If you’ve driven down Washington Street through Northeast Brainerd lately chances are you’ve noticed the billboard for The Journey North — the one with the eyes.
The advertisement doesn’t say much but for many in the Brainerd community it says enough.
The billboard, on the south side of Washington Street just west of the Franklin Arts Center where The Journey North Church holds its weekly services, shows a pair of eyes with the words “Awaken Desire” and the schedule for The Journey North’s services.
Pastor Mark Bjorlo, lead pastor at The Journey North in Brainerd, said the billboard was never meant to be controversial, but to gain attention for his upcoming preaching series also called “Awaken Desire” — an eight week study on the Song of Solomon.
“I’m not looking for controversy, “Bjorlo said. “I’m not afraid of it either.”
Bjorlo said the billboard has created discussion within his church and among community members who happen to pass the sign while driving down Washington. Public response has ranged from curiosity to dismay resulting in phone calls, emails and dialogue on the church’s Facebook page. “A lot of people that I love have been offended ,” Bjorlo said. “That’s not what we wanted.”
Those who have questioned the content on the billboard have complained that the eyes look seductive or sexual.
One Vox Pop caller voiced to the Dispatch that the billboard was “demonic and a total misrepresentation of God’s law.”
Bjorlo sees things differently.
“It’s a pair of women’s eyes that look kind of empty to me,” he said. “They look genuinely sad.”
Bjorlo said he believes society has hijacked sexuality and impacted the way people view its purpose.
He aims to set the record straight on God’s design for sex in the context of marriage.
“We’re talking about the most sexual book in the world,” Bjorlo said. “And it’s God’s Book.”
Starting Sunday, Bjorlo will spend eight weeks worth of weekend services laying out the Biblical plan for love with the goal of equipping couples with Biblical perspective on the subject.
“Over and over the theme in (Song of Solomon) is not to arouse or awaken love until the right time,” Bjorlo said. “We want to communicate when is the right time and with whom is right one to awaken love.”
Bjorlo pointed out the text of the Song of Solomon reads like a play divided into acts and scenes — something that will tie into his introduction to the sermon series.
“We’re going to do something we’ve never done before,” he said. “We’re just going to read the text.”
Bjorlo said the public response to the upcoming series hasn’t changed his mind about the use of the billboard or the message it sends. “My job is to blow things up and put them back together better than they were,” he said.
Bjorlo has made the effort to respond to every personal inquiry about the billboard to help those concerned better understand its purpose.
Bob Gross, a Brainerd area business owner emailed Bjorlo with his concerns about the billboard stating, “The issue is that your newest sign has a woman with eyes, and it is dark, and it states ‘awaken desire.’ The same sign would be more effective if used for advertising a pornographic establishment. In fact if I didn’t know more about your church I might have thought that.”
Gross said he and Bjorlo had an ongoing dialogue about the message he felt the billboard conveyed and while Gross disagreed on the suggested meaning, he was in support of the idea it represented — as well as the use of the billboard for advertising services at the church.
“I think that advertising like this is super. I do it for my products and it is great for a church to do the same,” he said in an email to the Dispatch. Gross also said he believes the content of Song of Solomon is a message many need to hear. “In this we are both on the same team,” he said.
This isn’t the first time The Journey North billboard has created public criticism for the church. Last fall the sign showed a bald head with the words “40 days of love” tattooed across the back. “It made a lot of people uncomfortable,” Bjorlo said.
The Journey North has owned the billboard space for three years and are grateful for the advertising space it has given them since exterior signage is sparse outside of the Franklin Arts Center.
“It gives us a chance to communicate our upcoming series with the community,” Bjorlo said.
Bjorlo who came to faith later in life, said his perspective on his role as a church leader is to win as many people to Christ as he can.
“I want as many people to be found and not lost as possible,” he said. “I’m probably one of the more conservative pastors in the area, theologically, but methodologically I’m a little more free-wheeling.”
Pastor Brian Kimbler of Remnant Church in Brainerd, and a friend of Bjorlo said he recognizes The Journey North pastor’s mission in unconventional outreach.
“Mark is trying to reach a crowd that doesn’t normally go to church,” Kimbler said. “He pushes the envelope and, I’ll agree, this time he pushed it too far.”
Even though he sees some reason to the public response to The Journey North billboard, Kimbler said he knows Bjorlo well enough to know the intention of the billboard was well founded.
“The message he’s going to give when they do come into the church is a solid Biblical message,” he said. “I trust Mark on that.”
Bjorlo hopes the billboard, and the buzz it has created will encourage people to come check out the services at The Journey North and see for themselves what all the fuss is about. “It’s certainly not my intention to be offensive,” he said. “But to raise an eyebrow — absolutely.”
The Journey North weekend services are held in the main auditorium at the Franklin Arts Center on Saturday at 6 p.m., and Sunday at 8:30, 9:45 and 11:30 a.m.