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Behind the Lens: Media guru Phil Cooke on online church, virtual leadership and making your message stick in a digital world

As a pastor’s kid, Phil Cooke filled a million communion cups and mowed the grass in the church cemetery.

But behind the scenes, he was hiding a secret. What Cooke really loved was movies, and he had been making them from the time he was a young kid.

“I took my dad’s Super-8 film camera, and my friends and I made army movies, space movies and mafia movies—three-minute shorts,” he recalls. “But it never crossed my mind that I could actually do that for a living.”

When Cooke grew up and headed to Oral Roberts University, he assumed he would major in music. After all, it was the only field of study he could think of for someone who wanted to serve the church but didn’t necessarily want to preach.

Even so, Cooke took his camera and films along with him, thinking he might find some like-minded students to make more movies. But what possible purpose could filmmaking serve in the kingdom?

Cooke’s “secret” was discovered the first day of college in 1972 when he was unpacking his suitcase and a couple of his films fell to the floor. A student across the hall noticed them and invited Cooke to the film department where they stayed up late into the night editing the reels on the school’s equipment. A professor working late saw what they were doing and, impressed, asked if he could show one of the films to his class.

The next day, Cooke crouched in his seat in the back row of the lecture hall as the upperclassmen watched his movie.

“Trust me,” he recalls. “My little film was not going to win any awards.”

But afterward—to his shock—when the film finished, the professor and students started discussing it. At that moment the thought struck him—a “crystal clear moment of revelation,” he recalls: If I could do something with a camera that makes people talk like this, this is what I’m supposed to do with my life.

Cooke changed his major that day, and he’s never looked back.

While at ORU, Cooke was on the team that produced Oral Roberts’ primetime TV specials for NBC. During this time, he learned the television production business and was able to work with department heads from Hollywood studios. After graduation, he began his career in LA, setting lights and pushing cameras, then moved back to the Midwest and worked in Christian television for a while before heading back permanently to LA.

Fast-forward to the present, and Cooke is the president and co-founder, with his wife Kathleen, of Cooke Media Group, based in Burbank, California. The company was launched in 1991, and since that time he has produced Super Bowl commercials, PBS specials and the 2016 documentary, Hillsong: Let Hope Rise. Cooke led the team that created Joel Osteen’s weekly television program, launched a massive video outreach for The Salvation Army, and produced all the media from the groundbreaking to the grand opening of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC.

He describes his company’s mission—albeit tongue in cheek—as “helping Christians not suck at media.”

“One of the reasons Christianity is being marginalized in our culture today,” Cooke contends, “is that we’re not using media effectively to tell our story.”

THEOLOGY IN HD

This failure is not for lack of access, he notes, as the average person sees 10,000 media messages a day and checks their phone 150 times a day. “We’ve got the greatest story ever told, but we’re just not telling it well.”

It’s also not because of the expense.

“When I started this in the 1970s, a single video camera cost $150,000, and you needed a truck to move it around,” Cooke recalls. “Today, prices have fallen, and quality has skyrocketed, so nearly every church in America can have a video studio and a crew.”

Digital media has expanded opportunities for Christian leaders to reach new audiences with minimal financial investment, even if they don’t have much in the way of equipment or professional help.

“Don’t say you don’t have the money,” Cooke cautions. “The most popular celebrities in Hollywood today are YouTube stars (making five-minute programs in their parents’ basements), and there are film festivals just for movies made on iPhones.”

You do need to have something to say, however. And Cooke is passionate about the intersection of faith, media and culture. In fact, CNN has called him “the only working producer in Hollywood with a Ph.D. in Theology.”

His background in theology has given Cooke the language to help church leaders strategize new ways of engaging the culture with technology and media.

“Seminary does a good job of teaching how to preach, counsel and manage a church,” he notes. “But church leaders are often unprepared for how to use communication and media to expand their influence.”

SEIZING A MOMENT

For years Cooke has been encouraging pastors to leverage streaming technology to extend their Sunday morning audiences beyond the church walls. Since the coronavirus pandemic began in early 2020, his efforts have increased exponentially, including teaching classes about online ministry for pastors in Russia, Europe, South America and Africa. Recently, he trained 50 pastors from a US-based network who are planting churches that will be 100 percent online.

Before the shutdown, Lifeway Research reported that 41 percent of churches in America had not offered any online ministry—from resources for small groups to streaming worship services. Cooke observed this reality face to face as he consulted with pastors. For many of them, streaming their services was at best a gimmick and at worst they feared it would discourage on-campus attendance.

“Before the shutdown, I had pastors tell me, ‘I don’t mind streaming services, but that’s not real ministry,’” he recalls. “Well, since the shutdown, those guys have changed their tune.”

Instead, Cooke recommends accepting the online viewers as a legitimate congregation, and he cites churches that have adapted to the new reality and are thriving as a result.

A pastor from Alabama called Cooke several months into the shutdown and described his situation. Before shutdown he was preaching to a congregation of 900, and the church had a YouTube channel with eight subscribers. Now they have 23,000 subscribers, 1.5 million people watched the Easter sermon and they are averaging 30,000 to 40,000 people watching the Sunday livestream.

“I feel guilty saying this, because I’m a pastor, but I have no desire to go back into our church building,” the pastor admitted to Cooke, “because we’re having far greater impact online than we’ve ever had in the building.”

When you livestream a service, you adapt; you don’t duplicate, Cooke notes. It’s not about a direct replication of the weekend service in an online context. He compares it to a screenwriter’s adaptation of a book.

“It’s about what will work on camera.” he says. “Especially during the shutdown, 100 percent of your congregation were on the other side of that camera, and no one was sitting in the pews.”

Cooke acknowledges that online church is a tough audience, and he recommends making adjustments to length (shorter, not longer) and setting (not always on a platform behind the pulpit). He cites an example of three churches that have taken their livestream and are editing it into a 30-minute program and broadcasting it on local TV stations.

“It’s a different experience when you have a crowd trapped in a building,” he notes. “I can’t just get up and leave, but when people are at home, there’s a million distractions.”

One opportunity for engagement Cooke points to is the high number of people who tune in 10-20 minutes early. He encourages churches to host a “pre-show” that can include announcements, interviews, short videos and casting a vision for how the church is making an impact.

When the pandemic has subsided, Cooke predicts that a significant number of people will continue to stay home one or two Sundays a month. So, he argues, this is not the time to “take your foot off the gas” when it comes to your livestream. Instead, focus on creating a real experience, diversifying content and maximizing your influence online with the new tools at your disposal.

A DIGITAL REFORMATION

When it comes to evangelism, Cooke predicts the digital revolution will have a similar—if not greater—impact than the Protestant Reformation. Whereas the Reformation was catalyzed by the accessibility of the printed page, the digital publishing and distribution platforms available today have an exponentially greater reach than physical books.

The outcome, however, may be a bit unexpected. One characteristic of digital audiences is transience, and he describes the online audience as a river, not a pond. People come and go as their level of interest and engagement ebbs and flows.

As a result, Cooke argues that successful online ministry should adapt its contours to people’s engagement. Best practices include use of graphics (which help people remember three times as much), using closeups and changing the video venue (i.e. ditch the pulpit). He also emphasizes the importance of sharing the story of how your church is making a difference in the community, as this will inspire ongoing financial commitment.

Video is the language of the current generation, and Cooke points to the ubiquitous use of short videos in our culture as a means of informing, persuading and entertaining. Don’t just tell, show.

Cooke cites his experience into how watchers respond to TV infomercials. Sales of an item are rarely influenced by a celebrity touting the features of the item. But when real people demonstrate use of the product and tell stories of how it has changed their lives, the calls start coming in. The same principle applies to messaging in the church context. 

He argues that stories are a media form that churches can dominate because the nature of ministry is story-based—narratives of changed lives that demonstrate impact. He recommends that churches use three- to four-minute videos documenting testimonies of saved marriages, businesses transformed, relationships restored and other examples of the church’s ministry making an impact.

“Short videos have become the No. 1 marketing tool that companies use today.” Cooke notes. “Fifty-one percent of people who watch short videos want to find out more”

THE SOCIAL LEADER

At the heart of a good digital strategy is the church’s website—a tool Cooke contends is not for the church’s members, but for those on the outside.

“Your church members will rarely go to your website,” he notes. “But close to 100 percent of visitors will check your website before they visit.”

However, Cooke cautions, although the website may be a destination for people looking for a church home, it’s lacking an area that is key for digital success: daily interaction and personal engagement. That’s where social media picks up the baton.

Unfortunately, he observes churches fail on social media because they treat it as one-way communication—a megaphone that merely broadcasts their message when, in reality, people gravitate to social media for conversation.

“Never forget that social media is social. I’ve discovered if you’re willing to go back into your channel and start a conversation, people realize they can connect with the leader,” Cooke notes. “People want to follow people.”

He recommends that leaders regularly engage with their followers on social media and make a point of letting them into their lives. People are often more shaped by how their leaders live their lives than they are by the words they speak. Social media provides an ideal venue for this type of life-on-life communication of values and vision.

“Your livestream on Sunday is only the beginning,” Cooke contends. “You should be engaging throughout the week on social, whether its interviewing, news, announcements, or a behind the scenes look at your ministry life. Social media needs to be a part of the ongoing conversation, not just an add-on.”

A UNIFIED MESSAGE

“We have a saying in Hollywood,” Cooke quips. “‘Hollywood is great at making fake things look real. The church is great at making real things look fake.’”

While media consumption has opened doors of opportunity for church leaders to expand their influence, it can be argued that the audience is savvier than ever—and more sensitive to artificiality and inauthenticity. Churches will not be able to compete by merely being slick and professional, because, in today’s high-tech world, that is no longer considered impressive.

Instead, Cooke advocates for a strategic, unified approach—saying one thing and saying it many different ways—and focusing on those God has called you to reach.

“One fallacy is that we think our particular church can reach everyone,” he argues. “There were some towns that Jesus left because people wouldn’t respond, so there are people your church is never going to appeal to. So, find who will resonate with your message and engage with them.”

This is accomplished by ensuring that, when the pastor gets up and preaches, it is accompanied by short videos, email communication, website content, print materials and social media—all reinforcing the same message.

“Seth Godin says, ‘Repetition builds trust,’” Cooke notes. “Just when we might be getting sick of the message, it’s just starting to break through for those outside.”

If you have a story to tell, there’s a lot of ways to tell it.

“This is the moment for people of faith,” Cooke says. “The need to share our message never changes, but how we share it does. This is the moment to embrace the digital world. You don’t have to be famous; you just need to have something to say that matters, and nothing matters more than the gospel.”

 

The Power of Digital Thinking

Perhaps the single most important principle to understand about digital media is that it’s a two-way conversation. Most leaders today grew up on a one-way world: preaching, traditional advertising, education, media—all were one-way conversations.

Oddly enough, this new two-way conversation is remarkably similar to the days of the Early Church. Scholars have discovered that active participation and interruptions by the audience were common during worship. Church members spoke extemporaneously and out of a present burden, rather than from a set script.

That’s not to say that preaching or proclaiming the gospel isn’t important, but it does indicate that today’s digital technology is actually giving us the capability to recover many of the styles and ideals of the early Church. The two-way conversation that began in Jerusalem became a one-way conversation with the influence of Greco-Roman culture; and now in the digital age, we are once again rediscovering the power of dialogue over monologue.

In the digital world of today, those who simply preach or teach without regard to the way the audience understands and responds will simply be ignored.

—from Maximize Your Influence: How to Make Digital Media Work for Your Church, Your Ministry, and You, by Phil Cooke

 

This article was extracted from Issue 4 (Winter 2021) of the AVAIL Journal. Claim your free annual subscription here.

 


 

This article was written by Matt Green

  ////////////////////////////

Matt Green serves as editorial director for AVAIL journal.

 

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