Billboards, radio and TV spots. Bold Christian outreach tackles '7 Big Questions' of life.
Billboards, radio and TV spots, and ads on train station benches kick off Explore God Chicago 2019 this month with a promise to tackle "The 7 Big Questions": Does life have a purpose? Is there a God? Why does God allow pain and suffering? Is Christianity too narrow? Is Jesus really God? Is the Bible reliable? Can I know God personally?
*Spoiler alert. The group's preferred answers are: Yes. Yes. God knows what he's doing. No. Yes. Yes. Yes. And, when in doubt, mention Jesus.
"Is Jesus the only way? Yes," says Keith Cote, the 56-year-old Wheaton father of four and executive director of Explore God Chicago, who quickly notes that this outreach isn't nearly that simple. "We're not selling timeshares. It's an exploration."
Cote says atheists and people of non-Christian faiths are invited to stop into the nearly 1,000 local churches and Christian organizations taking part in the discussions, which are designed to deal with one question a week for seven weeks.
From time to time, suburban religious groups have invited people to learn more about Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and other faiths. On Monday in Arlington Heights, four Roman Catholic parishes in the Northwest suburbs will launch "Together at the Cross," a four-day mission to discuss similar spiritual issues.
The ambitious Explore God initiative is the largest of its kind at a cost of at least $850,000 to organize and promote, but the focus will be on small, friendly gatherings, Cote says.
Churches with 3,000 members might feature 50 groups meeting in private homes, while smaller churches might incorporate the Explore God initiative around the typical Sunday worship service, Cote says.
"It's not about coming to my church. It's about coming to a discussion about faith and life," says Cote, who works as executive director of the Metro-Chicago Fellowship of Christian Athletes and consults with other Christian organizations.
As an agnostic, Kevin Poch, 34, of Carol Stream says he went through the pilot Explore God initiative last year after his wife of seven years, Katie, urged him to be part of the Explore God conversation.
"I'm a very visual learner. I can't see God. Is that really a thing?" he remembers saying, recalling his childhood in the United Methodist Church. "It was a chore to go to church as a kid."
The intimate group offered him a safe place to hash out his thoughts, Poch says.
"The discussion was so moving. It was extremely powerful," Poch says. "This wasn't like Christians pushing something on me."
He was baptized in the faith in November and now is one of the discussion leaders at Crossroads Community Church in Carol Stream. So is Liz Hernandez, 30, of Carol Stream.
"I grew up in a strict Christian home, and as soon as I turned 18, I set out on my own. I ran from religion," says Hernandez, a Texas native. "There was no God. There was just the universe."
After she quit her well-paying, stress-filled corporate job and her best friend died, Hernandez finally stopped into the nearby church she passed daily.
"They're going to throw a Bible at me," she remembers thinking. "The last thing I wanted was for someone to tell me that God is good and everything will be fine."
She joined that first Explore God discussion at Crossroads Community Church and says the people were "kind" and the discussions helped her sort out her life.
"It's like free therapy," she says.
ExploreGod.com features dozens of videos with diverse people professing a range of opinions, from a person proclaiming the Bible as "the truth" to a man who calls it "a storybook … written by some people about some character."
The group's Facebook page asks additional questions such as, "Imagine you're standing face-to-face with God. What would you say or do?" Not one of the responses is, "Do you mind if I take a selfie?"
"We All Wonder," reads the lawn signs promoting the initiative.
"It's OK you have these questions," says Katie Poch, 34, offering her take on the meaning of life. "For me, it has always been to love and serve others. It might be different for others."
Just as working out a math equation is more satisfying than simply looking up the answer, the pondering of spiritual questions has value, says Cote, a former Catholic Church altar boy who earned all-American honors as a center on the Wheaton College football team.
Many of the videos talk about love, and Cote stresses that the discussions are open to everyone.
"We want 'Explore God' to be a place where you ask questions," Cote says, "without being judged."