WILDWOOD, Mo. — There’s no phone number on the billboards. No address. Not even an exit to turn off the highway. Only the name “JESUS” emblazoned in giant, block letters, like a cowboy’s prized belt buckle.
The green-and-white billboards were designed to look like road signs that people already are trained to associate with directions. They seek salvation for high-speed motorists amid other paid advertisements pushing Big Macs and trips to the Pleasure Zone.
And they are Bryan Brand’s answer to a call from God.
Brand, 67, is a millionaire who lives on a horse farm in Wildwood, Mo. He has helped raise about 100 Jesus billboards, primarily in the Midwest, since the late 1990s, and distributed countless banners, bumper stickers and yard signs with the same simple logo.
His faith journey, while peculiar, has been traveled by others before. Some go door-to-door with leaflets or construct giant crosses on mountainsides.
Yet Brand said his own efforts haven’t satisfied God’s call.
The easy part is spending thousands of dollars on the road signs and their quick campaign for converts. Building true disciples for Jesus, however, is slow trench work. It takes years to reach people already sitting in the pews.
And that effort is now consuming Brand.
“I would never try to point a finger,” he said, but many Christians are “under-challenged and under-equipped.”
“Ministry can’t be done by clergy alone,” he said. “It isn’t intended to be.”
Brand has been staring at the name of Jesus since he was a toddler.
Growing up the son and grandson of preachers in Flat River, Mo., near Farmington, he said he saw “the best and worst of church.” There were godly people, but also infidelity and hypocrisy.
When he was 11, he dutifully followed his cousin to the front of a tent revival in Sikeston, Mo., to publicly show that he accepted Jesus Christ as his savior, what evangelicals call being saved.
By the time he was a young adult, he was fluent in the church language. He tithed while serving in the Vietnam War, where he was shot in the leg as a rifle platoon leader. He became the dean of admissions for William Carey University, a Christian school in Mississippi.
But something huge was missing.
“I was a full-blooded Baptist,” he said. “I just wasn’t a full-blooded Christian.”
On a business trip to Atlanta in 1974, the facade finally crashed in a flood of cold beer. He got so drunk in the clubs that he kept falling out of a taxi. Nursing a hangover, he questioned the authenticity of his faith.
“I woke up discovering what I had always hated as a kid — hypocrisy,” he said.
During that same trip he met a recovering alcoholic, whom he described as a charismatic Catholic. The man had what Brand wanted.
“He was so full of the joy of the Lord that I found it irresistible,” Brand said. “He had a true, intimate relationship with Jesus.”
When he came back home, it was Brand, one of the church regulars, who walked to the front during service to publicly profess his faith.
Today, in Brand’s study in Wildwood, there’s a framed picture beside his desk of Jesus sitting down with a businessman.
Brand made his fortune at an investment firm called Brand Asset Management Group in Chesterfield, Mo., that he started from scratch. He promised God that if he helped Brand in his business he’d help God in his. He said he nearly went bankrupt when he gave up buying and selling securities on commission, instead charging clients fees, because he said that’s what Jesus would have done.
“As a Christian, the conflict-of-interest potential is enormous,” he said of financial advising.
Then one day he and his wife Vicki were sitting in church when a visiting minister read a verse from a modern translation of the Bible that proclaimed, “Write My answer in large clear letters on a billboard, so that a runner can read it and tell everyone else.”
They responded by founding “Jesus Name Project,” a nonprofit organization that promoted the billboards. As per the Lord’s wishes, he said, any details other than the name “Jesus” would lessen the impact. He wept at the initial sight of the first sign that went up near Six Flags St. Louis on Interstate 44.
“It looked so big and beautiful,” Brand recalled. “I couldn’t safely see to drive.”
He was particularly pleased that he could essentially proselytize in his sleep, as drivers could get the Christian message on the roadways through the night. His enthusiasm quickly grew nationwide.
Stories seemed to rush in with each new billboard.
One woman, saddened by an anti-abortion billboard, felt forgiven for having an abortion when she later passed a Jesus sign. A child learning to read saw a billboard and read and pronounced his first word: Jesus.
Ramona Wink, of Iowa, said in an interview that she was in a “panic attack from the devil” until she saw a billboard. She’d gotten lost in St. Louis while trying to find her way to a Joyce Meyer conference. Wink, 47, a Presbyterian minister, tracked Brand down in 2004 and helped sponsor the first of four billboards that she now manages in rural Iowa.
A range of products evolved with the same design. Brand sent banners as far as Hong Kong. Tens of thousands of bumper stickers were given away, particularly in St. Louis.
Jesus yard signs started when a man living in a Franklin County, Mo., trailer park wanted to be a witness of his faith to suspected drug pushers in his neighborhood. When he later died, Brand said, the man was buried with a yard sign in his coffin.
There are also stories of signs being stolen, even shot.
“Millions and millions and millions of people have seen the name of Jesus,” Brand said.
But there’s disagreement on whether the signs are effective.
Just about anyone who has driven across the Midwest has seen “Hell is real.” Other faith-based signs champion slogans that range from, “If you die today, where will you spend eternity?” to “Jesus Saves.”
But displaying one word — Jesus — seems to create more noise.
“These billboards show how powerful brand promotions have become to every aspect of American life,” Kathryn Lofton, an assistant professor of American and religious studies at Yale, wrote in an email.
There are other monuments in the mix. Like giant crosses, small crosses and groups of crosses.
“Where people have gotten used to seeing crosses, they are a little less used to seeing great big names of Jesus,” said Thomas J. Davis, a professor at the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University. “There is a specificity there now.”
Free-thinking groups have responded with their own campaigns, for instance in Indianapolis, where there have been billboards that say, “You don’t need God — to hope, to care, to love, to live.”
Center for Inquiry president Ronald Lindsay said in an email that Jesus billboards “will resonate only with those who already believe that Jesus is the simple, uncomplicated answer to everything.”
Though catchy, Davis said, people will become accustomed to the Jesus signs and won’t pay much attention to them anymore, like crosses on churches.
“It will become part of the landscape,” he said.
In the past few years, Brand’s enthusiasm for the Jesus billboards has faded like an old toy.
Meanwhile, the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention is in the middle of an identity crisis as its flock only baptized 331,008 people in 2010, the lowest in at least 20 years.
The statistics are jarring for Brand: It took 48 Southern Baptists to baptize one new person in a year, including family members.
He has responded by studying the setting of how Jesus started his ministry with 12 apostles, patiently confiding in the likes of fishermen and a tax collector to sow the seeds of his story. For a spell, Brand was drawn to North St. Louis where he was ordained a minister at a black church and was awed by people with nearly nothing giving so much.
He started teaching “discipleship evangelism” and in-home ministry.
It’s more disciplined work than the billboards, but participants say it pulls them out of the pews.
Brand recently spent two years teaching the course to a group of six men from a mix of denominations and professional backgrounds. One of them was Tony Delf, 60, of Wildwood. He was raised Catholic, attends a nondenominational church and said he always struggled to witness his faith.
“Being a Christian is more than going to church and going back the following Sunday,” said Delf, who is trying to incorporate the course teachings at an aerospace machine shop that he manages. “There’s passing on what you know and learn. There’s sharing.”
He has his sights on a group of old friends whom he wants to approach about studying together.
Brand said it’s a slow but necessary process to mold disciples.
“It’s like raising a child,” he said, instead of just making one.