WASHINGTON BUREAU: Terry Mattingly’s religion column for 8/17/11.
There is nothing unusual about a priest who is dressed in clerical
garb having a stranger ask him a religious question during a long
“You ask a guy where he’s from and what he does and then he asks you
the same thing. Many people just want to talk,” explained Father John
David Finley, a missionary priest in the Antiochian Orthodox Christian
Archdiocese of North America.
The man in the next seat recently asked the priest a question he has
heard many times: “What is Orthodox Christianity, anyway?”
Ironically, Finley was — at that moment — writing some comments
about a contest in which participants prepared a 30-second “elevator
speech” response to strangers who asked that very question. The
contest was organized by the archdiocesan Department of Missions and
Evangelism, Finley’s home base.
This particular man was a convert to Buddhism, although he was raised
in a home that was Christian, to one degree or another. He was
interested in how different churches interpret scripture and how
Eastern Christians pray.
“He wanted to talk about icons,” said Finley. “He thought they were
beautiful, but he also knew there was more to icons than wood and
paint. He said, ‘They’re not just pictures, right? There’s more to
icons than art, right?’ … What you hear in questions like that is a
search for beauty and mystery and spiritual power.”
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,” said Howard Lange, administrator of the missions and
evangelism office. The idea of a national contest emerged from
discussions in his parish, St. Athanasius Orthodox Church, near Santa
“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,” he said.
This is a hard task for all religious leaders in the increasingly
diverse arena of 21st century American life. However, this challenge
is especially hard for Eastern Orthodox leaders in a land shaped by
Protestant history and culture, as well as the rising influence of
Catholics from around the world.
Americans know, or think they know, what people believe in Baptist,
Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist or Episcopal pews. But for many, the
first word that comes to mind when they hear “Orthodoxy” is “baklava.”
When Protestants talk about church, they usually jump into
discussions of their preacher’s pulpit skills, their children’s
programs, the excellence of their classical, gospel or rock musicians
and other selling points. The Orthodox (I know this from experience,
as a convert) need to back up a millennium or two and cover basics.
Then there are the complicated — literally Byzantine — histories of
the churches in Palestine, Greece, Russia, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria,
Ukraine and, yes, even in lands such as North America.
The goal of the “elevator speech” contest, said Lange, was to focus
on broad strokes, using language outsiders could understand — while
not oversimplifying to the point of inaccuracy. The winning entry,
selected through an online ballot, stated:
“Orthodox Christianity is the authentic and original Christian Faith
founded by Jesus Christ,” wrote Valerie Ann Zrake of New York City.
“As an Orthodox Christian you can experience heaven on earth through
the Divine Liturgy which is mystical, spiritual and beautiful, with
it’s incense, icons, and sacred music. You can transcend time and
space while you meditate upon the words and teachings of Jesus Christ.
It’s the most pure form of Christianity — nothing artificial added.
It’s the real deal.”
Even in this simple statement, it was hard to avoid nuanced language.
“Divine Liturgy,” for example, is the Eastern rite name for what, in
the West, would be called the Mass. That reference would stump many
The bottom line, said Lange, is that there is no one ideal “elevator
speech” to introduce faiths that are as ancient and complex as
Orthodoxy. What works with a next-door neighbor who is already a
churchgoer would not work with a skeptical graduate student who walks
in the door ready to argue.
“You have to be able to relate to the person who is standing in front
of you,” he said. “If this contest got Orthodox people to start
thinking about that, then it did some good. It’s a start.”