Awhile back, we caught wind of a pretty interesting campaign out of Seattle, and we finally had the opportunity to catch up with some of the minds behind the project. What we knew of the project was the site, Jesus Is ____, but it turns out the campaign was much more than that.
We had a chance to talk with Justin Jaquith, Communications Manager at the church behind the campaign, The City Church.
Thanks so much for taking some time to answer questions, Justin. Can you start with a birds-eye, quick summary of what Jesus Is…well, is?
Justin Jaquith: We (The City Church in Seattle) launched the “Jesus Is _____” campaign in September 2010 in tandem with a seven-part sermon series with the same name. The campaign consisted of city-wide marketing, local community service projects and a website where visitors were invited to “fill in the blank.”
The sermon series highlighted who Jesus is from the book of Matthew, and it was intentionally designed for the unchurched. The community service projects (“Jesus Is Projects”) included things like preparing food for the homeless, making quilts for foster kids and cleaning up public parks. The marketing campaign targeted the greater Seattle area with billboards, bus signs, bumper stickers, Facebook and Google ads, t-shirts and flyers; Facebook, Twitter, and other social media were key grassroots forms of marketing.
The website, jesus-is.org, was integral to the campaign. It was the “call to action” of all the marketing and the place where visitors could express their views of Jesus, see and vote on what others had said, find out about community projects and view videos about the gospel message and people’s testimonies.
That’s great from a functionality perspective, but what were the goals you guys were looking to accomplish with it? Just to market The City Church? Something more?
Justin: The goal of the Jesus Is campaign was simply this: Get people in Seattle thinking about Jesus. Our lead pastor, Judah Smith, came to us with the unique vision to promote Jesus—not necessary The City Church—in our city. That was the logic behind the blank. It invites people to fill it in however they want. All of the marketing pointed people to the website, which allows them both to express themselves and to see what others have said about Jesus.
We felt that the best approach to getting Jesus on the mind of Seattle was not telling them what they should believe, but encouraging them to think about what they believed. Very early in the planning stages we debated the potential consequences of opening up such a dialog with non-Christians, and concluded that negativity—even what some would term blasphemy—is better than indifference, because at least they are thinking about Jesus.
As a side note, we discovered as a team that worrying about trying to protect Jesus’ reputation was futile, and after we realized he would be able to defend himself, we felt much more released to think creatively and strategically.
Awesome. I was under the impression that there was a bit of an unexpected speed bump. But it looks like this was something you guys were fully prepared for.
Justin: The marketing really got a strong reaction out of some groups, both Christian and non-Christian. We expected and wanted that, so I wouldn’t call it a speed bump. But we were surprised by the passion many people expressed. At one point we had been linked to by several famous atheist bloggers at the same time, and in a matter of days, tens of thousands of visitors submitted thousands of posts to the website, most of them extremely negative. It was exciting and overwhelming at the same time.
And how did The City Church end up responding to this when it became a reality, and not just a what-if scenario?
Justin: Pastor Judah was very clear that he wanted to allow both positive and negative posts. He would read 10 or 15 submissions at every weekend service, including a few negative ones. Actually it was very healthy for our church to be exposed to what other people think about Jesus, the church and religion.
Regarding the site itself, we read every submission before posting it, but we only screened out overly sensual or vulgar submissions. We allowed lots of negative ones. Comments posted on all the non-Christian sites that linked to us showed that people appreciated that. It gave us credibility when they saw that we were allowing criticism and free dialogue.
It was fascinating to read all the different comments: creative, sad, funny, hard-hitting, hyper-religious, critical, silly or genuinely profound. What was especially interesting to me was how people from every walk of life would contextualize Jesus for their world. It was a study in pop culture. Jesus was compared to everything from Chuck Norris to World of Warcraft to Antoine Dodson.
So with those things in mind, do you feel like the initiative has been pretty successful? Are there things you’d change?
Justin: Yes, I’d say it was very successful. It sparked a lot of conversation in our city and in local media, and it built momentum and a sense of mission in our church. In four months we had 125,000 visits to the site and 42,000 submissions. About 50% of the visits were from the Seattle area, which was our primary goal, but 140 countries were represented. Several other churches related to us launched similar campaigns that shared our website.
There are things I wish we could have tried, like cable TV and radio spots. We also wanted to do more in terms of website functionality, such as being able to sort and order submissions by rating or popularity. But considering the resources we invested, I think we got a lot of bang for our buck. It was fruitful and fun—overall a very good experience.