in 2023, "He Gets Us" returned to last month's game with its latest spot, which depicts foot washing as a symbolic gesture of humility bridging political and ideological divides.

Julia Fullerton-Batten

Reaction to the ad highlighted some of those divides. While the images themselves have nothing to say about sexuality, progressives compensated for the lack of offense by noting Come Near, the non-profit behind the ads, has links to "far-right" organizations advancing an "anti-LGBT" agenda.

Even more vocal backlash came from conservatives, who accused the spot of presenting an overly feel-good version of Jesus.

As BlazeTV host Allie Beth Stuckey wrote on X, "If you've got the money and opportunity to buy a Super Bowl ad slot, share the gospel. Don't waste it on some ambiguous mumbo jumbo that makes Jesus into our image rather than depicting Him as the King and Savior He is."

For Vanderground, who considers himself a "Jesus follower," such criticism from his fellow Christians misunderstands the purpose of the campaign. It's aimed not so much at them, but at "spiritually open skeptics." How to get them interested in Christianity? According to Vanderground, extensive preliminary research suggested the most effective course would be to lead with the person of Jesus, rather than doctrine or history:

"[They] look at Christianity and they see they see a lot of hypocrisy. ... But when you talk with them about Jesus ... far and away, Jesus is the one who Americans connect with. And they say, there is somebody who was unconditionally loving, was kind, was forgiving, was gracious, was welcoming, was loving to all."

These qualities are especially appealing, Vanderground continues, given the country's current atmosphere. "We need [these qualities] right now because of the anxiety, the loneliness, all of the toxicity, the tension. Jesus appears to them as a very good model for how to navigate [this] type of environment."

Of course, to follow Jesus also includes heeding his call to repent, a call critics have pointed out is notably absent from the campaign. What's important to "He Gets Us," however, is that we all get the chance.

"Jesus invited everybody," Vanderground says. "And many times, there was no prerequisite to spending time with Him, hearing from Him, interacting with Him. He didn't say you had to do anything first before you could have that."

While it's fair to assume no Christian would dispute that, the politically charged pairings in the photos (a pro-life protester and a woman seeking an abortion, a suburban white mom and an immigrant, a priest and a gay roller-blader) have led some conservatives to see the foot washing as yet another performative capitulation to wokeness.

Vanderground disagrees, noting that the apostles whose feet Jesus washed were hardly moral exemplars. Judas would soon betray him, Peter would deny him, and Matthew's background as a tax collector was particularly loathsome.

"We can treat each other with respect and dignity, which actually doesn't mean that we have to give up our beliefs and convictions. Jesus never deviated from his mission."

As for the campaign's mission, the controversy doesn't seem to have hindered it. In the days immediately following the Super Bowl, 1.2 million people visited the "He Gets Us" website, many of them lingering for longer than average durations. In that same time, 16,000 people subscribed to the free, seven-week Bible-reading plans "He Gets Us" has shared via the popular YouVersion platform. And more than 6,000 people signed up for smaller online discussion groups.

Julia Fullerton-Batten

"He Gets Us" plans to debut the next phase of the campaign this spring, while continuing to track audience reaction to what Vanderground likens to polite, friendly "sidewalk conversations."

The church, it's often said, is a hospital for sinners. In other words, every one of us. But nobody accepts the healing it offers without first admitting that they're sick. For Vanderground and the "He Gets Us" team, the best guide for persuading people to consider this first step is Jesus himself, with his radical willingness to meet people where they are.

To illustrate this, he refers to one of his favorite images from the ad: a daughter washing the feet of her alcoholic mother. "I think so many of us are like, I've been there. I've had a parent or a loved one who was hitting rock bottom and just needed help. And the best chance for that [to happen] is unconditional love, which does a very special thing on the inside of a person."

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