My team at Cooke Pictures gets hired when a church, ministry or nonprofit organization is losing its voice. Perhaps you’ve experienced a similar situation: Despite doing great work in the community—like building homeless shelters, drug treatment centers or food banks—your ministry still lives hand to mouth. Or, as a pastor who has had a genuine calling, you’ve built a great team, invested your life in the vision with powerful preaching, teaching or ministry, but the spark never happens; growth never takes off. Or it just suddenly stops.
I see it happen all too often: media ministries that just can’t seem to grow beyond a local broadcast; churches that hit an attendance plateau; benevolent outreaches that can’t seem to break through a certain level of fundraising. In most cases, these efforts are led by qualified, sincere men and women, and almost all have a strong vision for excellence. They spend money on capital campaigns, media equipment, church-growth consultants, marketing, TV or radio time, advertising, social media campaigns and more, but they just seem trapped and unable to grow beyond a certain point.
Telling Conflicting Stories
A number of years ago, I was invited to the monthly creative and marketing meeting for one of the world’s largest media ministries. For some time, the leaders of the ministry had noticed that their TV viewers—although historically a large audience—had stopped growing. Once they began investigating, they discovered it was pretty much the same story throughout the entire ministry. Income had hit a plateau, resource sales were flat, TV response was slowing, and financial partnership with donors was almost nonexistent.
When I was introduced to the ministry leader—a prominent religious figure—his first response was, “Well, I don’t know why you’re here. There’s nothing wrong with this organization.”
The room got a bit icy, so I stood up and walked around. In a respectful tone, I replied, “I think you’re absolutely correct. Your program is well-produced, and your ministry has always been very popular. But the truth is, you’ve suddenly hit a wall that no one seems to be able to explain.”
I continued, “Before I came to this meeting, I spent time studying the different expressions of your ministry, and the first thing I noticed was that everything you do looks different from everything else.”
I pulled out pictures from the ministry website, the title card from the opening of the TV program, examples of the website design, a print ad, a brochure and his latest book and pointed out that they all looked like they came from five or six different organizations. There was no common look or theme to anything. Essentially, they were telling six different (and sometimes conflicting) stories about the ministry.
The Noticeable Power of Unifying Your Story
When you look at the advertising from a major brand like Nike, Starbucks or Apple, everything they do—from bus stop ads to television to magazines—has a common look and style. From a hundred yards away, you can recognize a McDonald’s restaurant in the distance—whether you’re in Beijing, Mumbai, Cleveland or Moscow. These companies all carry the theme of the business across all media, which in turn strengthens the power of the company in the minds of the consumer.
I got his attention.
“So how do we fix that?” he asked.
“Tell me who you are,” I replied.
“We’re a teaching ministry that’s called to preach and teach the message of Jesus Christ.”
“Be more specific,” I said. “What you’re saying is no different from what a million other churches and ministries out there are doing.”
“OK, we’re called to television.”
“Still no good.” I pushed him a bit. “The question isn’t, ‘What do you do?’ or, ‘How do you do it?’ The real question here is, ‘Who are you?’”
I stopped for a second and said, “Let me put it this way: What do people think of when they think of you and, in turn, your ministry?”
He had no answer. He’d never thought of it before.
Define and Refine Your Overarching Story
Whatever good the abundance of ministry outlets brings to the world, it also brings confusion and clutter for people who are trying to make sense of it all. The ministry leader I was meeting with began to understand.
“So how do audiences relate to people and ministries they see out there right now?” he asked.
I encouraged him to consider ministries and how they’ve identified and branded themselves during the last 20 years. The most successful may teach on a wide variety of issues, but in most cases, they each have an overarching theme to their life and ministry.
Until he retired from pastoral ministry a few years ago, my own pastor was Jack Hayford at The Church On The Way, in Van Nuys, Calif. As a pastor, Jack has been a brilliant teacher and spent decades preaching and teaching on an incredibly wide range of subjects in response to God’s calling. But despite that range and depth, I believe that Jack was and is motivated and driven by “worship.” He is endlessly fascinated with the subject, both as a pastor and as a musician. As a result, he has taught today’s church volumes on the issue. Many would say he’s the single greatest voice in the Christian community on the importance of godly worship in the church today. Bottom line, if you cut Jack, he bleeds worship.
I rattled off a list of other names from the world of media ministry, both past and present, to illustrate my point. Whether or not you agree with their theology, to most people these leaders are known for a specific topic:
Granted, you may consider this a crude way to look at it, but for millions of people, that’s exactly how they view these ministry personalities.
In a world of choices, defining your ministry gives your audience handles they can easily grasp and allows them to have a quick understanding of who you and your church are—and where your focus lies.
Why is this necessary? Think of your brain as acting like a filter to help you sort through the growing flood of information surrounding us every day. In this environment, we need easy ways to help us get to the real information we need to make decisions about life. It’s about the story that surrounds who you are—a story that creates focus for your ministry. In short, it’s about your ministry “brand.”
I ask you the same thing I asked that ministry leader in our creative meeting: What do people think of when they think of you and your church?
A successful church, ministry or nonprofit organization happens at the intersection of a number of issues, not the least of which is calling, vision, ability, commitment, resources, exposure, location and education. But, what happens when all those things fall into place and the spark still doesn’t happen—when a church with all the right ingredients still struggles; when a gifted pastor never reaches a larger audience; when a wonderful ministry can’t seem to break through a particular barrier?
It could also happen to a church or ministry of any size that has been successful in the past, but like the pastor in my creative meeting, suddenly and with no explanation, the ministry stops getting results.
In a media-driven culture—when even the best idea doesn’t have a clear and compelling story surrounding it—no amount of qualifications, resources, advertising or leadership can overcome the deficit.
The media today is a digital cacophony of voices and images. To stand out in that ocean of choices takes more than excellent sermons, quality resources, professional programs and good intentions. It’s not about manipulation, but about helping people clearly understand who you are and how you can impact their lives.
Connecting With a Culture That Changes at Light Speed
In today’s world, people establish a gut-level connection with a person based on their own values and perceptions long before they buy into the person’s message.
Think about it. When you meet someone for the first time, you’ve sized him up long before he opens his mouth. When a consumer makes the initial connection—hear me when I say “initial”—it’s not about content; it’s about the brand. In that first moment, the values, story and sense of authenticity surrounding a leader or church are far more important than anything else.
A media-driven culture changes the equation for ministry. Today, we operate our churches, ministries or nonprofit organizations in a 21st-century technological context. In our current digital culture, where a typical American deals with as many as 5,000 media messages a day, it doesn’t matter how great your message is if it can’t cut through the clutter and ultimately impact people’s lives.
There’s no question that the Christian faith has been most effective when it has acted as salt and light. Operating on the margins of society, we’ve made a great contribution to the culture. And as I’ve said many times, it doesn’t take a scholar to note the remarkable and unparalleled contribution Christianity has made to the West throughout history.
But in what most call a postmodern and post-Christian culture, we’re discovering that any power we thought we had during the last generation has created a backlash. Even though they acted with the best of intentions, Christian leaders of a generation ago who made Christianity a political force are now viewed by the culture as parodies and are often referred to in condescending and humorous terms.
I’m not here to argue their accomplishments, but I am here to offer a better way to impact the culture for the future.
If your story and brand are connecting to the audience and giving their lives meaning, then it will continue to sustain its impact and your ministry will grow.
The truth is, change happens, and change is coming whether we like it or not; whether or not we bemoan modern advertising and marketing; whether we criticize those who are pioneering new ideas or turn our backs on new technology. Jesus criticized the Pharisees for not recognizing the signs of the times, and yet 2,000 years later, many leaders are still just as blind.
Creating an effective brand story doesn’t mean being reactive to the culture; it means being responsive to the culture—recognizing the change and being there with the story that has transformed so many generations before us.
Don’t give your congregation, your donors or your audience what you think they want.
Give them what they never dreamed possible.
Excerpted and adapted with permission from Unique: Telling Your Story in the Age of Brands and Social Media by Phil Cooke (Regal Publishers, 2012).
In the late 1980s, I was asked to direct a series of prime-time TV specials from Lakewood Church featuring pastor John Osteen. The producer who invited me was his son Joel, who at the time was producing his dad’s TV program and leading the media ministry for the church. In 1982, Joel left Oral Roberts University at the end of his sophomore year to help his father launch the growing TV ministry nationally. For the next 17 years, Joel produced his father’s program, growing it into one of the world’s most successful media ministries.
During that time, Joel and I became close friends as well as colleagues. I was invited back many times, and after Joel took the helm as senior pastor at Lakewood, we created a new TV outreach, which would become the most watched inspirational program in history. To date, his TV broadcasts reach 10 million U.S. households each week.
The most successful military generals and athletes ruthlessly study the strategy and tactics of their adversaries. In a similar way, effective pastors and ministry leaders have always studied the enemy. The Bible is very clear about evil, and there’s no question the enemy will stop at nothing to destroy God’s people. But in my experience, the vast majority of pastors and leaders aren’t recognizing a new but remarkably effective tool in the enemy’s arsenal: distraction.
Your leader’s guide for helping people take their next step toward Christ—and to each other
“Stay alert. This is hazardous work I’m assigning you. You’re going to be like sheep running through a wolf pack, so don’t call attention to yourselves. Be as cunning as a snake, inoffensive as a dove.” —Matthew 10:16, MSG
Communication is tricky—especially organizational communication. So many people are involved—on the inside and out. How do you communicate to help people take their next step toward Christ? How do you cover all of the following objectives that are often thought of as required elements for effective communication?
These are loaded objectives, and we usually see two common responses to the challenges of meeting all five: Control everything or just give in to the free-for-all. Both approaches are counterproductive.
At this point, things could get complex if we let it. But we won’t. Simple approaches do exist. The best way to get there is to start right with a few essentials and to stay right with the right filter.
Start right with the right basics that apply to everyone.
A group of people with a clear understanding of the defined win can effectively create great work—easily. When everyone on the team collaborates to give it form, decisions are made and materials come together readily.
You, me—we are that group of people.But first we need to start with the same understanding of a key ingredient to our communication: the brand.
1) What is a brand? Given the right tools, a brand is like a person with good communication and adaptation skills. A brand is not a veneer you apply to make something pretty. Instead, a brand begins to exist when you have something to offer the world. It is a promise of what to expect. Great brands are trustworthy experiences. Think Nike, Apple, Star Wars.
2) How is a brand created, developed and maintained? Brands are created and developed by people with a shared philosophy. They shepherd the brand’s development, acting as the brand’s heart, head, eyes, hands, ears and voice. Everyone (and by that I mean everyone) who affects any brand touchpoint is responsible for making sure its values remain intact and understandable. Think brand handlers.
3) How does brand awareness grow? Brands need friends, or a support system, and again it comes back to people. Think brand advocates.
A communications hub team collects, prioritizes and edits the essentials of the brand, providing to all the handlers what they need to connect with people and the world. The systems they create allow the brand to adapt and be used in different ways.
Let’s review. Handle the brand with care. Don’t manhandle the brand.
Got it? Good. It’s as if you just graduated from the fastest branding school in the universe. Move your tassel and advance to the next section.
You have a new job description.
Now that you’ve graduated from brand school, it’s time to define your role as a brand handler. As promised, we’ll keep it simple.
It all boils down to three basic mantras: Love them. Own them. Live them. Everything else will fall into place. Remember these brand handler characteristics:
1) Your job is much more about releasing the right response than it is about sending the right message.
2) You vow to reduce information obesity and simplify complexity.
3) Your commitment to effective communication comes from a level of self-awareness that is more of an attitude than a skill. It comes not from technique, but from being genuinely interested in what really matters to the other person.
What are your values?
How we communicate with each other and our audience brings our values to life. By protecting these values, we’re able to help people take their next step toward Christ and each other. The win? To simplify everything our audience sees, to make their life easier and more rewarding in every interaction with our church and ministries.
Abide in these values like your own little personal quality control department:
I hope this little guide has helped you tap into a fresh perspective, an encouraging nudge, a few “aha” moments and some uncomplicated strategies that make a noticeable difference in your church’s internal and external communication. Take advantage of all the tools you have here. Believe it or not, every form of your communication can be better, and your life will be easier. No, seriously. It will.
Kem Meyer is the communications director at Granger Community Church and author of Less Clutter. Less Noise.: Beyond Bulletins, Brochures and Bake Sales. You can find a full version of Granger’s Communication Playbook, as well as information about Meyer’s communication workshops and coaching networks, at WiredChurches.com. She blogs at KemMeyer.com.
This issue of Ministry Today is all about using the power of media to effectively communicate God’s message, and it’s as important as any we’ve published in the magazine’s 31-year history. That’s because our society today is increasingly dominated and driven by the media, and for believers to communicate the gospel, we must not only understand the media, but also be ahead of the curve in using it.
Recently I had the privilege of speaking to a group of students at Valley Forge Christian College in Pennsylvania. Among other things I shared, I spoke on the topic of learning to write for digital media. I actually talked about some of the concepts addressed in this issue, even quoting Hollywood movie producer Ralph Winter and other contributors.
These were young, eager people preparing themselves to serve in ministry, trying to get the tools they need for the future. Why they wanted to hear from a journalist who learned the ropes of the media industry on manual typewriters and who graduated before the personal computer was invented is beyond me. Yet I am a veteran of learning to navigate the tumultuous waters of change—and when it comes to the media world, things are changing like never before. I never could have envisioned a world of Facebook, Google, iPhones and text messaging when I started my career. But I reminded these students that they’ll likely experience more change in their own careers than I have in mine.
If you’re young, the same may be true for you. But even if you’ve had decades of ministry experience, you face the same dilemma as someone fresh out of college: Are you effectively communicating the message God has given you? Media—and how you use it—plays a huge role in answering that question.
As followers of Jesus, we have the privilege of responding to the world we live in with the Good News, no matter what the circumstances. Yet Christians have traditionally lagged behind the world in coping with technology and societal change. (That has nothing to do with the gospel and everything to do with paradigms of the Christian subculture.)
Because of this, it’s crucial for us—especially those in full-time ministry—to listen to leaders who are “bilingual” like Phil Cooke, our guest editor for this issue. They are citizens of God’s kingdom who know the language of Zion. But they also know the cultural language expressed through media that the world listens to.
Phil and I have been friends since he worked for Oral Roberts shortly after graduating as a student at Roberts’ university. We first met when I was a guest on Richard Roberts’ TV show in the 1980s and was impressed by a sharp young producer behind the camera. As I got to know Phil, I could see he had a passion to influence culture through media. I also watched him during a season in which he cast caution to the wind, quit his job and moved his family from “Tulsa-rusalem” to be a type of missionary to Hollywood. Today, though he still spends a significant amount of time working in the Christian media industry, he’s had enough success in the secular arena that people take notice when he recognizes an emerging cultural trend.
I’ve had dinner with Phil and his lovely wife, Kathleen. I’ve visited his offices in Burbank, Calif. We’ve collaborated on projects, and he’s become our company’s go-to guy for anything having to do with the media. If you’ve read our magazines, you’ve likely seen his byline often in print and online.
So when Ministry Today General Editor Lindy Lowry suggested him as a guest editor, I jumped at the idea. I knew the material would be good—as good as any we’ve had in the magazine. Whether in his books or behind the camera, Phil’s always produced top-notch content. And his Rolodex of names—including everyone from Joel Osteen to Ralph Winter—adds a richness and texture no one else could do when dealing with the topic of messaging and media.
Given Phil’s credentials, I encourage you to not just read this issue—devour it. Put these principles into practice in your own ministry. Lets start a movement of believers who will reclaim the airwaves—and every other medium—to advance God’s kingdom in our day.
Hollywood film producer Ralph Winter shares invaluable insights for storytelling that impacts an audience
Ralph Winter is among a rare (and elite) group of film professionals who have produced some of the largest budget movies in Hollywood history. With a résumé that includes the Star Trek, X-Men and Fantastic Four feature-film series, along with I, Robot, Planet of the Apes and many others, his movies have grossed more than $2 billion at the box office. The bottom line: Ralph Winter knows how to tell a story.
For this issue, we asked Winter, a longtime Christian who spends as much time mentoring a new generation of Hollywood professionals as he does on a movie set, to sit down with us and share his principles for storytelling that impacts an audience. The gospel is the greatest story ever told, and as leaders we have a responsibility to tell it in a way that resonates with people as they hear God’s story of rescue, redemption and restoration of His creation. Here, Winter unpacks for pastors what makes a good story—and good storyteller—in the 21st century:
It’s all about the story, especially the way we tell the story. It’s how we engage the audience, and in my business, how we get the audience to tell their friends. Pastors, sound familiar? Storytelling is what makes us human. The ancients sat around a fire and told stories that captivated their audiences—events of the day, stories of adventure, of conquests, of losses, stories about laughter and fear.
Today, we tell or tease stories in 140 characters on Twitter. We tell a story with one image on Instagram. Advertisers try to persuade you, financial institutions pitch you, musicians craft a narrative of their feelings, charities tell you of moving, emotional stories of pain and need, the courtroom builds a case and a storyline—it goes on and on in our culture. Everyone is trying to tell you a story. Everyone has a “narrative,” and those stories are all competing for the hearts and minds of the public.
Much of the power of storytelling is contained in the structure—or how the story is told. Today, everyone sits around a digital campfire telling stories, trying to get their point across and connect with their audience.There are conventions, particularly in our Western culture, that the audience is accustomed or conditioned to. There are certain formats, whether they realize it or not. Sometimes breaking those conventions can work as well, but generally, stories follow a well-worn arrangement.
Storytelling within a movie allows for a complex and nuanced narrative and can develop an idea or point of view over two hours. It involves experiences, actions and relationships that have many layers. And all of these layers interact with each other. There is an ongoing struggle in the movie like there is in real life, and those encounters and conflicts interplay with our mind as the audience works it out.
Movies can go further and deeper with a character and his or her journey through the story. You learn more about what they value, what they question, what they believe and how they will act on those beliefs, just like those stories around the campfire.
You can isolate what we would call a scene or incident within a movie; in other words, something that captures the moment and propels the story forward. As a pastor or teacher, you don’t have two hours, and probably feel the pressure to make every sermon a TED talk—less than 18 minutes with lots of visuals. The key is to isolate a moment, perhaps something from your own life (that your listeners will benefit from hearing), that propels your story forward. Remember that action is the key (even in the most romantic stories). In the same way, your congregation is expecting you to take them on a journey.
The great stories and encounters in the Bible do this in a powerful way. The chronicles of King David’s life and his actions show us what he believes. The text weaves a clever narrative when the prophet Nathan confronts David with a great sin within his kingdom and then shows him, by David’s own outrage, how he should view his failure and adultery.
Within these great stories, our main character or “hero” learns a deep truth about himself that changes the trajectory of his life. And isn’t that exactly what we aim for in the church? A self-revelation that is learned and transforms us from within, through the power of Christ?
Earlier in his life, when he battles with Goliath, David unexpectedly rejects the normal body armor and time-tested rules of engagement and declares his allegiance to the God of Israel, and then believes God for the outcome. And in a period of history where the normal battle strategy was to approach each other slowly and then swipe away in hand-to-hand combat, the text says David actually runs at Goliath—shocking enough for Goliath and probably making him a bit easier to hit with a smooth stone.
Sometimes in simply telling the story, pointing out the details we might have missed brings renewed understanding and new power to what our hero learns about himself—and God. And then we’re able to work it out in the next adventure.
I have no doubt that later in his career, David, while negotiating treaties with rival kingdoms, kept Goliath’s enormous sword on display—not just to intimidate, but to remind himself of what God did that day. Ultimately it was about God’s power, not his; and isn’t that the intended lesson we strive to get across on Sundays? These repeated self-revelations of David shaped the greatest king of Israel, and defined the character of a man who was after God’s own heart.
By the way, these moments in stories—where the main character discovers something about himself that he didn’t know at the beginning of his journey—are usually emotion-filled moments. They have been for me. When I am confronted with my own failure or how much I’ve disappointed someone I love, it hits me like a freight train and slams me back. It is sobering and emotional. In your messages, does that emotion stop your congregation in their tracks? Does it compel and force them to confront their own failure? In other words, is how you tell the story powerful and compelling?
Great stories ask great big questions that the heroes struggle with on their journey. For me in producing the movie X-Men, the questions were developed in the comics, but we worked hard to bring them to life in the movie. Questions such as: How do I fit in with everyone else? Should I fit in with the crowd? Or should I stand apart? Essentially, is there a place for me? These are timeless and profound questions that apply to all of us, from 14 year olds to retirees.
Perhaps the most important thing we can remember is that great stories are not about providing answers, but about asking the right questions. Jesus was a master at answering a question with a question. He understood that the most powerful way to connect with people was by allowing them to discover the answer.
In the last 2,000 years, that hasn’t changed. Today in movie theaters across America, the audience still wants to figure it out. They want to be part of the process. Our best movies don’t give easy answers; they give the audience the formula or a roadmap to discover the answers for themselves. As storytellers, we give them 2+2 and let the audience figure out the answer along the way.
Ultimately my goal as a movie producer—and your goal in sharing the gospel—is to make your point stick in the audience’s mind. My friend, respected researcher George Barna, says that just two hours after a sermon, most people can’t remember the theme of the message they just heard. But years after seeing a movie, the audience can quote dialogue verbatim. When you have to process the question yourself, work at understanding the formula, and make an emotional connection, the message has a much better chance of sticking.
In my opinion, the film that should have won this year’s Oscar for Best Film is Les Miserables. Early in the movie (and the book), the confrontation of the bishop with former prisoner, Jean Valjean, is a classic and has been told and retold for 150 years since Victor Hugo wrote the original novel. The bishop forgives him for stealing from him, loves, protects, challenges and sends Jean Valjean on the greatest journey of his life. And very simply, the words of Valjean’s response show the gospel in action. Pastors, tell that story; use a video clip if necessary. Les Miserables is a timeless story that has captured what forgiveness and redemption really look like and mean, and is a clear sign post to what Christ has done for us.
As storytellers of the greatest story, we need to help our congregation recognize these kinds of compelling and life-changing stories in the culture today. We need to embrace the way stories are told and develop the moments that ignite their thought processes and emotions. In many ways, you as a pastor and me as a movie producer are no different. We need to be interpreters and ambassadors for great and life-changing stories. And along the way, perhaps we can show the church how the gospel is truly at work in the world.