In the entrepreneurial world, there is something known as an “elevator speech.” The name comes from the idea that one day you may find yourself riding in an elevator with someone important, the CEO of your company, for example. You have a big idea, an idea you may have been thinking about and working on for years, and suddenly you have been presented with a few precious moments, maybe just a minute or two, to make your pitch. An elevator speech is not an exhaustive description of every detail of your idea, but rather the boiled down, condensed, tightly articulated version. You need to make your pitch in such a way that when the CEO steps off the elevator, she’ll remember your idea. It will linger in her mind and imagination such that she will want to hear more later.
This has so much to teach us as we seek to honor our baptismal promise to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” Episcopalians typically lean heavily on the example part of that promise, because we are sensitive to Christians who talk a big talk but don’t back it up with their lives (James 2:14). I also hear lots of people cite the quote often attributed to Saint Francis: “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.” It reinforces the typical Episcopal disinclination to ever actually talk to someone about the Christian faith and life. But Peter writes that we should always be ready to share the hope that is within us (1Peter 3:15), and such hopeful witnessing should involve our lips along with our hands and feet.
Which is why I think elevator speeches have so much to teach us. Most evangelism, I’ve come to realize, happens in elevators; that is, in brief, surprising, and unexpected encounters that pop up in the course of normal days. Our lives are filled with elevators, when we are actually paying attention, and people are stepping in and out of them all the time. They’re in coffee shops and on the sidelines of soccer games and in hospital rooms. They’re anywhere that we are presented with an opportunity to present the hope that is within us, to share the good news of God in Christ in word as much as example. They are anywhere that we can tell what we believe in such a way that we plant a living seed for God to nurture and water and grow.
In the entrepreneurial world, a successful elevator speech is carefully crafted well ahead of time. A person with a big idea that they actually hoped to be able to share would never fail to prepare their speech. They would have reflected on what was most essential and important in order to make the most of the moment when it came. It is fundamental that we embrace the wisdom of this practice, and prepare our “elevator evangelism” ahead of time to make the moment count. Trying to succinctly put into words the reason we believe in and follow Jesus as Lord is a much harder thing than it may seem, and like anything in life, we get better and sharper the more we practice.
In my experiences and encounters with people sharing their Christian witness, I’ve come to realize there are just a few basics that make for successful, influential elevator speeches. Not every person’s “pitch” is the same, but there are a few things that good speeches seem to have in common: personal and sincere, simple, and open-ended.
First, an effective elevator speech is personal and sincere. It needs to be true and authentic to you. Simply reciting creedal statements or threadbare platitudes won’t cut it, not if you want to be remembered after the elevator doors open and the person walks away. This is your elevator speech, your moment to share the hope that is within you. I love how my friend Mike begins his: “I was a knucklehead.” To know Mike is to know how genuine this is. Another friend begins hers with an acknowledgement of her struggle with depression. Her hope and her faith are deeply tied to the healing she’s experienced. In both instances, their personal voices blend with their personal stories to create short, deeply moving accounts of why they believe and follow. Elevator evangelism’s shadow side is that it can easily become “canned” or disingenuous, but we resist this by remaining authentic and personal.
Second, it must be simple. You can’t say everything, and you shouldn’t try. We get incapacitated by our desire to tell our whole story, or to explain every important aspect of the Christian faith, or to apologize for all the bits that are difficult to bear or believe. And later there is time to do that. But the premise of the elevator speech is to simply introduce an idea, not to explain it to death, and to say too much is to actually become less effective. Last December, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby posted what I quickly realized was his elevator speech on Facebook. He had been asked by reporters why he is a Christian, and his response is effective because of its simplicity:
“I’m a Christian because Jesus Christ found me and called me, around 40 years ago. I'm a Christian because in Jesus I see the God who didn’t say, “This is how you lot have got to behave, and I’m going to watch you and judge you.” Instead he came alongside us and lived in the middle of the absolute foulest mess, and died unjustly young in great agony, and bore all that was wrong in this world on his shoulders. I'm a Christian because in my own experience I’ve run away and God has met me and yet not been angry with me. When I’ve failed he’s picked me up and healed and strengthened me. That’s why I’m a Christian. And that’s why, whatever happens, whatever stupid mistakes, I know that even at the end of it all, even if everything else fails, God doesn’t — and he will not fail even to the end of my life.”
Lastly, effective elevator speeches are open-ended. They are not closed loops, but rather leave room for the listener to contemplate a response of some sort. The goal is to open the door to more conversation, not simply to “dump” your ideas and opinions on another person. Frankly, that’s what we dislike so strongly about so much evangelism in wider society, namely, that it feels so heavy-handed and one-directional. When we’re totally focused on getting our point across, it’s less about evangelism and more about our own anxious need for validation. Effective evangelism is mutual, because we recognize that God was present in the life and experiences of that person long before we ever met them, and that it is only through God’s grace that conversion of any sort is possible. And as any entrepreneur would remind us, the goal is not for the person to make a decision at the end of the elevator ride, but to remember your idea in such a way that they want to hear more later.
One additional point, which may seem obvious, is that elevator speeches are contextual. We must be aware of and sensitive to the particulars of the moment. I am struck by the way that the apostle Paul tells his story in various ways, depending on his audience and the pastoral needs they present. What we say to an acquaintance on the sideline of our kid’s soccer game is different than what we’d say to a coworker grabbing coffee is different from what we’d say to a friend who just received a cancer diagnosis.
The truth is that we’ve been riding up and down elevators all our lives, so now it’s time to start seizing these opportunities. We have a story to tell, hope to give, Good News to proclaim with our words as well as our example. We do not need to be afraid of what we’ll say, because the Holy Spirit is riding the elevator with us, ready to give us the courage and peace to speak our true and holy words into the world.