Episode 85: “Becoming a Digital Savvy Congregation” featuring Phil Cooke

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 85: “Becoming a Digital Savvy Congregation” featuring Phil Cooke

How can your church extend its reach and maximize its impact through digital media? In this episode, media producer Phil Cooke shares strategies for becoming more media savvy.

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How can your church extend its reach and maximize its impact through digital media? In this episode, media producer Phil Cooke shares strategies for becoming more media savvy.

Doug Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Douglas Powe, the director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is Dr. Phil Cooke, media producer, writer, speaker, coach, and the author of many books. His latest book is Maximize Your Influence: How to Make Digital Media Work for Your Church, Your Ministry, and You. Our focus for this podcast is influence. Phil, I’m so glad that you’re joining us. I really enjoyed your book and believe that it’s something that all pastors and church leaders need to read. So, thank you for being with us today.

Phil Cooke: Well, thank you, Doug. I’m thrilled to be here. I love what you guys are doing and it’s going to be fun.

Doug Powe: Yeah, I’m looking forward to it. Let me begin with what I believe is the reason you wrote the book. Why do many churches and church leaders struggle to maximize their influence?

Phil Cooke: That’s a great question. A lot of it is financial. A lot of churches are small. I think the average church in America is about 75 people these days. But the book really came out of the COVID-19 shutdown. You know, it’s funny. We’ve been working with many clients in churches for years on helping maximize their livestream. But pastors would tell me, “You know, Phil, I don’t mind streaming my service. But that’s not real ministry.” Well, I’ll tell you, when the church shutdown happened in 2020, that changed their tune quickly. And people were really caught. Pastors and leaders were caught, really blindsided by this whole thing. How do we get our message out in the shutdown world? So, we started getting flooded with calls from pastors and leaders wondering, how do we make this work? How do we connect with our people? And so, I wrote the book during the shutdown because I realized that seminary is seminary. It’s great for teaching the Bible and preaching techniques and doctrine and theology. But seminary is not so great in most cases on teaching media and communications. How to get your message out there.

So, I really wrote Maximize Your Influence to be a reference book for pastors and leaders to have on their desk that deals 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. That really was the birth of the book and why I felt it was so important to get it out there.

Doug Powe: I agree with you! And I want readers to make sure that they do pick up the book to read it, because we will not be able to cover everything you cover in the book. But you have some wonderful advice. I want to jump into it. You talk about identity and identity development. And I don’t want you to give away your secret sauce or anything, but can you share what you mean by identity development and how congregations can do it better?

Phil Cooke: Well, you know, I’ve worked with nonprofits, ministries, and churches for so long, and one of the things I noticed is that organizations that are pretty good at a lot of things never get noticed. They don’t get on the radar. They don’t break through. They don’t get on people’s minds. But the ones that really do break through and get noticed are the ones that are extraordinary generally at one big thing, one thing that they do extraordinarily well.

In churches, we have the Great Commission where we feel called — the Bible tells us to go out and preach the gospel to all nations and all people. And we feel like we can all reach everybody. But the truth is, we can’t. I try to make churches understand that. Who are the people who are the low hanging fruit, the people that you could connect with very easily because of your personality as a pastor or leader, the demographic makeup of your church, the geographic location? Let’s focus on that crowd. And it’s funny, because I’ve discovered that if we could all do that, if everybody would reach those people that could identify with them and their message and really connect on a deep level, we would actually reach the world. But so many of us are trying to dilute this whole thing by trying to reach everybody. And it’s just not going to happen.

The fact is, your church, whether it’s in Los Angeles or Tulsa or Des Moines or Atlanta, is just not going to reach everybody. So, let’s really focus on the people that we want to reach. And a lot of that comes from the leader, the calling, the gifts, the talent of the leader. That’s a good starting point to figure out how we figure out what our identity is, what our brand story is. You’ve heard that term, I’m sure. That’s really the starting point of the process.

Doug Powe: I think what you’re saying is interesting, and I can see why congregations would want to push back. So do you think that congregations or particularly pastors are taught, “Your goal is to take the gospel and to preach it to all the earth?” So, this idea of possibly limiting my audience, it doesn’t mean we don’t welcome everyone. But I’m targeting someone. It’s just hard for them to accept.

Phil Cooke: It really is. It sounds weird. But let’s face it. If your goal is trying to reach 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 the Bible talks over and over about our calling. And I think our calling is to a specific group, specific people in a specific town or community.

And I just think, what if we could become extraordinary at reaching that group? When I have a branding conversation with clients, there is an example I love to give when it comes to that narrow niche — the woman that’s won the most Grammy awards of all time. If you look at the history of the Grammy Awards, the big music awards here in Hollywood, the woman has won the most is not Aretha Franklin or Barbra Streisand or Beyonce or Celine Dion. The woman who has won the most by far, actually, is Alison Krauss, the bluegrass player. When they announce the Bluegrass Awards, she so dominates that category. She walks away with all those 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. And I say that in ministry we could do something very similar instead of trying to be all things to all people.

Certainly, like you say, we welcome everyone. No question about that. But who are the people that we could be amazing at reaching and connecting with? Because I think that’s really the way to get your church noticed. People become aware of who you are in the community and that’s where you’re going to create the biggest harvest.

Doug Powe: I really love that analogy. I did not know that. That’s an interesting fact. In chapter two, you pose a great question, and I’m going to have you answer your own question.

Phil Cooke: OK?

Doug Powe: You ask in a book, how do we get the message of the church heard through the massive and growing wave of media? I think this is a struggle for many congregations. So, how do they get their message?

Phil Cooke: Well, in a social media world, in a digital media world, distraction is everything. It’s unbelievable. I read a statistic just recently that it’s changed our behavior. I mean, the fact is we’re being pulled in so many directions. We have so many things to do. We got this iPhone in our pocket, you know. It’s always going off. We have texts to answer, emails to answer. We’ve changed our behavior so that when we meet someone for the first time, we decide what we think of that person in the first four to eight seconds. Now, think about that, Doug. We haven’t had a chance to talk with them, to learn much about them, hear what they have to say. But, hey, we got other things to do. So, we just started making judgments about things that we don’t even know anything about.

In fact, I tell pastors very often that I’m glad your sermon is anointed. I’m glad your worship is fantastic. But in an eight-second world, what’s your parking experience like at your church? What’s the lobby like? Who’s the first person the new visitor meets when they walk in the door? Because in today’s distracted culture, people are making those decisions long before they ever get to their seat. So, I just think we need to understand, first of all, that the first impression counts. We’ve always been told “Your first impression is the most important thing.” Let me tell you, in a digital universe, it’s the most important thing you could possibly do. And it’s very hard to repair a bad first impression. Because people have just so many other things to do and they have other choices.

So, the first thing to understand in getting on the radar is making sure you can cut through that clutter and get noticed. One great example I mentioned, Doug, is that, during the shutdown, I would start looking at different churches’ livestreams, and I would go from church to church, and I would watch them just to kind of see how churches were doing. And one of the things I noticed was how difficult it was to find their livestreams. You could go to their church website, and you had to go through page, after page, after page — click, click, click, click to find the livestream. 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.

The fact is, we need to really grease the skids for anything we want people to do in this generation because there’s so many other options, so many other distractions. And it’s a huge, huge problem. In fact, I don’t want to rant, but 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 message that knows how to cut through the clutter, get to the point, and make an impact. That’s the message that’s going to get through. And the truth is that many people in the secular world today have figured that out. And I think that’s one of the reasons the church is just being marginalized in the culture and we’re losing so much influence.

Doug Powe: Do you think consistency is important also? The reason I ask is my son is entering his senior year in high school, and unfortunately we use my email for all the colleges recruiting. Some of them send a message every single day saying something about why he should be checking out their particular school. So, there’s sort of a consistency. Even if you weren’t thinking about them, they just keep sending to where you almost have to take notice. Does that help?

Phil Cooke: It does. It’s interesting that marketing guru Seth Godin says that repetition builds trust. We live in such a distracted world. We think the message we’re putting out is a good word for churches that are doing their advertising and promotions and things like that. We think we get sick of it after hearing it a few times. But the truth is, about the time we get tired of hearing that message that we’re advertising and promoting, it’s just starting to sink in with the people out there. So, in a world where we’re being so overwhelmed with media messages, repetition matters, consistency matters, those things really do help you get on the radar.

Doug Powe: You talk about how, when churches get in difficult financial situations, the first cut is often in the communications area. And I want you to talk about why this is a mistake. I mean, hopefully, people sort of figured this out based on what you’ve already said. But, just to make it plain, why is it a mistake to cut the communication area first?

Phil Cooke: Well, I’ll tell you, during the COVID-19 shutdown, we discovered that an enormous number of churches are still in business today because of their communication or media teams. You may only have a graphic designer or a video person or someone like that. But let me tell you, during that shutdown, if it wasn’t for your communication team, you probably would have gone out of business. If there was anything good that came out of COVID-19, I think it was probably that pastors just realized how important communication and media are.

Like you say, many times when finances get tough, the first persons we cut are in media or communications. It’s interesting that pastors often focus on what they can see. Who are the people in the room? Who are the people in the sanctuary when they’re preaching on Sunday morning? That’s the audience in their mind. But a capable communication or media director sees an audience far, far beyond the walls of the church. And 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.

I even go so far as to say churches often will put an attorney on retainer if they have legal issues, or they’ll have a regular relationship with an accountant for the CPA kind of issues and financial stuff. I’ll tell you, we’re entering a time today when it might be wise to have a retainer or a monthly relationship with an outside communication firm because it’s so important how we message the gospel in this media-driven culture today.

Doug Powe: I really like that idea. I hadn’t thought about that before. But it makes sense to really be in contact with someone who can help you think through your particular congregation’s message to make sure that it’s clear.

Phil Cooke: Yeah. One of the things I get called on a lot is crisis communication — you know, when a pastor has a moral failure and runs off with somebody or somebody steals money from the church or the youth director is picked up for drunk driving or something abusive. I often get the call to help churches navigate that world. You know, do we release a press statement? How do we tell the congregation? Those kinds of questions. More than ever, a communication professional really will help with those details. I often say it’s not if a crisis will happen, it’s when in today’s world. You just never know what’s going to happen. And keep in mind, an attorney is great, but their job is to help you legally. They’re not there to help your reputation necessarily. I’ve seen cases where legally a church won the court battle, but they lost in the community as far as their reputation. It was just completely trashed during the process. A communication professional is going to help keep the reputation of the church. The pastor helped whatever we’re trying to save here. Keep that up. It’s a little different between a legal advisor and a communication advisor. Both are important, but they bring different things to the table. So, all in all, you’re right. Hopefully pastors are understanding how important communication expertise is in this digital culture.

Doug Powe: I was going to ask this question later, but since you’ve started talking about crises, I love this quote from Sir Jonathan Miller, “You learn to ice skate during the summer.” And the point being, of course, that you don’t wait until the crisis happens to learn what to do. You actually prepare for how you’re going to handle it before it happens. You just spoke a little bit about that. But do you want to add to why it’s so important to really be ready to handle something before it actually takes place?

Phil Cooke: I’ll give you a great example. I got a call from a church a few years ago on the East Coast. They are a very, very large church. And their pastor had an affair. The pastor literally confessed to the elders, and the elder board were the only people who knew. And the first call the elder board made, even before they dismissed that meeting, was to me. They called me on the phone and said, “Let me tell you what just happened.” So, they told me the whole story of how it happened and what happened. The pastor who confessed literally just walked out the door.

So, I thought, OK, let me check Google and see if anything has leaked out about this situation anywhere in the country. Somebody might know about it, and something might have leaked out locally. So, I Googled the church name. And, lo and behold, a website on the West Coast, all the way across the country, had the entire story on their front page. We’re talking a matter of minutes. This story was out there. So, if you think of your crisis communication plan after the crisis happens, you’re going to be late. You’re going to be late because everybody else in the world is going to know about it. The truth is, in the digital world, you can’t hide. You just can’t hide.

You won’t believe this, but I had a pastor one time say, “Phil, it would probably be best if you didn’t tell my congregation about my yacht.” Well, I said, “You know what? You’re kind of an idiot because if they’ve got Google, they can download the ownership papers for the yacht online. And if they’ve got Google Earth, they can download a photo, a satellite photo, of the boat sitting at the dock.” So, we just can’t hide anymore. And we have to understand that having a plan ready to go, just in case something happens, is probably the smartest thing you could possibly do because, if you don’t, you’re just going to be too late and you’ll be playing catch up, which doesn’t help anyone.

Doug Powe: Yeah. Well, I’m going to shift gears. We want to talk about crisis, but the other thing that I really appreciate is that you’re not talking about church being gimmicky. You talk about how churches will sometimes try to copy the secular world and start using gimmicks to be noticed, and you’re like, “No. That’s not a good idea and it’s not actually going to work for you.”

Phil Cooke: Yeah, that’s so true. I grew up in the 60s and my dad was a pastor. And we had a lot of pastors at the time that would do strange things. You know, if we brought enough kids to Sunday school, the pastor would shave his head. I can remember one pastor in our town sat on a pole for a week trying to get people to come. If he could get attendance numbers up, he’d come down off the pole. Stuff like that. And I remember in junior high and high school, kids would ask me, “Phil, why does Pastor So-and-so do such stupid things to get attention?” And I thought the way the world perceives us really matters. The way they look at us is going to decide whether they open the door to us, whether they’re going to visit or not. And I realized early on gimmicks don’t help. I’ve seen so many pastors do gimmicks about, you know, their new sermon series on marriage and sex. One church put a bed on the roof of the church and the pastor went up there and he got sunburned. It just didn’t work out well at all.

I’ve learned over the years 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 — for the audience, the congregation, the community. You probably don’t want to be remembered as that person. You want to be remembered for something a little higher. I’m just saying there are times when gimmicks are fun. I get it. They’re OK. But most of the time we don’t really think them through. I can give you so many examples, from both secular businesses and churches, whey they just didn’t think it through, and it ended up backfiring and causing a real negative situation. So, I’m just really cautious when it comes to gimmicks because they usually don’t help.

Doug Powe: Makes good sense. And again, Dr. Phil Cook is with me and we’re talking about his new book, Maximize Your Influence. One of the things that I admit I am horrible at doing, and I’m going to try to take to heart your advice, but I will say something congregations in general don’t do well is respond to our social media followers. Why is this important? Why don’t more of us do it?

Phil Cooke: Well, very often we forget that social media, above all, is social. And so sometimes pastors, in particular, will post things online and never go back and say anything to the people that respond to them. For instance, I was with a pastor one time who just never did that. He would post stuff but never even look at how people would respond. So, I said, “Hey, why don’t you go back?” One lady had 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 was, “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 like, “Today is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” 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 a half hour. I’d love to talk to you about stuff.” Not everybody can do that. But through social media, we can give people a glimpse of what your life is like.

So, I tell pastors all the time, “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? 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. I usually will say, if you’re going to post something, give it a few minutes. Post and then wait and see what other people are saying and carve out some time to respond to some of those people. Again, you don’t have to do it all day long. But it does really charge up that relationship and really gives people a spark. They love to have those kinds of conversations with leaders.

Doug Powe: I think that’s helpful and hopefully many of us will take it to heart. Something I also found extremely helpful — and I think is particularly important for congregations — is creating video content. You point out the key here is to keep it short — between two and four minutes. So, posting your sermon is not going to get the buzz that you’re hoping for. What is helpful for pastors or congregations to post?

Phil Cooke: That’s a really interesting question. Because there are some categories. You’re right. Most people want to see short videos, two to four, maybe six minutes max. And the truth is, 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. In fact, since Day One of the internet, the most watched thing online has always been pornography. But as of about a year ago, short videos surpassed pornography as being the thing most viewed online.

So, here’s the thing for churches, ministry leaders, and pastors. Whatever you do, share your story with short videos. Trust me. 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. So, the truth is, you could take your phone at any time behind the scenes. Give us a little short video, 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, for instance, and put the pastor’s messages there. I would say you don’t need to put the whole service on there. You know, people that go back are generally going back because they want to hear the message. They’re not necessarily interested in the praise and worship or the announcements or taking up the offering or anything like that. I would say if you can edit your message down to just the message, build your church YouTube channel on that. You’ll be amazed at the number of people that will start viewing this, and people will watch longer in those kinds of settings because we’ve gotten used to watching. I travel on planes all the time. And I see people watching movies on iPads and phones and everything. 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. And 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: One of my favorite stories in the book actually involved your wife. You talked about visiting a church and the hospitality of an usher. I want to have you share that story and the great insight you provide related to this.

Phil Cooke: Well, you know, I’m one of the first people to say that I like ushers helping direct people to sit. Because I work with a lot of churches that have television ministries. And we certainly don’t want to see empty seats out there. We like to see the place full. And so, we will sometimes fill it up based on where the cameras are looking. But my wife will have none of that. She doesn’t want to be told where to sit. She wants to find her seat herself. Many times, she’s gotten a little short with ushers who are just determined to tell her where she’s supposed to sit. In one church, we showed up a few minutes late, and this pastor just had a policy that at 11 o’clock when the service started, the doors are shut, and you had to go to the overflow room. And we got there about five minutes late. We could look through the glass door and see that the church was only two-thirds full. There were a ton of empty seats in the back. We could have slipped in quietly, no problem. But the usher just would not allow it. He wouldn’t even wait for maybe a song or a prayer time or a break in the service where we could slip in unnoticed. He just wouldn’t let us in. So, we had to go sit with the nursing moms and everybody else in the overflow room. And my wife was just livid.

So, the irony of the whole thing is, years later that pastor called me and asked me if I’d come and help their church with some media issues they were facing. He hired my company to work with that church, and so I told him that story. Of course, he was so embarrassed, and he sent her flowers and it was just really funny. But it really showed that you need to take the time with your volunteers, with your ushers, to make them sensitive to people. I mean, there’s just times when rules are important and there’s times when we can have a little grace. We want to get more people in that congregation and more people in that sanctuary. But some volunteers just go by the rules. I’m a big believer in volunteers by the way. You can create an army of volunteers who give of their time and do it enthusiastically and want to make a difference. But they have to be trained. We have to take some time with them. So, yeah, it’s just funny. I work in the communication business, so I’m probably more sensitive than most people, but it can be a real issue in a lot of churches around the country.

Doug Powe: As we get ready to draw to a close, for those who are going to pick up your book after listening to this, can you share why this book is important now as we come out of the pandemic? Why is it still an important read for them?

Phil Cooke: Well, first of all, living in the digital age is a much bigger thing than we thought. I think that it’s impacted more of our life. It’s impacted everything that we do in some way. And so, for you to be a leader, a pastor, a nonprofit leader, whatever you do, you need to understand how that’s going to affect your work and what you do. And I wrote the book really as a reference book. The truth is, even though we’re back in buildings and we’re going back to life as normal, this is not the time to let up on the gas pedal when it comes to your livestream, with connecting with people, with short videos and social media. It’s more important now than ever. I actually believe that a significant number of church members got used to that whole livestream thing. And I think some of them are going to probably stay at home one or two Sundays a month and engage with a livestream rather than show up back at the church. So, I think we need to understand how to keep them engaged and how to make this thing grow.

I really wrote the book as a reference. What about book publishing in a digital world? What about preaching to a digital audience, you know, an audience that’s so social media driven? Do we need to change the way 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 those 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. And then around the 1500s, Martin Luther came along and discovered the printing press. And he literally turned that into the publishing industry as we know it today. He was the most popular author of his time in the entire world. So, I think it’s critical today to recognize the power of digital media and use that to get the gospel out there in so many ways.

So, the book was really written to be a reference. It should be on your desk all the time. And when issues come up, you can refer to it and check different things. It can be a big, big help, I think, for pastors and leaders you are trying to get their message out to today’s really secular culture where it’s really getting more difficult than ever to break through. I think this is so important.

Doug Powe: Thank you, Phil. I really appreciate it. And again, really enjoyed the book.

Phil Cooke: Thank you, too.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks, Dwight J. Freisen shares how congregations can become more digitally savvy.

Thank you for joining us, and don’t forget to subscribe free to our weekly newsletter, Leading Ideas, at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.

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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 is Ideas on a Deadline: How to Be Creative When the Clock is Ticking (Inspire, 2022), available at philcooke.com and Amazon. He is also the author of Maximizing Your Influence: Making Digital Media Work for Your Church, Your Ministry, and You (Insight International, 2020), 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 also co-editor with Jessica Anschutz of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024) and coauthor with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation (Fortress, 2022). His previous books include The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020); Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations; 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.