Becoming a Digital Savvy Congregation

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How can your church extend its reach and maximize its impact through digital media? Doug Powe interviews media producer Phil Cooke about strategies for becoming more media savvy.

Listen to this interview, watch the interview video, or continue reading.


Doug Powe: Why do so many churches and church leaders struggle to maximize their influence?

Phil Cooke: A lot of it’s financial. A lot of churches are small. I think the average church in America is about 75 people these days. I wrote Maximize Your Influence because I realized that seminary is great for teaching the Bible and preaching techniques and doctrine and theology. But it’s not so great in most cases on teaching media and communications, how to get your message out there. I wrote the book as a reference for pastors and leaders to have on their desks dealing with everything from websites to social media to short videos to publishing in a digital world, even speaking and preaching in a digital age to a digital generation. All those things are so important.

We’ve been working with clients in churches for years to help maximize their livestream. But pastors would tell me, “You know, Phil, I don’t mind streaming my service. But that’s not real ministry.” But when the church shutdown happened in 2020, they changed their tune quickly. Pastors and leaders were really blindsided. How do we get our message out in the shutdown world? We were flooded with calls from pastors and leaders wondering, how to make this work? How do we connect with our people?

Doug Powe: You talk about the importance of identity and identity development. What do you mean by identity development? And how can congregations do it better?

Phil Cooke: Many nonprofits, ministries, and churches are pretty good at a lot of different things. But they never get noticed. They don’t get on the radar. They don’t break through. The ones that really do break through and get noticed are generally those that do one big thing extraordinarily well.

The Great Commission tells us to go out and preach the gospel to all nations and all people. We feel like we should reach everybody. But the truth is, we can’t. I try to help churches understand that. What audiences are your low hanging fruit? The people you could connect with very easily because of the personality of your pastor or leader, the demographic makeup of your church, your geographic location? Focus on that crowd. If every church reached those people and really connected on a deep level, we would actually reach the whole world. But instead, we dilute our efforts by trying to reach everybody. And that’s just not going to happen. Whether your church is in Los Angeles or Tulsa or Des Moines or Atlanta, you’re not going to reach everybody. So, let’s really focus on the people it makes sense for us to reach. A lot of that will depend on the calling, the gifts, and the talent of the leader. That’s a good starting point to figure out our identity and brand story.

Doug Powe: This idea of a more limited audience doesn’t mean we don’t welcome everyone, but that we are targeting some. But still, I can see why some congregations would find this hard to accept.

Phil Cooke: Let’s face it. If your goal is reaching the world, you’re probably doing a pretty terrible job of it. I don’t know of any church that’s actually reaching the world with the gospel, maybe a handful at the most. The truth is, we’re called in our community and our location with a specific purpose. I believe our calling is to a specific group, specific people in a specific town or community. What if we could become extraordinary at reaching that group? When I have branding conversations with clients, I love to give the example of the woman in Hollywood who has won the most Grammy Awards. It’s not Aretha Franklin or Barbra Streisand or Beyonce or Celine Dion. It actually Alison Krauss, the bluegrass artist. When they announce the Bluegrass Awards, she dominates that category. She walks away with awards year after year after year. Guess what? That’s put her on the map. Now, she’s done a rock album with Robert Plant. I hear she wants to do a classical album. She can do anything she wants now because she so dominates that niche. We could do something very similar in ministry if we weren’t trying to be all things to all people. Certainly, we welcome everyone. No question about that. But who are the people we could reach and connect with in amazing ways? That’s really the way to get your church noticed and create the biggest harvest.

Doug Powe: In your book, you pose the question of how the church’s message can be heard through the massive and growing wave of media static. This is a struggle for many congregations. So how do they get their message across?

Phil Cooke: In a social media world, in a digital media world, distraction is everything. Just recently, I read a statistic on how our behavior has been changed by our many distractions and having so many things to do. The iPhone in our pocket is always going off. We have texts to answer, emails to answer. Now, when we meet someone for the first time, we decide what we think of that person in the first four to eight seconds. Think about that. We haven’t had a chance to talk with them or learn much about them or hear what they have to say. We’ve got other things to do. So, we start making judgments about things that we don’t even know anything about.

I often tell pastors, “I’m glad your sermon is anointed. I’m glad your worship is fantastic. But in an eight-second world, what’s the parking experience like at your church? What’s the lobby like? Who’s the first person a new visitor meets when they walk in the door?” In today’s distracted culture, people are making those decisions long before they ever get to their seat. We need to understand that the first impression counts. It’s even more important in a digital universe. And it’s very hard to repair a bad first impression because people have so many other things to do and so many other choices. To get on the radar screen, you have to cut through that clutter.

During the shutdown, I started looking at livestreams from a lot of different churches, and I noticed how difficult it was to find their livestreams. You would go to a church website, and you would have to click, click, click through page after page after page. Let me tell you, nobody’s going to put up with that anymore. Make the livestream easy to find. Put it on the homepage. Make it a big, big, easy button.

We really need to grease the skids for anything we want people to do because there are so many other options, so many other distractions. It’s a huge, huge problem. One researcher in the UK says the average person in the Western world sees about 10,000 media messages every single day. In that world, it’s not necessarily the best message that gets through. It’s the one that cuts through the clutter, gets to the point, and makes an impact. Many people in the secular world have figured that out. And I think it’s one reason the church is being marginalized and losing so much influence.

Doug Powe: Do you think consistency is important also? My son is entering his senior year in high school. Some of the college recruiters send a message every single day. Does that help?

Phil Cooke: It does. Marketing guru Seth Godin says that repetition builds trust. We may get sick of our own message after hearing it a few times. But the truth is, about the time we get tired of hearing what we’re advertising and promoting, it’s just starting to sink in with the people out there. In a world overwhelmed with media messages, repetition matters, consistency matters. These things really do help you get on the radar.

Doug Powe: When churches are in a difficult financial situation, the first thing they cut is often communications. Why is this a mistake?

Phil Cooke: An enormous number of churches are still in business today after the COVID-19 shutdowns because of their communication or media teams. If it wasn’t for them, they probably would have gone out of business. If there’s anything good that came out of COVID, it’s probably that pastors realized the importance of communication and media.

When finances get tough, the first persons cut are often in media or communications. I think it’s because it’s so easy to focus on the people in the room, the people in the sanctuary on Sunday morning. That’s the audience we have in mind. But a capable communication or media director sees an audience far, far beyond the walls of the church. If you really want to get your message out there, if you want the gospel to connect with hundreds, thousands, potentially millions of people, communication and media are really the key.

Some churches will put an attorney on retainer or have a regular relationship with an accountant or CPA. But it might be wise now to have a retainer or a monthly relationship with an outside communication firm because it’s so important to how we message the gospel in today’s media-driven culture.

Doug Powe: It makes sense to be in regular contact with someone who can help you think through your particular congregation’s message and make sure it’s clear.

Phil Cooke: I get called a lot when there is a need for crisis communication. A pastor has a moral failure. Somebody steals money from the church. Or the youth director is picked up for drunk driving. Churches need advice on how to navigate that kind of situation. Do we release a press statement? How do we tell the congregation? A communication professional can really help with those questions. I often say, it’s not if a crisis will happen but when in today’s world. You just never know what’s going to happen. An attorney is great, but their job is to help you legally. They’re not necessarily there to help protect your reputation. I’ve seen cases where a church won the court battle, but they lost the battle in the community for their reputation. A communication professional can help preserve the reputation of the church. A legal advisor and a communication advisor are both important, but they bring different things to the table.

Doug Powe: On the subject of crises, I love this quote from Sir Jonathan Miller, “You learn to ice skate during the summer.” The point is, of course, you don’t wait until the crisis happens to learn what to do. Why is it so important to be ready to handle something before it actually takes place?

Phil Cooke: I’ll give you a great example. A few years ago, I got a call from a very, very large church on the East Coast. Their pastor confessed to the elder board that he was having an affair. The elders thought they were the only people that knew. Before they even dismissed that meeting, they called me and told me the whole story. The pastor had literally just walked out the door. I thought, somebody might know about it. Something might have leaked out locally. So, I Googled the church name. And, lo and behold, a website all the way across the country on the West Coast had the entire story on their front page. In a matter of minutes, this story was out there. So, if you’re thinking up your crisis communication plan after the crisis happens, it’s too late. Everybody else in the world is going to know about it.

Doug Powe: Let’s talk about gimmicks. Sometimes churches will try to copy the secular world and use gimmicks as a way to get noticed. But you say that’s not a good idea.

Phil Cooke: Yeah, that’s so true. I grew up in the 60s and my dad was a pastor. There were a lot of pastors at the time who would do strange things. If we brought enough kids to Sunday school, the pastor would shave his head. One pastor in our town sat on a pole for a week trying to get people to come. One church put a bed on the roof of the church and pastor went up there to advertise a sermon series on sex and marriage, and all that happened is that he got sunburned. It just didn’t work out well at all. In junior high and high school, I remember kids asking me, “Phil, why does Pastor So-and-so do such stupid things to get attention?” And I realized early on the way the world perceives us really matters. The way they look at us will decide whether they open the door to us, whether they’re going to visit or not.

Gimmicks don’t help. Do you really want to be remembered as the pastor that preached in his boxer shorts? Or the pastor that really preached the word of God with integrity and purpose? Ultimately, a gimmick can backfire. In most cases, it leaves a bad taste in someone’s mouth. There may be times when gimmicks are fun. I get it. But most of the time we don’t really think them through.

Doug Powe: Congregations in general don’t do a good job of responding to their social media followers. Why don’t more of us do it? And why is it important?

Phil Cooke: We often forget that social media is above all social. Sometimes pastors will post things online and never go back and say anything to the people that respond. I was working with one pastor who would post stuff but never even look at how people responded. One time, a lady responded to him and I said, “Why don’t you say something to her and give her a comment or something?” And he did. Next thing, this lady said “Oh, my gosh. My pastor talks to me on social media. This is the most amazing church I’ve ever been to.” She was thrilled. We don’t have all day to do social media posts. I get that. But social media really is a conversation. It’s not just about posting a scripture. That’s OK. But that’s not going to really spark any gospel conversations.

I always say, “Let people see an insider view of your life.” In most churches, you can’t just call the pastor up and say, “Hey, meet me at Starbucks in half an hour. I’d love to talk to you about stuff.” But through social media, you can give people a glimpse of what your life is like, so I tell pastors, “Instead of just putting trite phrases and motivational sayings online, share a little bit about what you’re thinking when you’re backstage getting ready to walk out to do the funeral of somebody you’ve loved at your church for years and years. What thoughts are going through your mind? What’s God saying to you at that moment? What about preparing a message when you’re struggling late at night and it’s just not coming together?” I’d love to hear about that. I’ll tell you, if pastors and leaders could share those intimate moments with people who follow them, you’ll get more followers than you know what to do with. Because that’s what people love. It’s a conversation. It’s social. And engaging with people back and forth is really what makes it work. Again, you don’t have to do it all day long. But it does really charge up that relationship and give people a spark, and they love to have those kinds of conversations with leaders.

Doug Powe: Let’s talk about creating video content. You point out that the key here is to keep it short — between two and four minutes, so posting your sermon is not going to get the buzz you’re hoping for. But what is helpful for pastors or congregations to post?

Phil Cooke: You’re right. Most people want to see short videos — two to four, maybe six minutes max. Short videos have become the number one marketing tool in America. They’re so popular that businesses, nonprofits, churches, ministries, all kinds of organizations are using them. There’s actually more internet bandwidth being taken up these days by short videos than anything except Amazon Prime and Netflix. Since the dawn of the internet, pornography had been the most watched thing online. But about a year ago, short videos surpassed pornography as the number one thing viewed online.

So, here’s the thing for churches, ministry leaders, and pastors. Whatever you do, share your story with short videos. We all have a little camera in our pocket. It’s called a phone. And today the quality is so great. In fact, there are two film festivals in America now for feature films produced on iPhones. You can take your phone behind the scenes at any time. Give us your comment on something that’s happening out there, what’s going on in your life. People love that now.

Sermons can still go online. I encourage churches to create a YouTube channel and put the pastor’s messages there. You don’t need to put the whole service there. People generally go there to hear the message. They’re not necessarily interested in the praise and worship or the announcements or taking up the offering. Edit your video down to just the message and build your church YouTube channel on that. You’ll be amazed at the number of people that will start viewing this. And in this kind of setting, people will watch a longer video. I travel on planes all the time and I see people watching movies on iPads and phones. So, we’re used to watching longer content. But there’s something really engaging about a short video that tells a short story in a very powerful way. I encourage churches and leaders to think about how you could tell your story with short videos because it makes a huge, huge difference engaging with people.

Doug Powe: Why is your message about communication particularly important now as we come out of the pandemic?

Phil Cooke: Living in the digital age is a much bigger thing than we thought. It’s impacted everything that we do in some way. Pastors and nonprofit leaders need to understand how this affects your work and what you do. Even though we’re back in buildings and we’re going back to life as normal, it’s not the time to take your foot off the gas pedal when it comes to your livestream or connecting with people through short videos and social media. It’s more important now than ever. I believe a significant number of church members got used to livestream worship and I think some of them are going to stay home one or two Sundays a month and engage with a livestream rather than show up back at the church. So, how do we preach to that crowd? It’s not about compromising your theology or your doctrine. It’s just about how to be effective in reaching these people.

We forget sometimes that the Apostle Paul used the technology of his day, which was letters, to build the foundation of the early church. Then, in the 1500s, Martin Luther came along and discovered the printing press and literally created the publishing industry as we know it today. He was the most popular author of his time. So, I think it’s critical today to recognize the power of digital media and use that to get the gospel out there in many ways.


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About Author

Phil Cooke

Phil Cooke is a filmmaker, media consultant, and founder of Cooke Media Group in Los Angeles, California. His newest book, Maximizing Your Influence: Making Digital Media Work for Your Church, Your Ministry, and You is helping pastors navigate the digital age. The book is available at Cokesbury and Amazon.

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is the author of The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020), available at Cokesbury and Amazon. He is also co-author with Jasmine Smothers of Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations (Abingdon Press, 2015), available at Cokesbury and Amazon. His previous books include New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations; Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith; and Transforming Community: The Wesleyan Way to Missional Congregations.


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