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A Radical Rethink

“Change is here and change is happening whether you like it or not,” Phil Cooke said.
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“Change is here and change is happening whether you like it or not,” Phil Cooke said. “As Christians, we need to understand that change and deal with it.”

Working out of his Burbank, Calif., based media consulting firm known as Cooke Pictures, Cooke has spearheaded marketing and branding initiatives for clients including Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer. He is also a member of the three-man partnership that owns and operates TWC Films, which produces A-list commercials, including two Super Bowl spots in 2008.

“People describe us as a company that produces Christian media that doesn’t stink,” Cooke said, regarding Cooke Pictures. “I want to help the church re-discover its voice in the culture. We worship the Creator God, but we do such cheesy stuff. I believe that Christians can do some amazing things out there. We’re trying to push the envelope on how effective it can be.”

In an age where more and more people are gravitating to web-based communication, social networking sites and mobile technology, Cooke emphasizes the importance of adopting new media and technology to his clients. He also recognizes that the rise of the Millennial generation—largely composed of twentysomethings and teenagers—has grown up in a technologically saturated culture. According to Cooke, this means media and church alike are quickly becoming a two-way conversation that allows feedback and discussion.

“It’s what I’m calling the ‘open media revolution,’” Cooke said. “If the church doesn’t give this younger generation an opportunity to respond and be part of the conversation, we’re going to continue sliding into irrelevance.”

In March 2008, Cooke released a book titled Branding Faith. The book focused on how churches and ministries can effectively tell their stories and get their message heard amidst a media-driven culture. Another book will be released in January 2009, entitled The Last TV Evangelist:  Why The Next Generation Couldn’t Care Less About Religious Media… and Why It Matters. In the upcoming book, Cooke plans to address the difference between how the Millennial generation responds to church and media as opposed to generations that have gone before. This difference, in Cooke’s eyes, is exemplified by the fading popularity of television evangelists.

In the midst of such changes, Cooke emphasizes that churches, ministries and organizations must learn to effectively design, brand and market themselves in order to break through the barrage of media surrounding people. Although he occasionally finds himself in debates about whether or not he is “selling Jesus” or treating the message of the Gospel in a way that is disrespectful, he holds fast to concept that branding and marketing can be done in an ethical, theologically sound way.

“Most people have negative connotations to branding, particularly when it comes to the church, but the definition of branding is simply telling a compelling story that surrounds a person, a product or an organization,” Cooke said.

Marketing and Authenticity

When it comes to marketing, Cooke believes that it is tied to the Great Commission of reaching the world with the Gospel. He also feels that the church is missing the mark in the way it approaches marketing.

“Marketing is simply showcasing your product in the best possible light,” Cooke said. “That couldn’t be more accurate in what we’re called to do in the church. Realistically, most people mean well and have great intentions, but do a really bad job telling the Christian story. I often joke that Budweiser tells their story better than a typical pastor tells his story.”

However compelling and effective top advertisers may be, Cooke readily points out the inherent difference in motives between the world and the church.

“It’s true that we’re not like Budweiser or Ford or Nike where our job is to sell more product,” Cooke said. “The Bible talks about how following the teachings of Jesus is not easy. We can’t share a message that is so saccharin and shallow that everyone wants to buy into it. There’s a line in the sand. You don’t gain anything by selling people on a Gospel that’s not really going to have any impact on their lives.”

Cooke and his team are often faced with the task of helping a client refine their vision and message so that it is authentic. To Cooke, having a strong, healthy vision is key to a successful ministry, along with having a culture of transparency, creativity and innovation. He finds that these qualities are especially important in relation to the Millennial generation.

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Engaging the Culture

“Hollywood is famous for making fake things look real, and Christians are famous for making real things look fake,” Cooke said. “I want to change that. That’s critically important.”

Due to a detachment from secular media on the part of many pastors and Christian leaders, Cooke is often shocked at how culturally unaware they are. Consequently, their attempts at media and marketing are painfully cheesy.

“Real change happens through engaging the culture,” Cooke said. “We’re called to be salt, and salt permeates a culture.”

In light of ever-changing technology, media and culture, Cooke finds it especially necessary for Christians to be at the forefront of advancing technology and creating compelling media. In essence, he wants to be a part of repairing the image of the church at large.

“The reason I’m so driven by helping people get their voice heard is because there was a time where the culture cared about what the church thought,” Cooke said. “The culture wanted to know what the church thought about things like politics, war, hunger and homosexuality. Today, the culture doesn’t care in the least what the church thinks. I want to have a hand in training a generation of church leaders so that their voice gets valued again. If we can do that, then I will have lived a life worth living.”

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