An Interview with Phil Cooke

DigitalAge1Phil Cooke has spent much of his life asking how churches communicate their message in a media-driven culture, now heavily influenced by social media. He came by this concern naturally after producing religious and secular media programming in more than 40 countries over the last 30 years. In the process, Phil says he’s been “shot at, survived two military coups, fell out of a helicopter, and in Africa, been threatened with prison.”

DigitalAge2His 2008 book, Branding Faith: Why Some Churches and Non-Profits Impact the Culture and Others Don’t, has helped countless churches and non-profit organizations effectively use the media to tell their story. Phil says, “If the religious community is going to have a voice in today’s culture, we’ve got to understand the medium, and how to tell our story effectively to that culture. A generation is at stake.”

For many churches, part of knowing their story lies in understanding what sets them apart in the religious marketplace: how are they unique from others in the faith community? What distinguishes their perspective or their way of understanding the Christian story and how does their story have relevance and a sense of importance to life?

DigitalAge3Phil’s latest book, JOLT (published in April, 2011), discusses how organizations can positively adapt to immense changes in culture and life. He says he wrote this book with church leaders particularly in mind. Phil Cooke has appeared on MSNBC, CNBC, CNN, and his work has been profiled in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Grace and Peace caught up with Phil to discuss how we can better communicate the Christian story in a digital age.


G&P: Why do many Christians struggle at telling the Christian story in an attractive and compelling way?


Phil Cooke: Jesus was a remarkable storyteller; so were many of the Old Testament writers. Our current culture has passed through periods influenced by rationalism and enlightenment-type thinking. We left the powerful, emotional, compelling world of storytelling for a much more fact-based presentation. In the 20th century, part of our modern mindset was that everything could be proven or explained, suggesting science had the answer for everything. The truth is, I love science, but it doesn’t have all the answers for the ultimate questions. I think there is no question that we’ve really lost the ability to tell a great story, and yet, I think it is wired into our DNA.


G&P: Is part of our difficulty because we really don’t know our audience?


Cooke: I often talk about beginning in reverse—figuring out the audience first. I do a lot of speaking around the country: church groups, denominational organizations, conferences, colleges, universities, and so on. What I have found is even if I am speaking on the same subject (maybe even the same message), how I present changes dramatically, depending on the audience. What I present to college students is different from businessmen or ministry professionals. There is no question we need to take our audience seriously.

The big thing in the digital age is interactive communication. You have a generation of kids that grew up picking the next American Idol by texting on their cell phones. I believe our next generation desperately wants to be part of the story. If we don’t allow that to happen, they will look elsewhere. The bottom line: it is not about sharing out heritage; it is about making sure the message gets heard. John Maxwell says that everybody communicates, but few people connect. Our responsibility is to make sure we are connecting to our audience.


G&P: How does a church decide whom to engage?


Cooke: Every church should reach that unique audience they are particularly called and gifted to reach. Certainly, we should welcome everyone into the kingdom, but if every church reached the audience they are particularly gifted, called, and in a position to reach, we would reach the world with the gospel.

The message that would reach a rural, elderly population is not going to be the same message for a hip, young, urban audience. We must tailor the message of the gospel to reach different types of people. Jesus was brilliant at this. He preached a different message to the woman at the well, than he did to the 5,000 or the religious leaders. He was a master at understanding his audience.


G&P: Do you think in telling the story we sometimes confuse the essence of the story with its cultural container?


Cooke: Absolutely! I think sometimes pastors are so busy chasing relevance they become hopelessly irrelevant. We have tried so hard to be hip and cool that we forgot the critical importance of the message itself. You can preach with your shirt-tails out, you can preach in a T-shirt and jeans, you can dump the choir robes, all of that is great, but ultimately if your message is not on target, if it is not life-changing, we are just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Packaging is incredibly important for getting people to visit. If people perceive your church to be a stuffy, traditional church, and they are looking for a more contemporary experience, they are not going to come. Getting people in the door is critical, but once they get in, you have to deliver a powerful and compelling message. There is a difference between the container and the message itself; we must understand how both work. It is not one or the other; it is both. We need to understand how they both work together.


G&P: What can churches do to tell their stories better and penetrate the religious marketplace?


Cooke: The message of the gospel is the single, unifying, and most important thing we do. However, your church’s task is to express to your community why they need to experience that message through you. Why do they need to come to your church? Why is your church different from any other churches in the city? What is different about the way your church shares that message? That is incredibly important to share. We make a lot of mistakes: one is over “brand unity.” Brand unity means once you figure out the story you want to express, you need to tell that story in every conceivable way. When I ask churches to spread out their literature (postcard mailers, bulletins, website, and so on), it looks like it could come from 8 or 10 different churches. The local postcard mailing looks dramatically different from the website, which looks dramatically different from the bulletin. Local churches should ensure everything has a consistent look and feel to visually tell that same story. If you don’t, your message gets scattered, and people don’t really get it. Repetition and consistency enable people to recognize who you are.

"You can't brand a lie." In other words, what you say you are, you had better be.

One of the great phrases we have in the marketing world is, “You can’t brand a lie.” In other words, what you say you are, you had better be. If you are a church that reaches out to the homeless, if you are a church that cares for the elderly, if your church has an incredible program for young people, when people visit, they had better be able to find exactly that. In this digital age, people will give you just one shot. There are too many distractions, too many options to get many chances. It is very important that we live up to what we promise.


G&P: What can denominations do to coach and help their churches tell a better story?


Cooke: A lot of denominations are wrestling with that dilemma right now. The reason McDonald’s is so powerful is they render the same user experience, regardless of the city you’re in. The minute you walk in the door, you recognize the store, the menu, and the look and feel of the advertising. That is brand recognition.

Nazarene churches aren’t the same way. Walk into a Nazarene church in Atlanta, then visit one in St. Louis, and there is little there that makes one feel they are similar at all. They are not even connected. One of the big things denominations should think more about is having a national expression, so that people moving from one part of the country to another experience a common look and feel in the marketing, advertising, and the kinds of things common to Nazarene churches. It doesn’t mean you have to control your local churches or that they all have to match.

Can you imagine the cultural impact in America if all the different voices of thousands of different local churches had a unified voice, a unified message, and unified advertising, so that the local paper on Saturday ran the same ad for “Come to the Easter service,” no matter what state you were in? So that people instantly recognized that is a Church of the Nazarene? I think that it would immediately multiply the impact and the recognition of the denomination nationwide. It would be absolutely huge!


G&P: How do you create that kind of alignment?


Cooke: You have to work within and across denominational lines and structures and get those leaders on board. The challenge is that Nazarenes often look different from church to church, district to district. There are few common elements or a unified look. What if every McDonald’s in the U.S. came up with a completely different experience, with completely different stores, and a completely different color scheme from every other one out there? Overnight, McDonald’s would lose the power they have in this country. Basically, this is what most denominations have done. They have sought autonomy and resisted any kind of unifying voice. What this has done is create hundreds of different versions of the Nazarene church out there. There is no common voice or common message.

Originally, Nazarenes became a denomination because there were certain unique markers that distinguished them from everybody else. Let’s not forget but celebrate those markers! What are the unique differences that set Nazarenes apart from the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians—and even other Wesleyan or holiness churches? What makes Nazarenes unique? I think if you could express this better on a nationwide basis, your self-understanding, your focus, your impact, and your membership would go up. There are a lot of people looking for the distinctives that Nazarenes provide that they can’t get in any other denomination.


G&P: How has media changed over the last 10 years? Where are we now?


Cooke: Media has become a two-way conversation, if not multi-directional. I grew up with black and white TV; we were thrilled with whatever came down the pike. But the fact is a new generation has grown up experiencing incredible interactivity. They are able to talk back! As a result, this generation has grown up wanting a voice. I got to speak with one of the producers of the television show Lost and asked him about its popularity. He said one of the reasons it was so widely successful is because there are hundreds and hundreds of websites connected to Lost. The show’s writers went through those websites on a regular basis and actually changed story lines based on what they were hearing from the viewers. How many of our churches do that? Do pastors actually listen to what the audience is saying and adjust their messages based on what people are concerned about, thinking about, and discussing out there? If we would learn to listen, it would make a tremendous impact in engaging our culture. Trust me, this next generation needs to be part of the conversation, and if they aren’t, they will go somewhere else. They are not willing to sit and listen, like my generation. This need is already changing how we do business, politics, and education. It has been slow to penetrate the church, but we have to figure out how to make it happen.


G&P: What sort of shifts do we need to make to be more effective in dialogical communication?


Cooke: As John Maxwell says, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” Good leadership matters, but there are not enough leaders out there who are truly listening. Before a leader can make a quality decision, they must listen to the people around them. Proverbs talks over and over about the benefits of good advice and listening to good council. Leadership starts with listening. If we can’t do that, we’re not going to get very far.

We also have to look at our structures. Do they hinder or help our communication, our ability to listen? Are we stuck in outmoded forms of thinking that keep us from being attentive, agile, and responsive? As human beings, we tend to err at extremes: you can’t hold onto some things too long, but you also can’t listen to every whim. While the Bible says the Word of God never changes, everything else does. Culture changes, trends change, technology changes, business changes—everything else changes! If we don’t understand how to react and navigate that change, we will make huge mistakes. I released a book in April through Thomas Nelson Publishers called Jolt! Get the Jump on a World That’s Constantly Changing. It is about how to navigate this fast-changing world we live in. More than anyone else, the book is designed for church leaders, because we need to understand where to draw the line and how to make change work for us. God’s Word doesn’t change, but the way it is delivered has to change, or our very survival is at stake. Jesus chastised the religious leaders of his day because they couldn't read the signs of the times. Too many churches, ministries, and non-profi ts are failing because they are doing business as usual, rather than make any attempt to adapt to a new climate.

In Jolt, I have a chapter called, “The Joy of Hitting the Wall.” I discuss that we don’t often change until the pain of staying the same is worse than the change we desire. Very often, these frustrations are a good thing, because they narrow our options. It is frustrating, but at the same time, it is liberating. The leadership challenge is to anticipate where things need to go and nudge them in that direction before there is fall-out and people just leave.


G&P: How are churches using social media to tell their story in inventive ways?


Cooke: Social media are having a huge impact. The fact is social media are transforming the way we read, the way we connect, and the way we think about relationships. What I have discovered is the amount of friends or followers you have on Facebook or Twitter is not significant. The real question is, “Can you mobilize those followers to do something significant? Can you mobilize them for a great cause or have them show up at a certain place and participate in a significant discussion?” You can mobilize people to do some pretty amazing things, not to mention the sheer connectivity of getting the word out or getting things recognized or known.

Many Nazarene churches have a significant number of people in their congregations on Facebook and Twitter. Let’s start some conversations about our church: what makes it unique and how has it changed our lives? It is amazing how connected those things can become, and how they can generate valuable conversations.

One of my clients recently did a revival event, and we mobilized 50,000 people to do a Q&A with the pastor when it was over. It is amazing how successful you can be at mobilizing people through social media. Facebook has already passed the 500 million member mark. That makes it the third largest country in the world, between the United States and India.

My question is, “Are you planting churches in that country? Are you sending missionaries to that country?” Many companies in America are forgetting about or downscaling their websites and are creating a stronger Facebook presence, because their feeling is if there are 500 million people living in this pond, why am I trying to get them out of that water and over to my website? Why don’t I build a stronger presence where they already are?

The digital age is about to change everything about missions and evangelism. If Facebook is the third largest country on the planet, what does that mean for missions? How should that impact our mission strategy? I am surprised more major denominations don’t have a digital strategy for reaching the world for Christ through social media.


G&P: What can the broader church do to break through to secular media culture?


Cooke: Let me give you an example. This year, 2011, is the 400-year anniversary of the King James Bible. The Bible in English transformed western literature, art, and music and caused an explosion of literacy in the west. People today forget that Moby Dick, the works of Shakespeare, and other classics are directly related to the Bible. This is a great opportunity for a denomination to create a national campaign to make people rethink the Bible’s infl uence, and how it can impact their lives. The local church can’t afford to do that, but a denomination could. A denominational center could do media projects that connect with a national audience in ways that push people to local churches. Consider crafting a more compelling national message for who the Nazarene church is, what makes it different, and how it can impact a person’s life.


G&P: How can preaching the Christian story be improved? What are we failing to communicate?


Cooke: I think we need to stop looking at the “what’s in it for me” question in a negative way. Certainly there is a selfish way to look at this, but I think if we don’t make it evident to people “what is in it for them,” they don’t make the connection. We excel at preaching a message that is true, that is important, and is significant, but we have not done enough to engage listeners with what Christianity really means for them and their lives. “What’s in it for you,” when you accept Christ into your life? When you give your time and money to the church, “what does that mean for you?” When you help this ministry in some way, “what does that mean for you?” Helping people understand the implications of how faith works in their lives would change everything.

Some people might criticize this by saying that I’m all about marketing, but marketing is simply about sharing your message to as many people as possible and making them want what you’re offering. What better definition of the gospel could there possibly be?


Editor’s Note: Catch Phil’s online blog at for additional insight into issues of media and faith. You can also follow Phil’s Twitter account at