That 'Jesus Thing' in the Movies

The marketing consultants sat across the table from the Compassion clients they were about to pitch. While nobody actually documented the exact words the consultants uttered, their recommendation and the seismic crater it created are now part of Compassion International's cultural lore.

"If you really want to grow your share of the market," the consultant recommended, "the best thing you could do is drop the name of Jesus from your tagline. There are plenty of people who would love to support what you do to assist children. But they can't relate to the 'Jesus thing.'"

Releasing children from poverty in Jesus's name was more than the tagline designed into Compassion's corporate mark. It was our mission and methodology all wrapped in one. Did Compassion want to grow? Absolutely. We believed in our cause and its effectiveness. But did we think that diluting our distinctiveness -- what gave us our strength and identity -- was worth the assumed growth? Not at all. The pitch was essentially over.

I suppose the assumption by the consultant was that Jesus simply couldn't compete. Instead of drawing minds and hearts into the cause, his name would push people away. Somebody should have told Mark Burnett and Roma Downey.

Burnett is the acclaimed Hollywood producer who has a string of current primetime TV hits in The Voice, Shark Tank and Survivor. Downey made her mark in Touched by an Angel. Together, this entertainment duo has created a pedigree of hits. But then there's that "Jesus thing."

In 2013 Downey and Burnett released The Bible on the History Channel, a fresh telling of the greatest story ever told. I can imagine a consultant across the table reacting to the 10-part miniseries.

"You're hot. You have a track record of Hollywood success. Why would you limit that by jumping into a TV series that will polarize viewers and limit your own careers?"

I wonder if the meeting was effectively over at that point?

The release of The Bible was astounding in its reach. More than 100 million cumulative viewers. A 19-country global reach. According to Variety, "The Bible accrued strong ratings for History in March, at times pulling almost 12 million viewers, even when facing the stiff competition." The series beat hockey in Canada and went to number one in Hong Kong. It was one of the fastest selling TV-to-disc programs in history. And it garnered three Emmy® nominations. By any measure, the effort was a viewership and impact success.

Compassion has enjoyed similar success. Starting in 1952 meeting the needs of Korean War orphans, the ministry now cares for nearly 1.5 million children through a holistic child development program in 26 countries. In 2000 Compassion was the 100th largest charity in the United States according The Non-Profit Times. By 2013 our sponsors rocketed the ministry to the 29th position. Yet Compassion is unabashedly Christian and Jesus is still in our mission statement and work.

The truth is, Jesus fascinates. Instead of repelling, his story compels. That's why Compassion International partnered with Mark Burnett and Roma Downey on the launch of their feature length film, "The Son of God," in theaters across the country February 28th.

There are some stories that are too important not to retell. There are some stories that deserve the best filmmakers can deliver. There are some stories that rise above consultants and strategies. There are some stories that bring ministries and Hollywood together -- heart to heart, passion to passion.

"The Son of God" is one of those stories. It's that "Jesus thing" that deserves our best consideration.