The Funnel: The Connection Between Communication and Discipleship

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When I first got to Peachtree I began to meet with various ministry areas to discuss how to help them communicate more effectively. One of my first meetings was with the prayer team. I began to ask some questions, such as “Describe an ideal person you hope to connect with in the church.” As I pursued these questions, which aimed to establish audience and need, I discovered a disconnection between their language and the language of the average person they hoped to reach.

I drew out a large diagram of a funnel on a flip chart. Here’s a nicer version of my initial scribble, above.

I told the team of prayer ministry leaders that they are the dot at the bottom of the funnel. They are total insiders. They know what “intercessory” means. They might use the term “hedge of protection.” When I hear hedge of protection, I think of landscaping, but it’s sincere to the prayer team. Not that I am mocking such prayer, which is remarkable. But it is a craft. The prayer team can offer lengthy, passionate descriptions of the power and purpose of prayer in our daily lives.

Within the larger body of believers that is the church, there are many gifts and specific areas of focus and interest. One believer may be deep into the prayer funnel, another in Bible study, another in mission work. And of course there are non-believers, and other people on the fringes of church life, who don’t get any of these activities.

Moving deeper into the prayer funnel is not a question of belief or piety, or place on the faith shoreline, but a question of engagement.

It’s a mistake to assume that everyone else in the room is with you at the bottom of your funnel.

In fact, as I explained to the prayer team, most people are at the top, or maybe one line down. They appreciate prayer, but don’t really get it. Many are scared to death of it, especially in public but even in private. They privately feel embarrassed that they begin to think about lunch when they are told to pray silently in worship, but they have moments of clarity in life, when the reason for and effects of prayer are obvious – usually moments of pain. They would like to become “prayer warriors,” but don’t know how.

Regardless of the focus of your message – prayer, study, mission, children’s ministry – it’s safe to assume that you’re at the bottom, and most of the people to whom you’re communicating are at the top.

A few weeks after meeting with prayer ministry I met with the mission team. The same thing came up. In previous years, the mission ministry had tried various methods to promote mission programs and activities, including videos, brochures, and so on. One expensive die-cut brochure with lots of African photos and lots and lots of words was titled “Experience the Impact,” which is a nice collection of buzzwords but means little to nothing to the person at the top of the funnel (any funnel, really). I encouraged them to try to reach people at the top of the mission funnel.

A few weeks later they asked me to craft a message around their 2013 slate of mission trips.

I wrote a video script and some ad copy with the tagline “Mission Trips Can Seem Scary.” My team ran with it, and we created a little ad campaign for them.

In church work you don’t often have opportunities often to track communication effectiveness, because the next thing comes quick, so of course we moved on and thought no more of the campaign.

A month later the mission team asked me to help promote their upcoming annual Lenten program called 30 Days of Serving. (For my non-liturgical friends, Lent is the annual season leading up to Easter when believers prepare their hearts for the Passion of the Christ, as remembered through Holy Week and into the Resurrection of Easter.) For a previous year they’d used an ad campaign called, “Don’t give up, give back”, which they wanted to re-use. I liked the concept of putting a twist on the annual Lenten practice of giving something up, but I wasn’t a fan of the implicit guilt appeal. So I wrote this tagline instead, which my team made into a chocolate wrapper:

One of the mission team members didn’t like the tagline initially, which was helpful pushback in that it led me to wordsmith the ad copy below the chocolate bar.

Later that same day in an all-staff meeting, one of the mission team members reported that sign ups for 2013 mission trips, the subject of our previous campaign, were off the charts and the best the church had ever seen, and she didn’t know why. Now, there are likely several reasons for this positive response, including overall church growth, but I’d venture that in large part it was due to our ad campaign, or at least a churchwide synergy that has been developing, of which a big part is more effective communication. My team and I exchanged smiles and winks.

When the chocolate ad hit that weekend, we got two interesting responses. One was from one of the old saints of the church, who had ripped it out of the bulletin and dropped it in the basket with a nasty note scribbled on top. The other was an email I received from a member who owns an Atlanta advertising agency. He wrote:

To: Len Wilson
Subject: The chocolate was sweet

Len, I called Lizz to see where the Lenten chocolate idea came from. She said it was your concept and copy, and her design. Man, this is good stuff. Will be interesting to see how it resonated with members, but this member thought it like a parable where you were forced to think then discover the truth being told. Kudos from the peanut gallery.

An email that warms the heart.

I have seen the same thing happen at previous churches, of different denominations, different states, and different cultural and socio-economic settings. The result is universal, because the principle applies to everyone. They’ll apply to your congregation too. You begin by increasing engagement, and the result is that you move people down the shoreline.

Notice though that the mission staff didn’t get it. One didn’t like the chocolate concept, at least at first, and the other didn’t make a connection between the good numbers and the ad campaign. I’m not trying to throw them under the bus. They do great work. But they live at the bottom of the funnel, and from that vantage point it’s hard to see the top rim. Our natural tendency as the person with the idea is to be myopic – to think only from our storyteller’s perspective. We forget what’s it like for the unengaged.

Cultivating disciples starts with getting over ourselves. It starts with shifting our thinking from our natural starting point – what our event, ministry, program or message is about – to the benefit it offers the storyreceiver.

To do this, we need a true understanding of the human condition. What is their story? Usually, their story is the same as our story. Not enough money to pay the bills. Family members in pain from poor choices or the systemic troubles of the world. Unresolved grief that shackles us to the past. The primary lifestyle difference between a non-believer and a believer is chaos versus order.

In church, we forget these stories, or for safety and comfort we disconnect these stories from our daily life and work, and it kills our resonance as gospel communicators. Continually rediscovering the human condition is vital, not for the purpose of manipulating people into an institutional transaction with the church, but for giving them the saving and healing grace of Jesus.

Making disciples from crowds is a process of increasing engagement with the life of following Christ. Our strategy should be to both connect with people at their present faith stage and move them deeper via the the funnel.

Have you seen the funnel theory work in your ministry? How?

About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director @peachtreepres. Tickle monster. Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon, 2015).

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