Communicating the Gospel in 60 seconds was always going to be a tricky task, says Sam Hailes. Did the He Gets Us campaign miss the mark on repentance? Was it a colossal waste of money? Or was its message of grace, one our culture desperately needs to hear?

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What you’re about to say will be broadcast to millions of people, mainly non-Christians. Public perception of religious people like you is at an all time low. So make sure your comments are gracious. But careful to ensure they’re also full of truth. Don’t give in to the secular mindset that pervades this TV show. Don’t hide your light. Say something of worth. What you say must be relevant to the conversation you’ve been invited to take part in. Respect that. But get the gospel message in too! Be a good ambassador for Christ. Your opportunity will last no longer than 15 seconds. 

These were some of the thoughts running through my anxious mind in the hours (and days) leading up to a brief TV appearance. 

Obviously, I was putting myself under too much pressure and needed to relax. Even so, if you’ve had similar opportunities to speak on a mainstream media channel about your faith then you might be able to relate to my inner monologue.

Speaking for Jesus isn’t easy.  

But imagine a slightly different scenario. What if you had not 15 seconds, but 60 seconds. And what if you had months to pray, plan and prepare. What if there were no retrictions on what you were allowed to say, you had an entire creative team and a huge $1 billion budget to implement your vision.

How would you communicate the gospel to the masses?

Here’s what the US-based group He Gets Us recently came up with. Their advert was shown during the Superbowl, meaning as many as 100 million people could have seen it: 

As you might expect from the potent combination of American religious culture coupled with social media, opinion was strongly divided

Those on the right detected a bias in the type of marginalised people that Jesus is shown reaching out to. Why wasn’t he depicted washing the feet of a Trump supporter, for example. Meanwhile, noting the astronomical cost of broadcasting an advert during the Superbowl, those on the left said the money should have been spent on feeding the poor, not advertising a religion.  

Other objections were less reasonable. One pro-life group said that portraying Jesus washing the feet of a woman outside a family planning clinic was “justifying abortion”. But when Jesus washed someone’s feet it was never an endorsement of that individual’s decisions. It was an act of humility and service. After all, no one would argue that by spending time with prostitutes Jesus was “justifying prostitution.”    

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What’s this advert trying to achieve?

I believe the creators of this advert had a very distinct audience in mind. They were seeking to reach people who believe that Christians are judgemental, unloving and full of hate.

Now, I know its very tempting for those of us with faith to roll our eyes at this point. “But we Christians aren’t like that!” we want to say.

The problem is, the perception already exists. And our fervent protests on the matter are unlikely to change attitudes (though our ongoing actions might). Barna research has shown that substantial majorities of Millennials who don’t go to church think Christians are judgmental (87 per cent), hypocritical (85 per cent) and insensitive to others (70 per cent).

Some people who watched this advert have been led to believe, through the actions of Christians, that God hates them

But rather than seek to improve audience perceptions of Christians, the advert makes the problem worse. It effectively endorses negative stereotypes. Its message is: Yes, there are those judgemental Christians who stand outside abortion clinics protesting, but don’t worry, Jesus would never do that! He loves you! He gets you!

I can well understand why those Christians who do feel called to such pro-life protests find this message deeply offensive. They would point out that Jesus preached truth and wasn’t afraid to confront people or call out sin (and they’d be right).

Nevertheless, the fundamental point this advert is striving towards is true: Christians will disappoint you. But Jesus will never let you down. Some of Christ’s followers might be hateful, but Jesus loves you. 

I find this to be an intriguing evangelistic strategy, as it involves throwing other Christians under the bus. He Gets Us has given up trying to convince the audience that Christians are good, loving people. Instead it offers salvation via a different avenue. Christians are not the hope of the world. The Church is not the hope of the world. Jesus is. Put your faith in him. You can trust him. 

That’s the message of this advert, and it’s a good one. 

Grace and truth

Another major criticism of this advert from some Christians is that it ignores Christ’s call to repentance. It’s been accused of promoting a theraputic message that Jesus is “there for you”, with zero hint that this same Jesus might also want to change you and challenge you to live differently. 

The issue, say the critics, is not whether “he gets us”, but whether “we get him”. Some would have preferred a stronger message - one which emphasises our need of God, and the decision we have of whether to accept or reject him. I think that’s a fair point. But I can also understand why the makers of this advert have taken a different approach.

We know that Jesus came “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). In recent times, the evangelical Church in America has done an exceptional job of broadcasting its ‘truth position’ on abortion, sexual ethics, the Bible, judgement and hell. If you were to stop a random stranger on the streets of New York City and ask them what an evangelical Christian thinks about gay marriage, I’ll bet they’ll be able to tell you.

But while the US evangelical Church has successfully communicated what it thinks about contentious social issues, it has been considerably less successful at broadcasting the equally important and equally true message of God’s extravagant grace.

Substantial majorities of Millennials who don’t go to church think Christians are judgmental

Seen through this lens, the advert is a helpful counter balance to the pervading evangelical culture in the USA. 

Do non-Christians need to be told that Christians stand for truth? Well, no. I think they know that already. But they probably do need to be reminded that Christians stand for love. And that’s why, overall I think the He Gets Us advert works. It emphasises the unconditional love of God for every person, regardless of their background or beliefs. That’s a message the Church hasn’t always successfully communicated, but its a message the world desperately needs to hear.  

I want people to know that Christians stand for grace. I want them to know that God loves them unconditionaly. I want them to know how good the good news really is. And I want them to find a real and genuine welcome in our church buildings. This advert brings audiences one tiny step closer to that understanding.   

Some of the people who watched this advert have been led to believe, sometimes through the actions of us Christians, that God hates them. That is a travesty. If this campaign can help put right such misconceptions, it will have done its job.

Communicating the good news isn’t straightforward. Any 60 second presentation of the Gospel is likely to miss something. But I can’t help but reflect on how, when Jesus walked the earth, his message - just like this advert - seemed popular with sinners and unpopular with religious people. Isn’t that interesting?