by Phil Cooke
Editor’s note: As technology brings the cost of video equipment down, more and more local churches and ministries feel that reaching their communities through media is more cost-effective than ever. Phil Cooke, who has spent the last 25 years producing Christian programs, here presents what he calls “10 Commandments for Effective Christian Television Ministries”:
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In most cases, when I receive a call from a pastor, evangelist, or other ministry leader, his primary concern is usually about equipment: What equipment should I use? Should I lease or purchase? Should I videotape my Sunday service or use a local studio? What about used equipment?
These questions are important, but I’ve discovered over the years that they aren’t nearly as important as 10 fundamental areas. If you feel God is calling you into some type of media ministry, then I urge you to consider these areas first. Without a keen understanding of these particular issues, I can guarantee you’re heading for trouble. But if you’ll take the time to explore these 10 critical areas, then you might be ready to step out and begin an effective media ministry.
First: Understand the power of telling a story. Ultimately, no matter what communications medium we choose, all we’re doing is telling a story—a simple story about how God chose to become one of us and share His eternal plan with people who didn’t deserve it. This coming Sunday, thousands of pastors will step up to the pulpit without telling a single story. And yet, when you study the life of Jesus, that’s just about all He ever did. He rarely lectured or preached. He mostly told stories—stories that touched people and changed their lives.
Whatever the program format—preaching, music, documentary, variety, drama, etc.—every program is telling some type of story, and until that story is told most effectively, the audience is never going to be interested.
Second: Don’t feel you have to “hit them over the head” with the gospel in every program. Win the audience with interesting programming, then present the gospel. A few years ago, an informal survey with people that had recently accepted Christ, indicated that they had been presented with the gospel message an average of 17 times before they made a final decision. That means people mull it over and need time to contemplate their decision. Therefore, let’s plant the seed first.
Third: Be in touch with the current culture. Christian producers often don’t keep up with current programming and graphic styles, and I’m amazed at the number of Christian media professionals who never even watch television. Just as Paul in Acts 17 used his knowledge of Greek literature and culture to establish a common ground with the philosophers at Mars Hill, we need to understand the music, literature, films, and television that this culture creates. Otherwise, audiences will continue to believe that our message is irrelevant and unimportant.
Fourth: Make sure your financing is in place. Television is probably the most expensive outreach your church or ministry will ever encounter, and poor decisions regarding financing can literally destroy an entire
ministry organization. It takes, on average, six months to a year of broadcasting before your program begins to establish itself with your audience. It could be a year or more before you receive any prayer or financial support from your audience. Therefore, it’s critical that you be able to fund your program during that first year, or your media ministry will never have the chance to make an impact.
Fifth: Always be open to change. The major studios and networks understand that audiences are always changing, so they aren’t afraid to experiment and update programs and program ideas. But most Christian programs are doing the same thing they did 10-15 years ago. The most successful media ministries are ministries which aren’t afraid to change, update, and present a fresh approach to an ever-changing audience.
Sixth: Have a clear focus. Have a clear purpose and focus for each program you do. If you’re producing a program on the theme of salvation, then every aspect of that program needs to point in that direction—including the music, the greeting, the interviews, the message, the closing, and even product offers and commercials.
Seventh: Don’t Forget Creativity. An advertising executive once said “Creativity is like shaving—if you don’t do it every day, you’re a bum!” Exercise those creative muscles regularly. I believe that anyone can be more creative, whether in sermon preparation or program production. It just takes practice and a willingness to forgo the “easy” way in order to be open to new and creative ideas.
Eighth: Don’t let your vision stop at preaching. While there will always be room on Christian television for good, solid preaching, keep in mind that a church service doesn’t necessarily make the best television program.
When you’re in a church service or evangelistic event, you can experience the live event with the enthusiasm and excitement of hundreds or thousands of other people. However, when you watch that same event on television, you’re watching it on a “glass box” ten or fifteen feet away. Perhaps you’re also having a meal, talking with friends, or reading a book or magazine. Believe me, it’s not the same experience. In fact, it’s such a problem that advertisers work hard to “cut through the clutter” of all those distractions to make an impact on the audience.
Also, don’t forget other wonderful program ideas (that are remarkably absent from Christian television): documentaries, movies, children’s programs, news, animation, music, and other formats. If the secular networks felt preaching shows drew an audience, they would have them in prime time. But they know the power of story-based programs, and fill the television schedule with that format.
Ninth: Don’t forget research. I’m convinced one of the most neglected areas of media ministry is research. Do you really know who’s watching your program and why? That knowledge should greatly affect what you produce. Is your audience young or old? Educated or uneducated? Rich or poor? What about the racial make-up? You don’t have to hire major research organizations for that information. It can be as simple as talking to your local TV station or cable network. They have to know who’s watching at various times during the day. Ask them about different time periods and find out who’s watching. Then you can either create a program around that audience, or find the appropriate audience for the program you feel called to produce.
Tenth: Don’t underestimate the importance of quality. Today’s audiences are more technologically sophisticated than ever, and refuse to watch programs that aren’t up to current standards of quality. It’s just too easy to change the channel if the picture or sound quality isn’t satisfying.
Always remember: stewardship isn’t necessarily saving money, it’s using money most effectively. Sometimes that means spending more money to purchase a better product that will help you reach your goals sooner and more effectively. Don’t let your desire to get on television push you into getting low-quality or inferior equipment. You can’t reach the lost if they won’t watch long enough to hear your message.
Quality not only involves equipment, but people as well. You need to bring in the best media professionals you can afford. Find godly people who have a genuine calling to reach the world through media. Not only can they help you save money and time, they can also make a dramatic difference in the success of your media ministry.
Where do you find them? Contact professional organizations like the National Religious Broadcasters in Manassas, Virginia. Ask a church or ministry with a television outreach you admire. Inquire at Christian colleges—which often have Communication Departments with majors in radio, television, and multimedia.
Something else that I believe is absolutely critical for a media ministry is the need to pray and to seek the wise counsel of others. Radio and television are remarkable ways to reach the world for Christ, but they are also tools that can so easily bring along the baggage of ego, vanity, financial wrongdoing, and a host of other temptations. Sadly, the history of Christian broadcasting is strewn with multi-million dollar ministries that succumbed to these and other temptations.
If you will stay near the heart of God in your decision-making, and seek the help and counsel of both godly men and women, as well as experienced media professionals, your chances of success will be greatly increased.
Phil Cooke may be the only director and producer in Hollywood with a Ph.D. in theology. His latest project is a series of cutting-edge television and radio commercials available to churches across the country. For more information call 818-563-2125 or firstname.lastname@example.org