Funnel Evangelism: 21st Century Evangelism Strategies (Part 2)

Funnel Evangelism: 21st Century Evangelism Strategies (Part 2)

Yesterday I wrote about, what I’m calling, free lunch evangelism. Today, I move on to funnel evangelism – another term I’ve just made up!

This is part two of a four-part series looking at evangelism in the 21st century. I’ll be covering…

  1. Free lunch evangelism
  2. Funnel evangelism
  3. Friendship evangelism
  4. Faithful evangelism

What is funnel evangelism?

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed that the church has started adopting a lot of business/corporate strategies. This is just one of them!

Funnel marketing

“Funnel evangelism” comes from funnel marketing, a strategy that is especially popular with 21st century online businesses.

As an online business owner myself, this is something I’m very well versed in. I’ve even received emails from other businesspeople applauding me for the funnels I’ve created! Here’s an example…

  • Viral Video: I have a viral video on YouTube of me teaching my friend Sam how to play table tennis in a year. It’s been viewed over 13 million times by people all over the world.
  • Free Content: A certain percentage of those viewers are going to watch some of my other table tennis videos, or check out my table tennis blog, or listen to my table tennis podcast.
  • Mailing List: Once they’re consuming my free content the next step is to direct them towards my mailing list. By this point I know they must be interested in table tennis and I can now contact them directly.
  • Sale #1: Everyone that wants to get better at table tennis needs a “proper” table tennis bat. That’s the very first purchase. And I sell a number of different table tennis bats.
  • Sale #2: But the funnel doesn’t stop there! Once they’ve bought a bat I have an online table tennis training course I can recommend. And I have more advanced bats for them to buy later on.
  • Sale #3: Finally, for the most committed individuals, I sell a range of very high-end table tennis robots (the machines that fire balls at you).

Hardly anyone who watches my viral YouTube video is going to be talked into buying a £1,700 table tennis robot! But we’re still at the very top of the funnel. You don’t go straight from awareness to sale. Instead, you simply move them along to the next step – which, in this example, is more free table tennis content.

Funnel evangelism

Hopefully, you now have some understanding of funnel marketing. But what’s funnel evangelism?

Well, to put it simply, it’s applying those same business principles to the church – except the end goal changes from trying to make a sale to trying to save a soul.

Here are three examples I found online of funnel evangelism in action. Each one has a slightly different formula. I’ll start with InterVarsity, as they have a trendy video.

1. The Five Thresholds (Intervarsity)

The InterVarsity “Journey to Faith” is made up of the following five thresholds; trust, curiosity, openness, seeking, and following.

Here the focus is primarily on the various perceptions and attitudes someone may have towards the Christian faith, and the journey that ultimately leads to them becoming a follower of Jesus.

The Five Thresholds were created after “listening to the stories of thousands of people who once were indifferent to faith but then decided to follow Jesus in their adult lives”.

2. Four Level Evangelism (Christian Vision for Men)

This is without a doubt one of the most clear and open presentations of funnel evangelism I’ve found – even if they don’t use the word “funnel”.

CVMs “4 Level Evangelism” strategy looks like this…

  • Level 1: Events or activities with zero ‘Christian’ content (for example; 5-a-side football or a pub quiz)
  • Level 2: Events with a good Christian speaker (for example; a men’s breakfast or a fish ‘n’ chip supper)
  • Level 3: A course for men to debate the gospel (for example; Alpha or Christianity Explored)
  • Level 4: A church that can support, challenge and encourage men in their faith.

I find the explicit mention of having “zero ‘Christian’ content” at Level 1 events interesting as that’s where we got to by the end of yesterday’s blog post. You could do a pub quiz with a “short gospel talk” in the middle of it, but I think CVM have figured out that this usually feels a bit odd and awkward. Their solution? Save the ‘Christian’ stuff for Level 2!

And it’s worth pointing out that the whole idea here is for men to “progress” from one level to the next. It’s very much a pathway. A funnel.

3. The Start-Up Funnel (Send Institute)

Send Institute is a “think tank for North American church planting” and they explicitly use the word “funnel” (and start-up) in their evangelism strategy. Generally, I’ve found chuch planters to be the most overtly “businessy” and entrepreneurial, so that isn’t surprising.

“The goal of the start-up funnel is to cultivate a network of relationships that lead to evangelism and assimilation into the church family.”

And the funnel is split into four categories; awareness, networking, relationships, and evangelism.

They mention that each category describes a circle of people that are getting progressively smaller. Evangelism is the final category.

“Finally, your evangelism circle will be the smallest since most of those whom you evangelize will come out of the relationship circle.”

They even throw out some numbers!

You should plan an activity that will make 3,000 people aware of your church in a positive way. Then try and gather the names of 300 of them. Put on relational activities to form relationships with 100 of them. And then an evangelistic event for 50 of them.

Why did we start thinking in terms of funnels?

Whether they are aware of it or not, most of the churches I know are engaging in some form of funnel evangelism. Perhaps they plan to put on a free church BBQ in September, followed by a wine tasting event (with a short gospel talk) in October, which leads straight into a 6-week Christianity Explored course.

But why did we start thinking of evangelism in terms of funnels?

The professionalisation of the church

As I mentioned earlier, it feels like churches are starting to be run more like companies. This shift obviously has both pros and cons – but that’s a discussion for a different article altogether.

All I want to say here is that the more we start to think of our local church as a business, the more we’ll begin bringing business strategies to our church planning meetings.

Perhaps church leaders start reading business books to see if they can glean any insights from the world’s top entrepreneurs. Or businesspeople on the church PCC subconsciously switch on their workplace results-oriented mindset.

I’m sure it’s all very well intentioned. “We use these strategies and techniques to get results at work, so it makes sense to use them to get results at church, doesn’t it?”

We end up with; vision statements, 10-year plans, market research, policies and procedures, AGMs, logos and branding, professional websites with corporate headshots of the team, operations managers, line managers, finance departments, HR, PR, professional cleaners, and the list goes on.

I’m not saying all of those things are bad. But if we’re doing all of that, why not create an evangelism funnel for good measure?

Rick Warren

Personally, I think Rick Warren’s 1995 book ‘The Purpose Driven Church‘ is at least partly responsible for today’s abundance of funnel evangelism.

Pastor Rick Warren says…

“One of the core ideas I wrote about in The Purpose Driven Church, and which we teach in our Purpose Driven events, is that every church needs a process for making disciples.

“At Saddleback, we’ve always thought of our target audience through the concentric circles. When you’re planning sermon series, outreach, and ministry, you must think of the various levels of spiritual maturity. We’ve identified at least six.

“These circles of commitment affect everything your church plans. From your preaching calendar to the structure of your small groups, you must be intentional about creating pathways for people to grow from one level of commitment to the next.”

Now, personally, I’m not a big fan of dividing your church up into ‘the congregation’, ‘the committed’, ‘the core’, etc. (you can read more about Rick’s six categories here). But, again, that would be a discussion for another blog post.

The point I want to make is this, once you start viewing the local church in this way, it’s not much of a leap to add levels of non-believers to the outer layers of the diagram. You can sub-divide ‘community’ into the first four thresholds of InterVarsity’s Journey to Faith, or the first three levels of CVM’s model.

Is it time for a rethink?

I think it is. Here are some reasons why.

We lose the majority of people before it’s time to tell them about Jesus!

This was particularly clear in the Send Institute’s Start-Up Funnel. It was only the people who made it all the way to the fourth ‘evangelism’ category (roughly 50 out of 3,000) who got to hear about Jesus. The other 2,950 didn’t make it to that point!

Instead of spending our time, money and resources coming up with a way to tell as many people as possible the good news of Jesus, we’ve spent most of our effort narrowing in on a select group of people.

But I actually think CVM’s 4-level model is the most common strategy used by churches – with only one level of zero ‘Christian’ content. But the result is basically the same.

A typical church’s evangelism programme

  • Level 0: There are 5,000 people in our church parish (the very top of the funnel) and we invited all of them to a free church BBQ.
  • Level 1: At the BBQ (which was a roaring success with over 200 guests) we invite everyone to our church wine tasting event that’s happening in a few weeks time.
  • Level 2: The wine tasting didn’t attract as many guests as we’d hoped (there were about 30 in total) but the speaker was great and it still felt busy as all the church regulars turned out. Flyers were handed out for a Christian Explored course that’s starting the week after.
  • Level 3: There were only two guests at week one of Christianity Explored. By week two this had dropped to just one guest, so it was decided to stop the course and do a one-to-one with that individual instead.

The BBQ and wine tasting event were largely created to funnel people from our parish into Christianity Explored. But that doesn’t seem to have worked. Why? What went wrong? It was looking so promising at the BBQ!

Well it turns out that we didn’t actually put on a Christianity Explored course for people in our parish. Instead, we put on a Christianity Explored course for people in our parish who…

  1. Read flyers that come through their letterbox
  2. Enjoy going along to random community BBQs
  3. Were free on the actual day of the BBQ
  4. Enjoy going along to, let’s be honest, mediocre wine tasting events held in churches
  5. Were free on the actual evening of the wine tasting
  6. Are interested in Christianity enough to sign up to a six-week course
  7. Were free whatever night of the week the course was held on

Understandably, that leaves you with just two people out of a possible 5,000!

It’s not our job to “warm up” cold contacts

This is another business idea. Imagine you have a list of cold contacts that you want to sell something to. Nobody is going to buy from you right off the bat. First, you need to warm them up a bit. Give them something for free. Show them you’re a nice guy. Then you can try and sell to them.

Funnel evangelism adopts a similar approach. There are 5,000 people in our parish, but we assume that none of them will listen if we go straight to telling them the gospel. First, we need to warm them up a bit. Invite them to a free BBQ. Show them we’re normal people. Then we can tell them the gospel.

But I don’t think we have any reason to think that way. It’s not our job to “warm up” people in our parish to church, Christianity, or Jesus. It’s our job to tell them the gospel.

1 Corinthians 1 tells us that there will be two responses to the gospel…

“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” – 1 Corinthians 1:18

“But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” – 1 Corinthians 1:23-24

You see, it really doesn’t matter how many free church BBQs someone’s attended or how many of our evangelistic “levels” they’ve progressed through. They will either see the gospel as foolish or wise. False or true. Weak or powerful.

An unbeliever is no more likely to see the gospel as wise, true and powerful just because they’ve spent six months working their way down our evangelistic funnel.

Alpha at Hackney Church

I remember listening to a baptism service at Hackney Church. Before getting dunked, each baptisee (is that the correct term?) would share a few words explaining why they were getting baptised and how they’d got to this point.

What shocked me was how many of them had signed up to Alpha purely based on seeing the banner outside church. That shouldn’t work! Who signs up to a 10-week course, in a church, where they don’t know anyone? That’s going from zero to a hundred, real quick!

But we forget that, whether they were aware of it or not, God was drawing them to himself. God was the one doing the initiating.

That means we don’t need to go hunting around for the right people to tell the gospel to. And we don’t need to warm them up first with fun times and free stuff. God is the one doing the warming. God is the one awakening the hearts of those he has called to himself.

What’s the alternative?

Ok, so we’ve decided it might be a good idea to stop installing 50ft helter skelters and crazy golf courses inside our cathedrals. This kind of top-of-the-funnel evangelism is expensive, takes up a lot of our time and effort, and distracts from actually telling people the gospel.

“But what’s the alternative?”, I hear you crying out! If we’re not going to be putting on church BBQs, and jazz nights, and truffle making workshops, and pub quizs, where should we direct our efforts instead?

Well, in tomorrow’s article we’ll be looking at “friendship evangelism“, which is surely one of the most popular trends in 21st century evangelism. Maybe that’s the answer? Or maybe not.

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