WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith and today you’ll be listening in on my conversation with author and Christian media expert, Phil Cooke.
Phil Cooke got his start in media working on the television program of Oral Roberts, while he was still a student at Oral Roberts University. Over the years Cooke has become one of the nation’s experts on the use of media in a Christian context. He has also been outspoken on the need for men and women of integrity in Christian ministries. He has been critical of televangelists. And even though he is a media and marketing expert, he says that evangelical Christianity doesn’t have a marketing problem. It has a character problem.
I think he’s right, and in the light of recent scandals involving Christian leaders such as Ravi Zacharias, James MacDonald, Bill Hybels, and Jerry Falwell Jr., not to mention the way evangelical leaders have glibly dismissed the character questions that have dogged President Trump and other political leaders, I thought it was time to have him back on the program to have a heart-to-heart discussion about some of these matters.
Phil Cooke is a working producer in Hollywood who also has a Phd. in theology. He’s the author of a half-dozen books on media and marketing and has been a contributor to Fast Company, Forbes, and The Huffington Post. He is also a member of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences as well as the Producers Guild of America.
Because of Covid restrictions, Phil and I had this conversation remotely. I was in my home studio in Charlotte, North Carolina. Phil Cooke was in his studio in Burbank, California.
Phil Cooke, welcome back to the program, I should say, because you and I have had a number of conversations over the years. So blessings to you, and welcome.
PHIL COOKE, GUEST: Thank you very much. I’m thrilled to be here. It’s always fun when we get together. You never know what will happen.
SMITH: Well, we’ll see. I hope I have a vague knowledge of what’s going to happen today. Because I do have a plan, at least something of a plan for our conversation. You wrote a book a few years ago that we talked about on the program, it was called The Way Back: How Christians Blew Our Credibility and How We Can Get It Back. I don’t want to rehash too much of that book. But I gotta tell you, Phil, that even though you wrote that book—whenever it was, back in 2018, I believe—the issues of credibility for Christians, in my view, are more acute than ever. I mean, we’ve got people like Ravi Zacharias now, you know, all this stuff is broken about him and his life in the last few months. We’ve got the presidential election where we’ve got, you know, all of the crazy stuff that happened in Washington D.C., the riots, some people calling it an interaction. And I think, you know, we’ve got to be honest, that has put the credibility of many Christians squarely in the crosshairs of the mainstream culture. They’re looking at us and saying, if this is your guy, how can we trust you to tell us the truth anymore? And so I wanted to revisit at least some of those issues and kind of get your take on things. And how can we restore credibility? To me that’s kind of an important question in the post-Christian scandal era. And I don’t know that it’s post. We’re probably going to have more Christian scandals going forward. But certainly in the wake of the Ravi Zacharias situation, the Jerry Falwell Jr. situation, the James McDonald situation, these are just three big ones that I remember from 2020. And, you know, in the wake of sort of evangelicals being so closely aligned to Trump that for many in the mainstream culture, our credibility is suffering. What do we do? How do we get it back? What are your thoughts about that?
COOKE: Well, it’s really tough. And you know, it’s interesting, I’m particularly sensitive to it because I’m the media guy. And so when a pastor falls or a ministry leader crashes and burns or something happens like that, I often get the call from the church about okay, how do we handle this? Do we talk to the press? What do we tell reporters? How do we tell our congregation? Do we write a public statement? What do we come up with? So I don’t consider myself a crisis communications expert. But I do get that call just because of my media background. And I have to tell you, Warren, there’s some horrible, horrible stuff going on out there. You just can’t believe some of the calls I get from churches across the country that have had real catastrophes happen. And so we just need to be on our watch. Just because it doesn’t make the New York Times or the LA Times, The Washington Post doesn’t mean a lot of weird stuff is happening out there, and churches and ministry organizations across the country. So, Ravi Zacharias may get all the publicity at times like this. But for every Ravi, there’s probably 10 or 15 other pastors or ministry leaders of smaller organizations around the country that are just doing some really, really bad stuff and getting caught up with some bad stuff. So, I’m really sensitive to this whole thing. And you’re right, it’s very hard to really calculate the damage that it causes. Because suddenly we do get the “I told you so,” “See, look, you guys are not so great. Why should I listen to you?” And it really happens a lot these days. So, it’s a real crisis, I think.
SMITH: Well, that’s right. I mean, I’ve mentioned three big ones, but you rightly said and reminded me that they happen all the time. I want to be really clear, and, Phil, I think you’ll agree with me on this. I know your heart and your work and your own life well enough to know that I think you’ll agree with me on this. The vast majority of Christian leaders in this country are doing great work. They’re living sacrificially. They’re living faithfully. We never hear about them, you know? It’s the man bites dog stories that we hear about, not the other way around. So I do think it’s important to acknowledge that there are millions and millions of people involved in Christian ministry in this country that are living, humbly, sacrificially and faithfully.
COOKE: Along that line, though, I have to also say you and I don’t consider ourselves theology cops. We’re not here to criticize everybody for who doesn’t believe the way we do. Or, you know, I do think there are a lot of overly critical Christians who are complaining about everybody out there. But there are some serious issues that happen in the church—whether it’s adultery, whether it’s financial problems, whatever. When those happen, it is a really, really tragic, tragic thing, not only for that person, or the person that may have been abused in some situations, but for the church as a whole. Because suddenly, we’re being dismissed and marginalized in the culture.
SMITH: Yeah, that’s right. And so let’s stipulate for the record a lot of faithful people out there, but this is a real problem. And we, as Christians, have to deal with it. I mean, any of us that might be especially involved in ministry leadership, I think we cannot pretend this is someone else’s problem. This is our problem. And we have to deal with it. And one of the things that I want you to talk about a little bit is this idea of reality versus marketing. One of the things that I appreciated about your your book and some things that you’ve written since your book came out in 2018, is that even though you are a media guy, even though as you said, You’re the guy that often gets the phone call whenever somebody really messes up, you’ve been really clear that you can’t fix this with marketing. You can’t fix this with a good PR plan. If there’s not a very serious attempt made to restore character, to restore either an organization or an individual to leadership according to Biblical standards, no amount of PR is going to solve this problem. Is that accurate?
COOKE: That’s absolutely accurate. And, in fact, that’s what launched the writing of our book The Way Back. Jonathan Bock, my co writer, and I—he’s a media guy, he’s a PR guy, he’s owns an advertising marketing firm here in Hollywood. And we spent hours and hours discussing about why Christianity is being marginalized. We used to be ignored. Now, we’re being openly laughed at in primetime and in the news. And we thought, okay, we’re media guys, it must be a marketing problem. We’re just not telling our story well. But once we got into it, and started doing some research, and really taking a deep dive into the problem, we discovered it’s not a marketing problem at all. It’s a character problem, and we’re not living the life God’s called us to live. And the world sees that. I mean, the research is overwhelming. Just a couple quick examples: If you show up at church, you know, just four out of eight Sundays, you’re considered a regular now. That’s half the time. You show up half the time at church, the pastor’s thrilled. Church attendance is so incredibly low, you can’t even believe it. One of the studies we found indicates that for church-going Christians, 40 percent of people in the pews read the Bible once a month, rarely, or never. And we found that 63 percent of Christians believe that prayer is effective. And we thought, okay, that’s a win. At least that’s good. But then we realize the flip side means 37 percent—more than a third of church-going Christians don’t believe prayer is effective. So when you start looking at statistics like that, you start seeing okay, now I suddenly understand why the world looks at us and calls us phony or hypocrites or power hungry, because they’re exactly right.
SMITH: Well, and to me what that suggests or, in fact, I think it more than suggests, it demands that if we really want to solve this problem, we’ve got to do things like not merely, again, put together a crisis PR plan or have a meeting. But we’ve got to get more serious about our prayer life. We’ve got to get more serious about community life. We’ve got to get more serious about having people in our lives who will hold us accountable. And if we’re ministry leaders, I think that that probably means, you know, boards of directors and deacons and elders and others that have both the ability and the permission to see into our lives. Fair?
COOKE: Yeah, that’s exactly right. You know, I’ve often said, we don’t have a marketing problem, we have a salesforce problem. It’s like going into the Coca Cola headquarters and everybody there is drinking Pepsi. Something’s wrong. And I think when Christians look at us—and the truth is many people listening to this podcast at this moment are probably dedicated Christians, serious about their faith. But the truth is, if you look at the statistics, so many Christians are not living the life that God’s called us to live, that naturally you suddenly see why the world looks at us and thinks, oh, if that’s who they are, then that, you know, it’s totally hypocritical. And they just walk away.
SMITH: Welcome back to the program. I’m Warren Smith and you’re listening in on my conversation with Phil Cooke. Phil Cooke’s recent projects have included producing many of the video projects associated with the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.
Phil, I’d like to pivot in our conversation just a little bit and talk about some of the specifics that you recommend. I talked about prayer, and getting involved in community. But you wrote an article “Eight reasons why Christians have lost their credibility in their culture.” You mentioned prayer. You mentioned showing up for church. But you also mentioned some other things as well. One of the things that you talked about was becoming a better neighbor. Can you say more about that?
COOKE: Sure. In writing the book, we discovered a study that indicated something like 74% of Americans don’t know their neighbors’ names. And I thought, Oh, my gosh, what a place to start. There’s a fantastic evangelist in the UK named J. John. Love J. John. He’s just fantastic. And he has a great saying that, hey, you want to be a missionary? Great. Go next door. You don’t have to launch an international ministry to make an impact. Just go visit your neighbor. And you don’t have to take a track. You don’t have to even witness to them. Just go meet them, take a pie, get to know them. And I just think that we live in a world today where we don’t know the person in the next cubicle in the office. We don’t know our neighbor next to us or behind us. And so I think we start just by reaching out and just starting, you know, developing relationships with people. And that makes a huge, huge difference.
SMITH: Yeah, another thing that you talk about, and I want to spend maybe a little bit of time on this topic, Phil, because it’s a clear and present issue for us right now. And that is be careful with politics. First of all, say what you mean by that. And then I want to drill down with some specific questions about this political moment.
COOKE: Sure. Well, I’m all for being involved in politics. We should, you know, run for office if you want to. Certainly vote. Become educated. We live in a country where we have that privilege, and we’re able to do it and I’m a big believer in getting involved in the political process. However, we have to understand that the church transcends politics. It transcends culture. And so the minute you start dragging the church or dragging Jesus into a political conversation, I mean, think of it this way: roughly—we’ve seen by the recent election—that roughly half the country is conservative and half are liberal. So the minute you drag Jesus in the conversation to defend your political position, you’ve just alienated half the country. How does that help the cause of Christ? It really doesn’t. Yes, I know there are things happening out there—whether it’s abortion and a lot of cultural issues going on that we need to fight against and speak out about—however, I think when you start dragging the church to too many things, I think suddenly it really debases what faith is all about, and it doesn’t make an impact at all. It actually really hurts us.
SMITH: Well, and I want to be clear, I don’t think that in any way shape or form you’re advocating separatism, or that our relationship with Jesus shouldn’t inform every aspect of our lives. But I think what you are saying, and again, correct me if I’m wrong, is that yes, Jesus and the scripture should inform every aspect of our lives. But our politics shouldn’t define our relationship with Jesus and with Christianity and with those that we want to bring to the faith. Is that a fair way to characterize what you’re saying?
COOKE: Absolutely. I understand why we kind of do that, in many ways. My friend Hugh Hewitt is a national radio broadcaster out of Washington, D.C. and we’ve been friends for a long time. And I actually approached him one time, and I said, hey, what if what if we did a radio show, a national radio show based on culture. He said it really wouldn’t work because people are obsessed with politics. He said, people love politics, and they just want to talk about that all the time. And so there are people that that’s just their hobby. That’s their passion. That’s their obsession. And so I understand it’s sometimes simple to drag your faith into some of those arguments and some of those conversations, but we just have to be really, really careful. Because what I’ve discovered is—and certainly we’ve seen through this last election cycle—it really doesn’t help in fact, it works against us in most cases.
SMITH: Yeah. Well, again, talking about politics, Phil, I know, you went to Oral Roberts University as an undergraduate. You’ve lived in and around this world of prosperity gospel preachers, and televangelists even though you’ve been very critical, in fact, in a couple of books that I’ve written about this, I’ve quoted you in my books because even though you know, you have because of your media background, you’ve had an opportunity to work with those folks, you’ve been, you’ve been very critical about their theology. And I really respect and appreciate that about you. And I want to talk about a sort of a particular subset of that group. And that is sort of these prophecy guys, that had predicted that President Trump would win the White House. And now, of course, when that didn’t happen, there’s become kind of an intramural argument or a family feud, if you will, between some of those guys, where some of them are actually confessing and saying that they were wrong, and they apologize, and that they’re gonna, you know, go before the Lord in prayer. And, you know, try to get their mind right, if you will, yeah, to use an expression from Cool Hand Luke. But others are kind of doubling down on it. And just as someone who is familiar with the media is kind of aware of what’s going on in the political sphere, and also has had some exposure to that world, what are your thoughts about that?
COOKE: Well, media is a powerful tool. It’s also quite a frightening tool. And it’s very easy to get caught up in it in a way that I’m being famous people are following me. They’re listening to what I’m saying. They’re watching me on television, whatever you happen to be doing. And suddenly you start stepping out into areas. It’s funny, one famous television evangelist, who I have a lot of issues with, I was talking to a friend about him one time and he said, you know, he would actually be okay if he stayed in his calling, if he just stayed inside his calling, but he keeps stepping out and thinking he’s an authority in all these other areas. And I think some of these modern day prophets are that way. And I think there’s a prophetic role today to play. There’s a biblical role in that. However, it doesn’t mean you take that prophetic role and insert it into politics and insert it into areas that you may not know very much about. So some of those guys give me the heebie jeebies. There’s no question about that. I think that they’re out there talking about stuff they really don’t know very much about it at all. And again, it goes back to our original thought: it doesn’t help. It just makes things worse for us. Because the culture looks at that and just says those people are idiots. You know, it’s interesting, Rodney Stark, brilliant, brilliant sociologist at Baylor University said the single greatest reason people become Christians is because they want to be like those people. That’s the reason they convert to just about any faith is because they see people that they want to be like. And I keep thinking of that as all these things come up. Are we the kind of people that the secular culture looks at and says, Man, I want to be like those guys. Look at the way they live their lives, look at their families, look at the things they do. I want to be one of them. And the minute we go out on a limb and start prophesying about stuff we have no business prophesying about, oh, man, it just sets us way, way back.
SMITH: You’re listening in on my conversation with Phil Cooke. Let’s get right back to that conversation.
Phil, I want to take advantage of both your theological expertise and your media expertise and pivot once again in our conversation and talk a little bit about this idea of fake news and conspiracy theories and get your thoughts about that. Because I think, you know, in the theological realm, we have these so-called modern prophets and then in the secular realm, we have all these controversies around fake news. In some ways, I think they’re—and again, I’m testing a theory out on you—in some ways, I think they’re the same problem. And that is that people have forgotten how to think logically, they have very low levels of discernment and wisdom. They don’t know how to develop their discernment and their wisdom and especially from a Christian perspective. Even though they’re very different things, conspiracy theories on the one hand, and the prophecy guys on the other. I’m wondering what you think about my theory that in reality, they’re kind of the same problem, and that is that we just lack biblical discernment.
COOKE: I love that idea. And I couldn’t agree more. I was reading just the other day, Jewish philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt, who after World War II, she went to the Nuremberg Trial. She said, I want to see these monsters, these Nazi monsters that murdered so many millions of people. And she said, once she got to the trial and looked at them, she said, they were just like you and me. They were just like you and me. And the thing she concluded was they’re intellectual. They’re smart. They study. But they were just really shallow. They just never really thought about this stuff. They never really reflected on this stuff. And as a result, they did horrific, horrific things. And one of the ways I think that happens today is social media. Fake news has been around forever. I posted a quote on social media yesterday from Thomas Jefferson that the most truthful thing in most newspapers is the advertisements. And so it’s been around for a very, very long time. And there were people in Ancient Rome who were always spinning the news for their advantage. But I think social media is particularly really problematic because it’s so easy to repost something. One single click, and I’ve reposted it to all my followers. So if I don’t take the time—and I’ve been guilty. I’ve reposted something that I looked at later and realized, wait a second, that’s not true. That’s based on a falsehood. And so we have to be really careful because it’s so, so easy. I have friends who are retired and stay at home all day, and they just repost everything they see all day long. And most of it is false. So, I think social media has become a tool, particularly Twitter, Instagram, just so easy to repost from those things that suddenly that fake news out there is just blowing up. It’s multiplying in a way that we can’t even control it.
SMITH: Well, give it all of that let’s let’s kind of pivot if you will, in our conversation from some of the pathologies that we’ve identified and talk a little bit more about the solutions. We’ve already talked about some of these solutions on a personal level, you know, prayer, and Bible study and getting involved in community and meeting your neighbor. And there are other things that you’ve recommended in the past. But since we’re now kind of talking about politics and media, give me some advice and counsel about that. Because, you know, I agree with you that I think social media is a really big problem in our culture today. And yet, I also find that I need it. I use it. To a certain extent at least, it’s value added to the work that I do. So, how do we use this tool in a way that is fruitful and helpful, like maybe a fire in a fireplace or the pilot light on our gas heater, without letting that fire get out of control and burn the whole dang house down?
COOKE: That’s a great, great question. And the place I usually start is by editing my social media followers. I’ll tell you, about every six months, I go into my Twitter feed, my Instagram feed, my Facebook feed, and I just really go through and edit people out, switch people around. Because I find that after a while I’m listening to the same stuff over and over and over. It becomes an echo chamber. You’ve heard that phrase many times. And it’s suddenly if everybody’s like you that you follow, you’re hearing the same thing from the same perspective all at the same time. And so I want to get different voices. I want to hear different perspectives. I want to hear from other people. For instance, right now, because the election is over, boy, I’m editing out a lot of the political feeds, a lot of people that talk politics all the time, I’m cutting those out of my feed, and I’m going in other directions. I want to hear more from the arts. I want to hear more from writers. I want to hear more from theologians. And so really simply don’t just take everybody that follows you and start following them or just reach out and start following people at random. I think editing your social media feeds is one of the most important things you can do. Because those are people that are speaking into your life literally multiple times a day. So, stop for a minute and think would I allow those people in those voices to come into my home and talk to me that much every single day? Probably not. But we do it on social media. So I’m a big believer that if we edit those and really have curated feeds, as it were, then we start hearing a much more diverse set of voices and it’s really much more enriching. Plus, I want to hear some positive voices. I don’t want to hear the disastrous voices or the hysterical voices all the time. I want to hear some positive voices. So, you know, really thinking intentionally about editing your feed. That’s so very important. That’s the place I’d start.
SMITH: Yeah. Well, I think that’s great advice. Phil, I want you to talk specifically to Christians. WORLD Magazine, for example, did an article recently about Q Anon. It was a cover story. It was a great article. And one of the things that, you know, the WORLD Magazine article pointed out was that Q Anon had really sucked a lot of Christians into that movement. I mean, I think if you look at the video of the insurrection or riot or whatever you want to call it in Washington, D.C., you see a whole lot of Christian fishes and crosses on those flags and hats of people that were storming the Capitol. I mean, to what extent do Christian leaders have a responsibility to denounce that stuff?
COOKE: I think a big responsibility—and I understand why people sometimes get caught up in that. I mean, I live in Hollywood. I work in Hollywood. I can tell you that the media is so incredibly biased in so many ways. I mean, whether you’re watching movies or primetime TV, or the news, or reading newspapers, whatever, you really rarely get a pro-Christian viewpoint about anything. And mostly we’re being slammed constantly. And I even look at my social media feeds. I was at Barnes and Noble looking for a book the other day, and I looked at this table of political books. And I just thought, boy, Lord, take me home now. This is just so frustrating. And so I understand why people start to think, hey, there’s got to be a conspiracy out here. This many negative voices about Christianity or negative voices against our country, there must be another story. So, I understand why people might lean that way. But we have to go back to the fact that we’ve got to act based on truth. I mean, the gospel is about truth. And we have to be really, really careful about just flying off the handle the minute somebody tells us there’s a secret society over here doing this, or there’s a secret organization over here doing that. And I just think too many Christians get caught up so easily. I know a couple, I’m friends with a couple that go to work every day, they come home from work, and they get in front of their computers, and they look for conspiracies all night long. That’s just what they do. And I just think, is that really God honoring? Is that really going to help the cause of Christ in our culture today? I don’t think so. I don’t think so. So, I really encourage pastors and ministry leaders especially: Be on the lookout, preach against this, you know, stand up. Obviously, there are things happening in our culture that I’m not comfortable with, that I think are evil, that I think are wrong. But when it tips over into conspiracies, or unfounded accusations, or the Q Anon kind of things, I’m really more sensitive about, hey, we need to right the ship and get back on track because that’s just going off in a really, really bad direction.
SMITH: Yeah, it’s funny you mentioned going to the political section of the bookstore, almost as discouraging as going to the Christian section of a lot of bookstores, as well. But that’s a topic for another day.
COOKE: It is. Don’t get me started on that.
SMITH: Right. Well, I think, Phil, you said something that I’m gonna maybe abuse what you said and reduce it a little bit too much. But the enemy of our enemy is someone that sometimes we would like to embrace, right? In other words, it’s a fact there really are enemies to Christianity out there. And when we see somebody, you know, speaking out against those enemies, we want to embrace them. Because they are also the enemy of our enemy. But that old saying “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” may not necessarily be the case. Just because they are fighting the same enemy we are fighting doesn’t necessarily mean that they embrace the same gospel that we at least should be embracing. Is that at least part of what you’re saying?
COOKE: That’s exactly right. I mean, it’s an issue of discernment. We just have to be more discerning in the way we engage culture, in the way we hear information and who we hear information from. I’m very careful about what news sources I’m listening to. You mentioned WORLD Magazine. That’s a great, great magazine. I really, really like WORLD Magazine. I want to make sure I’ve got solid voices that are speaking into my life. So, we have to just be much more intentional, I think, than most Christians seem to be these days, when it comes to hearing that and acting on it.
SMITH: Well, Phil, need to bring our time to a close. Anything you want to say that I’m not smart enough to ask you?
COOKE: You’re way smarter than me. So, I’m sure you’ve covered more than enough. But, no, here’s the thing: I just think that—what I like about you, Warren, is there’s a lot of guys out there that I do consider theology cops. They’re just there to criticize everybody no matter what we do. And I’m really hesitant to embrace that. What I like about you is though you’re keeping your eye out on aberrations and things that go wrong and people. I just think that it’s so easy today to fall into sin. It’s so easy today to make mistakes. And we have to be on our guard as never before, because of media, the minute we screw up the minute we make a mistake, the minute we have an affair, it’s going to get so blown up in the media, and the damage is going to be unbelievable. So I just appreciate the work you’re doing, trying to help right the ship and keep things on target because that’s so incredibly important. And I wish more pastors preached about this because I really do think it’s become an issue in our culture.
SMITH: Yeah, well, I appreciate you saying that. And of course, I agree with you. And I just pray for you, Phil, as I pray for myself that we would remain faithful because it could happen to any of us. It really could if we don’t keep these first things first, that you talked about, keeping our relationship with God current through prayer and Bible study and community involvement and also loving our neighbors as we love God. So I really appreciate you bringing that word.
COOKE: I think we can’t overestimate the impact of finishing well. I really have a real burden about finishing well. I think that’s so important today.
SMITH: Yeah, amen. Well, Phil Cooke, thanks so much for being on the program. Great to be with you. God bless you.
COOKE: My pleasure. Thank you.