Creative LeadershipChristian Media

Why Content Matters

We’ve all heard the phrase in Hollywood that “Content is King,” but not many use that term when it comes to churches or faith-based media. Instead we try to attract people through external means – video clips, music, lighting, great marketing, strong design, and more. The truth is – all these techniques are important, but without good content, it’s like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

In my new book, “Branding Faith: Why Some Churches and Non-Profits Impact Culture and Others Don’t” I share that frankly, my task as a branding and media strategist is to get butts in the seats. Likewise, your job as a church or ministry media professional is to get your pastor’s message heard. There’s no question that we need to get rid of all the filters and obstacles that keep people from hearing that message.

So we fix the lighting, create a welcoming atmosphere, produce media that connects with the congregation or audience, design a good sound system, and more. But at some point, the people in the seats need to encounter life-changing content if they’re going to actually engage and change their lives.

So how do we make that happen? How do we get past shallow, entertainment-driven exercises, and help people encounter a message that can transform their future? Take a look at this list, and give a copy to the pastor. It might just help you break through the barrier that’s keeping you from reaching the next level:

First – make sure the pastor delivers a powerful message. Today, too many pastors are “chasing relevance.” They’re trying to be cool and hip. But I’ve discovered that when you chase relevance, you just become more and more irrelevant. I encourage pastors and ministry leaders to focus on the eternal issues that never go out of style. You can do this is a contemporary way – but never confuse “compelling and interesting” with “shallow and empty.”

Second – rethink the series concept. I know this is heresy to many pastors these days, but few people can attend church every single week – and on television, some information reveals that most of your audience only watches 1-2 programs a month. At my media consulting and production company, Cooke Media Group, we discovered that when you do a series on television, most of the audience hasn’t seen the week before, so they assume they won’t be able to catch up or understand. So what do they do? They change the channel and watch something else. If you absolutely must teach a series, make sure every individual sermon or TV episode can stand on it’s own. And don’t make a big deal about it being a series, so people won’t get discouraged if they miss a Sunday here or there. Every week should be a full and complete message and worship experience.

Next – a Power Point presentation isn’t a compelling message. Power Point or Key Note presentations can be excellent, but there are far too many pastors who use them like a crutch. If your content isn’t powerful, or your presentation engaging, a slide show from your laptop won’t help. Always remember that Power Point presentations are there to supplement your message, not be the message.

Finally, understand the power of stories. Sure, you’ve heard it before, but we need to be reminded over and over again. Never forget that Jesus risked just three years of public ministry on telling stories – most of which he didn’t even explain. During Jesus’ short life, he didn’t write a book on systematic theology, church doctrine, or a pastor’s manual. He simply told stories – compelling, personal stories of everyday people, things, and places. But they were stories that his audience identified with, related to, and understood. They were stories that were so powerful, they ignited the anger of the religious leaders of his day, which led to his arrest and execution by the occupying government.

Are your pastor’s stories that powerful? Do your stories cause people to gasp, re-think their lives, and change their future?

It’s been said that “Hollywood is great at making fake things look real, but Christians are great at making real things look fake.” The difference, is our view of content. When the church understands that our single greatest challenge is delivering the kind of content and information that can change people’s lives, we will once again start to re-establish a place of real authority in the culture.

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  1. I understand and agree with meeting people where they are. And as we both pointed out, sermons that stand on their own can better do that for our media culture. I wasn’t saying we should condemn people or not try to minister to them because they aren’t there everyweek. Just trying to point out a possibly faulty statement. Which you just corrected and clarified.

  2. I’m a preacher and this has been an interesting post for me. Most of it I’ve heard before and agree with from other studying, reading, and practice I’ve done. (Not that I’m great at all of it yet.)

    The second one however is intriguing. I understand the point that if somebody isn’t in on a story that builds, they probably won’t get in on it. I love 24, but I won’t watch one episode if I’ve missed the previous ones. But frankly, ever sermon ever preached should be able to stand on it’s own. So wouldn’t that fix the problem?

    Why is it that few people CAN attend church every single week? And how true do you think that really is? From my perspective, we have choices of priority. When I was growing up, we went to church every week. The only Sundays we missed were when we were visiting family (and then we went to church with them.) So we might miss 2-3 Sundays a year and one Sunday for illness. I understand there are other situations. But Phil made a generalization that few CAN attend every week and I just don’t see that.

    I have other thoughts, but I wanted to get the conversation going.

  3. Great question, and I'd like to hear answers from other readers.  From my perspective, I don't spend a lot of time worrying about cultural indicators, but spend my time trying to meet people where they are.  Yes, they CAN come, but more people travel than ever, church attendance is down overall, and media distractions are at an all time high.  So rather than lament why people don't come, I focus on making the message work even in that context.  And you're correct that every sermon should stand on it's on, but remarkably few actually do – especially when they're put on TV.  

  4. Content matters, but churches can be very, very popular without it.  On Boxing Day of 2004 I attended a church within walking distance of my home, because snowy weather precluded driving to my home church.  My heart and mind were both reeling from news of the Tsunami.   I wanted to be among other Christians. 


    To my stunned amazement, the sermon was bereft of scriptural references, and centered on the cleverness of the pastor.  The congregation listened attentively as he outlined the superiority of his vision as compared to other ministers in the area.  I was aghast.  The music was good, the multimedia equipment was state of the art, and the people were as charming as can be.   The vacuous nature of the church service rocked me to my foundation.  I had attended Catholic mass, and participated in services in Tagalog, Hangul and Cherokee.  This church service was more foreign than any of those.    There was no interest in the tsunami.  There was no shared humanity, grief or compassion.   It was creepier than a horror movie full of zombies. 


    This church is really fancy, and they have the nicest facility around.    Their congregants’ cars overflow their parking lot.   They’ve got it all, except content.  As far as I can tell, few people miss it.


    I'm with Christian, I don't see that people can't make it to church each Sunday.  It seems to me they could make it just fine.  Phil, I like your list, but the vast majority of pastors already do a great job.  The thing is, doing a great job just doesn't pack 'em it.  A  glossy facade, vacuous social events and multimedia extravaganzas are what fill pews.  


    I don't know what to say to pastors about this, except maybe they shouldn't worry about "packing 'em in."   Being a little less successful in a worldly sense wouldn't be all that bad if the church was healthier for it.  Even if you do adhere to the "pack 'em in" game plan, you can always offer a few programs for people who are hungry for more.  An early morning service that is well grounded in scripture, a truly relevant ministry or two and a solid Bible study program would all be wholesome.   


    People looking for a healthy church should take a "buyer beware" stance.  Don't be taken in by the superficial, 'cause that's how people get caught up in silly stuff.   As soon as possible, have a look at the bylaws and research what the church leadership  believes about issues important to you.  That way you won't already feel emotionally committed before you find out the church is bonkers.  One of my wittier girlfriends says, "Watch out for buybull!  The more bullheaded folks are, the more  sidesteppin' ya gotta do!"   She's right.  (Don't tell her I said so!)  The harder you gotta dig for that content, the more earnestly you should seek it.  It could contain nasty surprises. 


    If you wake up one Sunday to the realization your church services are bereft of content, either go back to sleep or hot step it out of there!  If you shake things up, your congregation will run you out of town on a rail.   Any significant change should be slow and gentle!

  5. Apparently there's a high demand in most communities for churches with state of the art technology that will not offend them, will make them feel good about themselves and who are very willing to give the pastor who will do this for them high accolades.

    Sometimes the price of content is that the gospel will ruffle some feathers and maybe the highest attended church in a community will not always one which is the most uncompromising in its content.

    On the other hand, I've personally observed an been a part of many churches that preach the gospel, including the uncomfortable parts, very well and see a very strong and well attended ministry.  There are a lot of Christians who are looking for that and willing to stick with a ministry even if it's not the biggest one on the block.  I think the Churches that grow and stick with the internal consistency and integrity are the one that intentionally make it a priority to be that way.  When popularity of the message trumps truth, it's not surprising that a church or ministry can become very large.  There's no shortage of people who will support what they want to hear.

  6. I didn’t mean to in any way communicate this as an either/or situation. I think some people have set up content and quality as a false dichotomy. I have personally witnessed every combination. Growing healthy churches without the flash and tech and unhealthy churches with it. I think what Phil is saying is that it is good to have solid Biblical content that is also presented in a way that is aware of our culture. Which I 100% agree with.

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