Throughout the history of the church, pastors, leaders and Christian communicators have struggled against the various cultures in which they found themselves. For the early church, it was the brutal Roman occupation. For Europe during the 17th century, it was the Protestant vs. Catholic conflict. For the German church of the 1940's it was Nazi oppression. In every case, any believer who attempted to present their message in a relevant way knew they had to recognize and understand the cultural framework of the time in order to be a more effective communicator.
Today, churches and ministries struggle under our present cultural framework—the power of global media. The media's influence in our lives is pervasive, and today, education, business, religion, leisure, science, even family life, are all measured against that influence. The answer to who is influencing you is the same as who's influencing the culture.
It's the media.
Media is culture. Today, researchers tell us that we're being bombarded by more than 5,000 advertising messages a day. The average family in America watches TV and surfs the web between 7 to 8 hours per day. In fact, by the time a typical young person reaches 18 years of age, they've already seen more than 100,000 beer commercials alone on television.
That's why our challenge today is how to express our faith in a media-dominated culture. How to tell our story alongside the maddening swirl of media "clutter"—TV, radio, computer, digital music player, Internet, mobile phone and other technologies competing for our attention. How do we get the message of the church heard through the massive and growing wave of media static out there?
We need to move far beyond the typical communication techniques of the past, and create a powerful strategy for reaching the most distracted audience in the history of the world. Essentially, it's about getting our message heard. It's about telling our story, and making that story connect with your audience.
A brand new world
What is a brand? It's simply telling a compelling story about a product, person or organization. In other words, what do people think of when they think of you?
What is the story that surrounds your life and ministry? What does that story mean to your church, congregation, or community?
Ultimately, the key to effective branding is that a successful brand isn't what you say it is, it's what they say it is. For instance, it doesn't matter if your pastor is the most gifted leader in the community if people think he's a con-artist. It won't matter that you're a brilliant preacher if your congregation thinks you're a hack. And it certainly won't matter that a humanitarian organization is global if nobody's ever heard of it.
In other words, it's about perception.
Telling an effective story about your church, ministry, project or yourself, begins with understanding the power of perception. In a media-driven culture, perception can be even more important than reality, because with the advent of technology, word travels fast. Whether it's a simple email message or text message that's forwarded exponentially to everyone in your address book, a viral video that's distributed though the web or the convenience of cell phones, in the digital age, it's tough to keep a lid on bad news, as various American presidents have discovered with White House leaks.
A better story
Nike's brand is one of the most powerful in business. Just line up eight to 10 different pairs of tennis shoes—Nike, Adidas, Converse, Fila, New Balance, or more. The fact is, they're almost all made from the same materials, and truth be told, most are probably made in the same factory in China.
So what's the difference?
Nike tells a better story.
When Nike released it's latest "Air Jordan" shoe, thousands of teenaged boys stood in line at Nike stories across the country for up to five days to get their hands on the shoes—some in freezing weather.
Were the shoes that terrific? The reviewers say no. So why did they line up?
The power of a compelling story.
But, is branding biblical?
I believe Jesus was very deliberate about his perception throughout his life on the earth:
• Jesus came to earth in a different way than people expected. They wanted a king and He came in a manger.
• He preached a different message than people expected. They wanted a revolution and He preached a message of love.
• When one of His best friends was dying, against the wishes of his friends, Jesus took his time getting to Lazarus.
• He healed a man, then told him not to tell anyone.
• He carefully chose the men who would be His closest associates.
• During the height of His popularity, He withdrew to remote places to be alone.
• He chose the method of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
• When He could have escaped in the garden, He told Peter to stop fighting and quietly allowed Himself to be arrested.
• During the events that led to his execution, He even controlled the interrogation of Pilate by only responding to certain questions.
Jesus had a purpose and plan for his life, and he refused to let others determine his destiny or how He would be perceived.
Someone once said that if you don't control your perception, you'll live the rest of your life at the mercy of others who will. Who will write the story of your life and ministry? Will you leave your own legacy, or wait for others to create it for you?
There's more at stake here than most people realize. The culture wars between secular and religious ideals are tearing this country—and many parts of the world—apart. Unless we can learn to tell our story more effectively, people of faith will continue to be seen as out of touch and irrelevant.
The competition facing churches today seems overwhelming, but understanding the media's influence will change the way you look at sharing your faith, through a casual conversation, a live sermon, or even through media programming like radio, TV or the web.
After all, in the new media world, every believer now has the technology, the opportunity, and the calling to communicate his or her faith with the hope of changing the world.
Cooke is a Ph.D, producer and media strategist. His new book is "Branding Faith: Why Some Churches and Non-Profits Impact the Culture and Others Don't" by Regal Publishing. Find out more at philcooke.com.
Published, October 2011