A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, March 17, 2013
Mark 1:21-22; 1 Peter 3:13-16a The Message
Okay. You are taking a trip. On the airplane, you are seated next to a talker. Your seatmate is reading a devotional book, and the subject of religion comes up. Your seatmate asks you if you attend church or are if you are religious. You answer that you do attend church. “What church do you belong to?” your seatmate questions. You tell him or her that you belong to the United Church of Oak Ridge, an independent congregation. “Since your church is independent, what does your church believe?” your seatmate quizzes. The reality is, many independent churches are conservative, if not fundamentalist. How are you going to answer?
Or another scenario. Let’s suppose you step into the elevator at Methodist Medical Center. Two or three other people are in the elevator with you. One of the strangers asks you if you are visiting a family member. And you reply that you are visiting a friend from your church. And the stranger asks, “Oh, what church is that?” And you reply, “The United Church—the Chapel on the Hill.” And the stranger then replies, “Oh, I have heard of that church. What do you all believe?” How would you respond? Do you have an elevator speech?
In a past edition of the Knoxville News Sentinel, in his column Terry Mattingly talks about the elevator speech. “The term ‘elevator speech’ comes from the business world and describes a punchy presentation of what a company does and ‘what it’s all about.’”1 The elevator speech is a 30-second response to strangers to tell them what your company is and does, or that describes in a nutshell your “brand”. “The idea is to convey the essence of your organization to someone in two or three sentences, in the short time that you’re on an elevator or maybe in a grocery-store checkout line.”1
United Church of Christ minister Lillian Daniel also wrote about the elevator speech some months ago. “’So what does your church believe?’ If someone asked you that question, what would you say?” Lillian quizzes. “Many of us might respond by telling the person what our church does not believe. . . We’re not like the fundamentalists,” we might say. “OK,” says the patient inquirer. “So what do you believe?”2
In the verses I read from Mark, we are given the impression Jesus was very articulate. As The Message translates it, Jesus was “so forthright, so confident—not quibbling and quoting. . .” And the writer of 1 Peter encouraged the second century Christians to “Be ready to speak up and tell anyone who asks why you’re living the way you are, and always with the utmost courtesy.” In other words, be ready to articulate what you believe and why you believe it. Such should be the goal of our adult education classes. And we hope the Confirmation Classes will assist our young persons in doing the same. We would like to instill a bit of who our church is, and what the principles and characteristics are that make us who we are.
Now, I realize that many of us are not comfortable talking about spirituality or our religious beliefs and practice, especially to strangers. In another recent magazine article, writer Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar doesn’t use the term “elevator speech,” but that is really what she is talking about. I will tell you the name of the magazine later. But Jeanne says, “It is my dream that we might grow in our capacity to use a language of reverence in church and at home, at work and in the marketplace. . . my dream is that we might be able to speak fluently and compellingly about our faith so that those in need of a community of strength and solace, a community to hold and guide their spiritual journeys, will have a clear understanding of who we are and what we can offer to them and to the world. . . . I call passionately for us to embrace the challenge of using religious language with depth, comfort, and integrity. . . . It is through dialogue that we open to one another, speaking of our own spiritual journeys, insights, and questions and hearing those of others . . . . A rich language of faith can deepen and ground us, leading us personally to a stronger, more generous, and more vibrant inner life, making us more receptive to the great gifts and the great needs that surround us.”3 The article is an excerpt from Rev. Jeanne’s book: Fluent in Faith: A Unitarian Universalist Embrace of Religious Language. Rev. Jeanne is a retired Unitarian Universalist minister, and the article was printed in the most recent issue of UU World. Now, I share that with you simply to say that if Unitarian Universalists are talking about sharing their faith, then anyone should be able to do so. It is important, I believe, that all of us—regardless of what church or religion we might belong to—be able to articulate what we believe, what we stand for. In a day and place where the religious right seeks to dominate societal mores and community affairs, it is even more important for those of us who are religiously progressive to let our voice be heard. And that is why the elevator speech is so important.
So, back to our elevator speech. Would you be able to give a 30-second summary of what you believe? Or what it is about this United Church that makes it unique? Granted, it is not an easy task. The United Church Board, at our annual Board Retreat in January, spent a fair amount of time in friendly deliberation and debate trying to come up with a short United Church mission statement that accurately describes who we are. Because the United Church is open and inclusive and does not have any sort of creed or confession, it is not an easy task. Our church members range from those who are religiously and/or politically conservative, to those who are religiously and/or politically liberal, with everything in between. So how do you accurately describe a church where “people meet in their differences,” and which is open to “those of all faiths and those of uncertain faith”?
During our brainstorming session, Anne, our new Board Chair, wrote on the dry erase board the characteristics that different board members felt were important to who we are. I then took those characteristics and put them together in a United Church mission statement that works for me. A few board members had their own slight variation on it. But I will share my United Church mission statement, which could also serve as my own personal elevator speech. So here it is: “The United Church is a welcoming and inclusive liberal Christian Church that respects individual spiritual experience and cherishes religious freedom and seeks to unite members in a loving fellowship and in service to others.” As I said, different ones had different variations on this. And the word “liberal” generated the most discussion. Some favored the word “progressive,” but others did not. Some felt that we should leave out both liberal and progressive, just calling ourselves a Christian Church. But I felt if we do that, then there is little to differentiate us from any other Christian Church, evangelical, conservative, fundamentalist, or otherwise.
But one of the realities is that if everyone of us here were to write a one-sentence United Church mission statement, no two would be exactly alike. All our elevator speeches would be different. But that is okay. But the important thing is that we have an elevator speech: that we know who we are and what we believe and what we stand for. We need to be able to articulate our faith and what is spiritually or religiously important to us. As the letter of Peter puts it from another translation, we need to be ready to give a defense of the hope that lies within us. When people ask us, “What does that United Church” or “Chapel on the Hill believe?” we need to be able to give an answer, even if the answer is slightly different from what the person sitting beside you would give.
So again I ask, Do you have an elevator speech? A 30-second or one or two-sentence statement that either says what your own personal religious beliefs are, or a short statement that would describe to others this United Church and what makes it unique? Believe me, it is not an easy task. I have worked years to fine tune mine. But such would be a good Lenten discipline. And, I believe, it is worth the effort. Amen.
1Terry Mattingly, “Faith can’t be captured in quick ‘elevator speech,’” Knoxville News Sentinel, Aug. 20, 2011.
2Lillian Daniel, “Quibbling and Quoting,” UCC Stillspeaking Daily Devotional, Sept. 20, 2011.
3Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar, UU World, Spring 2013.