I've been a member of many organizations over the years that have had or developed mission statements. One of the concepts I learned during the process was that the mission statement should be short and pithy. It should be akin to pitching a story idea to a producer in an elevator. You have short elevator ride to get your story idea across and to get the producer interested enough to meet with you about it for a second time, aka the Elevator Pitch.
Christianity, as a religion, has had 2000-plus years to accumulate a massive backstory; starting with the basic tales of Jesus in the four gospels, adding the Acts of the Apostles, gaining a plethora of saints, staining and straining that faith by mixing it with temporal and political power, and trying to make that power accountable for the abuses that have been done in its name. There is a lot of history to explore and learn from, and it can be difficult to know what to start with when exploring even our own small branch of the Christian faith.
In the readings for the Daily Office, Year 2, Proper 17, Friday we have an example of an evangelist boiling down a huge chunk of history as a basic introduction to where Jesus sprang from:
“You Israelites, and others who fear God, listen. The God of this people Israel chose our ancestors and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. For about forty years he put up with them in the wilderness. After he had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance for about four hundred fifty years. After that he gave them judges until the time of the prophet Samuel. Then they asked for a king; and God gave them Saul son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, who reigned for forty years. When he had removed him, he made David their king. In his testimony about him he said, ‘I have found David, son of Jesse, to be a man after my heart, who will carry out all my wishes.’ Of this man’s posterity God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised; before his coming John had already proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. And as John was finishing his work, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but one is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of the sandals on his feet.’
Paul covers the history of the Jews from Moses to the coming of Jesus in one short paragraph. If not quite an elevator pitch, it is definitely a quick summary of the major events that have lead to this moment in time. This summary places Jesus in a particular context for this particular audience; paving the way for sharing the good news.
We have examples of Peter and Paul customizing the message for their current audience. Given the success of the early disciples at spreading the word about Jesus and building the early church I would guess that many of them were excellent at meeting people where they were and conveying the message of Jesus to very diverse groups throughout the region.
The fact that the ideas were shared and claimed by enough people for it to grow from a small group, to a sect, to a whole new religion that survived the fall of Jerusalem, the split between the eastern and western followers and became one of three traditions that share a beginning in the stories in what became our Old Testament says something about both the effectiveness of messengers and the longing for the message.
For a story to have an effect, two things must be in place: the story must have an internal power-- there must be something compelling about it to catch the attention of the listener; and the listener must be ready to hear that particular story-- there must be a way for them to see how they fit in the story, or how it makes sense in the context of their own lives. If the storyteller does not have a compelling tale or the hearer is not ready to listen the story dies.
Something about the story of Jesus, his experience, and his followers has caught the attention of millions of people over the past 2000 years. Some people have had Paul's Road to Damascus instant conversion experience, some have been raised in the faith and have carried it on to the next generation, some have had a long and winding journey to find a spiritual home within the Christian faith.
Given that it is flawed humans that carry the faith from the time to Jesus to the ever-moving-present, it is something of a miracle that the message of Jesus still has power to speak to new generations.
Like Paul summarizing the history that linked the past history of the Jewish people to the life of Jesus, each of us has the power to carry the message of Jesus out from our churches into the world.
This does not require showing up on strangers doorsteps and asking them about their personal relationship to Jesus Christ. Honestly, I feel nothing could be more off-putting. Instead, it requires that we live our faith and be open to sharing it with people who express an interest.
Paul responded to an invitation from the officials of the synagogue who said: "Brothers, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, give it."
Like the script-writer trying to sell an idea, the elevator pitch of our faith will be most effective if it is customized, contextualized, and compelling to the individual listener.
Not everyone is ready to hear the Good News, some will never be ready, but for those who are: we have a humdinger of a story to tell.
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