A generation ago, all a preacher or teacher needed to be successful in ministry was a calling, a working knowledge of the Bible and a good set of lungs. It didn't take much back then, and great ministries were sometimes built with little more than a drivable car and a passion for sharing the gospel.
Today it's different. Pastors, evangelists and ministry leaders struggle under one of the most frustrating and competitive cultural influencers in history—the power of global media. It is obvious that the media's influence on our lives is pervasive, and education, business, religion, leisure, science and even family life are all measured against that influence.
That's why the greatest challenge you face is how to effectively express your ministry in a media-dominated, consumer-oriented culture. How can people hear you and your message alongside the maddening swirl of media "clutter"—TV, radio, computers, digital music players, Internet, mobile phones and other technologies competing for our attention? How do we get the message of the church heard through the massive and growing wave of media static?
Cutting Through the Clutter
The truth is, the message you have to share is the greatest of all time. Advertisers clamor for attention over what they pitch as a "can't miss" product; yours truly is. And yet to get people's attention takes understanding of how to cut through the overwhelming media clutter, as well as connecting and then developing meaningful relationships with our congregations, supporters or audiences. We need to move far beyond the typical communication techniques of recent years and create a powerful strategy for reaching the most distracted audience in the history of the world.
It's about getting your message heard. It's about telling your story and making that story connect with an audience. In a world where perception is just as important as reality, how can we position ourselves to impact the world?
A Matter of Difference
Essentially, branding is the story that surrounds a person, organization or product. In other words, in a world of incredible choice, what makes you or your message different? How can you stand out and be noticed? Why should someone pause and consider what you have to say? What do people think of when they think of you, your church or your ministry?
In my book Branding Faith (Gospel Light), I highlight keys for successful branding and identity that consultants such as Peter Montoya (author of The Brand Called You) have developed. Those same elements can be adapted and applied for ministering in this media-driven culture. Among them are a few things most pastors need to consider:
1. Visibility is just as important as ability. As harsh as it may sound to some, the truth is that being seen is just as important as being effective. Tragically, there are thousands of brilliant, gifted pastors who will never make an impact because people don't know who they are.
As a producer in Hollywood, I see this clearly illustrated when actors of little ability and skill make millions of dollars just because they were in the right place at the right time. At casting sessions, I'm amazed at the incredible level of talent among unknown actors. There are men and women with incredible gifts who will never be recognized or known.
In ministry, the people you see on TV or listen to on the radio aren't necessarily the most gifted, anointed or skilled ministry leaders out there. But they have influence because they have visibility. Is it fair? Absolutely not. But neither was the Roman occupation during the early church, or many other cultural contexts pastors have confronted throughout history.
Does ability matter? No question about it. I believe in education, skill, expertise and personal growth. When the door opens, you'd better be ready to act and have the talent and calling to back it up.
But unless that door opens, all the talent in the world will do little outside of entertaining your family. Getting your face out there isn't necessarily the act of an egotistical maniac. Certainly there are narcissists in the media and plenty on religious television. But the truth is getting on the radar of the public is the first step toward understanding the power of getting your message heard.
2. Perception is just as important as reality. In a world where the Internet, cell phones and other technologies spread the word at light speed, the first impression matters. In the past, it was all about facts, but today it's about perception. For instance, it doesn't matter if you're an anointed man or woman of God if people think you're a con artist.
Someone once said that if you don't control your perception, you'll live the rest of your life at the mercy of others who will. Who will write the story of your life and ministry? Will you leave your own legacy, or will you wait for others to create it for you? Who you are is important, but you can also never underestimate the value of how you are perceived.
3. Being different is everything. A quick look at Christian churches and organizations will prove that most are similar in their look, style and presentation. But the world isn't looking for another Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes, Franklin Graham or Joyce Meyer. People are looking for someone different and original. God gave you unique DNA, so your job is to discover how your unique gifts and talents can differentiate your ministry from everyone else's.
You have no idea the number of pastors who call our offices each week and ask us to "Do the same thing for us that you did for your national ministry clients." They've got it backward. There's already one of them. A new person needs to emphasize his unique differences.
In working with many of our clients, I'm reminded of the artist Michelangelo, who was asked how he carved such brilliant statues of angels. He remarked that he didn't carve statues; he just removed the excess stone so the angel inside could come out.
That's often the case with the work my company does for numerous clients. It's not so much a matter of recreating or rebuilding a ministry; it's more about cutting away the junk so the real ministry that's inside can be released. And believe me, the junk is there. Lack of professionalism, poor media production, unqualified staff, poor taste, inept leadership, insecurity, small budgets, bad assumptions, a confusing story and more plague many organizations today and hamper their effectiveness.
What's Your Story?
Few men and women in the ministry world are truly unique and different. God is the great Creator, and yet most ministry leaders simply copy what they see on TV or hear on the radio.
Listen to Apple computer ads and "think different." God created you as a unique individual, so what does that mean for the type of vision you're called to accomplish and the people you're called to reach?
If Joel Osteen is about inspiration, Billy Graham is about salvation, Joyce Meyer is about practical living, Jack Graham is about Jesus, Robert Schuller is about motivation, Chuck Colson is about speaking truth into culture or Ed Young is about creativity, what is the story that surrounds you? What do people think of when they think of you?
Whatever the size of your current crowd, these are critical questions that will help you create a compelling brand that can impact your ministry and help you make a connection that could potentially influence the world.
Phil Cooke is a media producer and consultant in Los Angeles whose latest book is called Branding Faith: Why Some Churches and Non-Profits Impact the Culture and Others Don't (Gospel Light). For more information, go to philcooke.com.