The Start-Up Funnel:
How to Use Church-Planting Insights to Expand Your Circle of Influence
Consider this workable model that can be universally applied by any church desiring to increase their evangelistic effectiveness.
By Steven M. Pike
Starting new churches and growing existing ones are complementary activities that can bring synergistic benefits. They have the same goal, but start at a different place. We must do both and we must do both well. The goal of every church, whether just starting or having been around for a long time, is to be a healthy congregation that multiplies disciples, ministries, and churches.
Since new churches often depend on existing churches as their primary source of launch teams and finances, many believe that church plants are a necessary burden on existing churches with no visible return. Actually, church planting benefits existing churches because church planters perfectly position themselves to learn new ways to reach people outside of Christ. They have little to lose and can attempt previously untried evangelism methods without risking a lot. More established churches tend to be more risk averse, because the longer a church lives, the more history and resources it tends to accumulate. The good news for existing churches is they can learn from the experiments of younger churches before attempting new ministry methodologies for themselves. Over time, the lessons learned by start-ups become a significant benefit to existing churches.
An example of a church-planting practice that has obvious application for existing churches is the start-up funnel that many church planters utilize to build a network of relationships in the community before the church begins holding regular public worship services. Church-planting teams using the start-up funnel effectively connect with the unchurched and dechurched. Existing churches can also use the funnel successfully because they can universally apply the underlying principles behind the funnel to any church desiring to increase its evangelistic effectiveness.
We base the funnel on the fact the vast majority of people who become Christians are led to Christ by someone they know. The foundation of evangelism is relationship. Relationship begins with a point of contact. Contact begins with awareness. The start-up funnel is simply a tool to ensure you have ministries and activities in place that work with the Holy Spirit to help people surrender to Christ.
The challenge for church-planting teams is that, more often than not, they are new to the community and have few relationships. The start-up funnel design can help them meet people and build relationships that help people come to faith resulting in a community of disciples that can launch as a new church.
The challenge for existing churches is that over time Christians begin to lose their natural connections to the unchurched and dechurched. As a result, evangelism becomes rare simply because Christians in an existing church only know Christians. But existing churches that strategically utilize components of the start-up funnel are finding that their evangelistic effectiveness improves dramatically. So whether you are preparing to start a new church or helping an existing church get back on mission, the start-up funnel will be helpful.
Here’s how it works. The goal of the funnel is to cultivate a network of relationships that lead to evangelism and assimilation into the church family. Four categories comprise the funnel. Each category applies universally regardless of the style, age, or scope of the church. The specific activities/ministries utilized will depend on the demographic characteristics of the community.
The first category of funnel activity is awareness. Awareness simply means people in the community know you are there. Activities may include mass media advertising like television, radio, or mailers. They may also include social networking strategies, using social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Activities might involve public services/compassions projects like distributing water at the county fair or hosting a Convoy of Hope event. The goal is simply to make people in the community aware that you and the church are present.
The second category of funnel activity is networking. Networking means you know names and they know you know their names. Networking activities include hosting community Easter egg hunts, Christmas services, etc., where you simply gather names of people with their permission. Opportunities can be as simple as remembering the name of your restaurant server or the bank teller. The primary goal is to collect the names of people you have connected with, record them in a manner that will keep the names in front of you, and systematically pray for each name. God then works supernaturally in the lives of these people.
The third category of funnel activity is relationships. A relationship means you know their story and they know you know their story. You have had a conversation that has gone deep enough for them to share something about their story. It might be about where they grew up. Or it could be about their job or family. Relationship-building activities could be enjoying conversation over coffee at a coffee shop, joining a civic service club (Rotary or Kiwanis, etc.), playing on a community sports team, or helping at a community shelter.
The final category of funnel activity is evangelism. Evangelism means they know you have a relationship with Jesus and you want them to have a relationship with Him. Activities might include reading a Christian book together, doing a Bible study in a small group or one on one, inviting a person to attend a church service, or other related activities.
We call this a funnel because each category describes the scope of a circle of people that is progressively smaller.
The awareness category will have the most people in the circle and is also easy for everyone in your church to participate in.
The people in your networking circle will come out of your awareness circle and be a smaller number.
Your relationships will come out of your networking number, and so the relationships circle will have fewer people than your networking circle.
Finally, your evangelism circle will be the smallest since most of those whom you evangelize will come out of the relationship circle.
Prayer, combined with actions with a purpose in mind, is the heart of the funnel. (See the sidebar “Does the Funnel Approach Work for Existing Churches?” to see how prayer becomes the basis for everything you do in each step of building relationships with people outside the church.)
Planning a variety of culturally relevant activities in each category gives everyone in your church a way to participate because each will understand the goal of the activity. The funnel also will help you measure your progress toward reaching your community.
Here’s a sample: You are leading a church that currently has 100 attendees in a town of 10,000. Demographic studies indicate at least 5,000 people in your community are not currently part of a church. Your leadership team decides that over the next year they will aspire to lead 1 percent of the unchurched in your town to faith in Christ. This means the evangelism circle target number will be 50 (1 percent of 5,000). Multiply that number by 2. This will give the relationship circle target number of 100. Multiply that number by 3. This will give the networking number of 300. Multiply that number by 10. This will give the awareness number of 3,000.
Plan activities in each circle that will result in achieving the target numbers in that circle. What are the activities or tools to make 3,000 people who are not currently attending any church aware of your church in a positive way? What might you do to gather the names of 300 people in your community (who have been made aware of you through your awareness activities) and begin to systematically pray for them? What relational activities can you engage in that will result in the formation of 100 new relationships? What activities can you provide that will help 50 of the 100 to begin to follow Christ?
Some activities will allow you to make progress in more than one category. For example, handing out bottles of water with information about your church on the label could be an awareness activity. If those who are handing out the water bottles remember, record, and pray for the names of people they meet, you could also consider it a networking activity. Some contacts may result in deeper conversations that might qualify toward relationship goals.
You must align the activities you choose to do in each category with the felt needs and interests of the people in the community. Demonstrating compassion by distributing winter coats might be appreciated in Minnesota but create a different perception in Phoenix. Conducting a survey to access the felt needs of the community is a way to identify the right activities for the different categories of the funnel.
Can existing churches learn new ministry skills from new churches? Yes. A growing number of veteran church leaders are benefitting from the successful experiments of church planters and leading their churches into fresh seasons of fruitfulness.