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GOING DEEPBecoming a Person of Influence
By Gordon MacDonald
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 Gordon MacDonald
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJULY 6
The First Summer
To: Hank Soriano From: GMAC Subject: Re: Red Sox
Hank, Gail and I really enjoyed the game yesterday. But most of all I appreciated the chance to spend time with you and Cynthia. Thanks so much for lunch, the game, the conversation. I've thought about your question and here's my first-draft answer. I think it can be read in twelve floors.
It was on July 6, at an evening baseball game In Boston's Fenway Park, that the great idea first started coming to life.
Gail and I were the guests of our next-door neighbors, Hank and Cynthia Soriano. Hank's company—he's a VP for sales—has season tickets just behind the Red Sox dugout, and that evening we four were the beneficiaries of his boss's largesse.
The game was at the midpoint of the seventh inning and the women were involved in a conversation of their own. Hank and I (typical of most men) had been silent for a few minutes, watching the action on the field. Suddenly, he asked me this question: "Hey, what would you say is your church's elevator story?"
You should know that, except for weddings and funerals, Hank Soriano hadn't gone to church since he was a kid. Cynthia, once a casual church attendee, dropped out completely when she married Hank six years ago. For both of them, this is their second marriage.
If Hank and Cynthia are what some call unchurched, then Gail and I are the opposite: churched up to our eyeballs. I've been a pastor for forty-plus years, before that, the son of a pastor.
Despite our contrasts in church involvement, the Sorianos and the MacDonalds are good friends. Proof ? Well, to borrow a biblical comment: "Greater love hath no man than he who provideth his friends with Red Sox tickets." I'm sure Hank and Cynthia know a lot of people, but when it came to sharing an evening at Fenway Park, they chose us.
Being "unchurched" has never prevented Hank Soriano from showing interest in my work. He has always been curious about how various kinds of organizations, even churches, operate and, even more so, how they are led. So when we get together, it's not unusual for him to ask some off-the-wall question about my current activities. I should add that he likes answers couched in business language.
Actually, my neighbor, Hank, does not visualize me as a pastor or priest; rather, I am, in his eyes, something like a company president. Let me illustrate. One day he asked me how my compensation package was structured. Did my contract with the church—he assumed I had one—include a percentage of the offerings? For Hank this was not an unthinkable possibility. "Hey," he said, "I hear the church is growing on your watch. Revenue's got to be up ... you're due a bigger piece of the pie. Understand what I'm saying?"
When I related Hank's comment to our church leaders (we call them elders) in our next meeting, they thought it was funny ... and then dropped the subject immediately.
Now, here at Fenway Park, Hank had hit me with another of his wild questions. This one was about our church's "elevator story," which, to be honest, I wasn't sure existed.
I was silent for a moment and then sheepishly confessed to Hank that I couldn't tell him our elevator story. In fact, I further admitted, I didn't even know what an elevator story was.
Did that ever bring Hank Soriano to life! Instantly the ballgame was forgotten.
"You saying that you don't know what an elevator—" Hank got that far, paused, and then started again. He knew a teachable moment when he saw one.
"Well, say you and another guy get on an elevator at the Pru together ... first floor." Hank was referring to Boston's Prudential Center, a few blocks away. "You've both punched the thirtieth-floor button. Get what I'm saying here?"
I nodded that I did ... so far.
"So as the doors are closing, the other guy sees your company pin on your jacket's lapel and says, 'So, what's that company of yours do?' Got that? Huh?"
I indicated a second time that I got that. I should mention that sometimes Hank tests your patience with his filler phrases like "Got that?" and "Understand what I'm saying?" It's a verbal habit, part of his Boston brogue, which, if you're short on patience, can drive you nuts.
Hank went on. "Okay, here's the point of an elevator story. You've got the time it takes to reach the thirtieth floor to tell this guy exactly what your company does." Then with a big Soriano smile, he added, with a hint of drama, "And let's just say that if—if, I said—your company story is dazzling enough, this guy'll pull out his card and suggest getting together to talk about doing a twenty-mil deal with you. Twenty million dollars! Get it?"
I assured Hank that I got it.
"So." Hank sat back and folded his arms as if satisfied that he'd thoroughly instructed me. "What's your church's story? Dazzle me in thirty f loors. Pretend there's twenty mil on the line here."
Put yourself in my shoes. You're in sold-out Fenway Park. The score's tied. The Red Sox are coming to bat, and the crowd is singing "Sweet Caroline (Oh, Oh, Oh)," a nightly Fenway Park ritual. And suddenly, the guy who brought you to the game asks to be dazzled by your church's elevator story. And remember that you only learned a minute ago what an elevator story is. Understand what I'm saying?
The first thing that came to me as I struggled to respond to Hank was the doctrinal statement on the nature of the church that I'd hammered out years ago in a seminary theology course. But it is hardly a dazzling document, especially for someone like unchurched Hank. Besides, it would have required at least six hundred or more floors to rattle off, and his elevator apparently only went up thirty floors. I also thought about our fifteen-word mission statement—"to point people toward Jesus Christ and his invitation to a full and purposeful life." But that wouldn't have dazzled Hank either.
Here's what Hank Soriano was asking: What is your church doing today that would cause anyone (maybe even your neighbor, Hank Soriano) to be attracted to it?
I finally dodged the question by asking for a day or two to think about it. That experience at Fenway was not my finest hour as the "president" of our church.
July 6 – 8
The First Summer
To: Tom O'Donnell From: GMAC Subject: Elevator Story
Tom, question for you. What's an elevator story?
To: GMAC From: Tom O'Donnell Subject: Re: Elevator Story
Hey, Pastor Mac. Where'd you find that in the Bible? I thought elevator stories were only for business types. An elevator story is a brief description of an organization, its products or services, and how it gets the job done. Some businesses go mad trying to formalize one and get everyone to agree with it.
Over the next few days, I kept thinking a bout what our church's elevator story might sound like. Several times I sat down with my laptop and tried writing one. But when I read some of my drafts to Gail, she was decidedly undazzled. I came to realize that Tom O'Donnell was right: thirty-floor elevator stories—the dazzling kind, anyway—are not easy to produce.
Finally, determined to get a story written if for no better reason than to redeem myself in Hank Soriano's eyes, I forced one into existence to which Gail reluctantly gave a passing grade. I remember her saying, "It's okay, I guess ... but don't spend the twenty mil, or whatever, until the cash is in your hand."
Our Church Elevator Story
Our 175-year-old church is composed of people who, through the generations, have shared a common commitment to Jesus Christ. Following his example, we regularly worship God. Studying his life and the lives of those who followed him, we do our best to emulate him in the way we live in our community. Believing that God's central message is about love, we try to assure that our relationships (God, marriage, family, friendships, strangers, even enemies) all reflect what he both taught and did. Finally, aware of his intense compassion for people who lost their way spiritually and physically, we attempt to represent his mission by serving others in the larger world when we become aware of their needs.
Having completed my final version, my imagination went to work. What if my elevator story—despite Gail's lack of enthusiasm— garnered some version of a twenty-mil payday? Exactly what would that payday be? In this case the answer was obvious. The payday would be Hank and Cynthia Soriano visiting our church, deciding to follow Jesus, and wanting to become a part of things. No doubt about it: that would be the equivalent of a twenty-mil deal.
Finally, I pasted my elevator story into an e-mail I'd written to thank Hank and Cynthia for taking Gail and me to the ballgame, then began awaiting his response.
I will confide to you that the dreamer in me anticipated an almost immediate text message that might sound like this: GMAC, Read your ES. Never knew a church could sound so exciting. I'm really dazzled. How quickly can Cynthia and I get involved?
That message never came.
But there was a result of sorts that I would never have anticipated. It came in a conversation Hank and I had when we unexpectedly bumped into each other on the way to our mailboxes the next day to get our morning newspapers.
"Hey, I read your elevator story several times," Hank said. "Not too bad. Never read anything like that before ... pretty religious ... but we probably need organizations like yours that do some good in the world. Tell you one thing, though. It's sure different from my store."
Hank often refers to his company as "the store" for reasons I've never understood.
"Well, anyway," I said, "now you know a little bit more about what I do."
"Yeah, I guess so. I can see why you might enjoy your job."
"What makes you say that?"
And then Hank Soriano said something that—now looking back with perspective—began to define the final years of my pastoral life.
"Mac, I'm in marketing and sales. The largest part of my job is training people, which I love doing. I read your story, and I said to myself, That stuff he writes about can't happen unless somebody's constantly training people. If you're going to keep that story honest, training, training, training is going to be your most important job. Understand what I'm saying here?
"You may be president of your store, but you should also be the chief training officer. And that combo would come close to being the greatest job there is: discovering who's trainable and teaching them to make that elevator story of yours happen. You know ..." Here Hank seemed to almost get nostalgic. "I could really love a job like yours."
The First Summer
From my journal
Fascinating conversation with Soriano this morning. He actually liked my elevator story. At least he didn't blow it off. And he had the insight to see that the key to an organization like a church begins with training leadership. He said something that amazed me. "Training, training, training: that's what'll keep your story honest."
This morning I'm wondering what Hank would think if I told him how poor a job we do in training leaders. Truth is that we do some training in our church for leaders, but it's optional and is usually treated in a cavalier way. Anyway, Soriano has managed to get my mind spinning. Is our elevator story honest? What does training, training, training mean?
Writing that elevator story for hank Soriano ended up dazzling me more than it did him. I say this because it started me—and ultimately others—on my search for the "great idea."
Let me explain what I mean.
During the several hours I invested in writing my elevator story, I tried my best to describe what our church did in language that would enlighten someone who hadn't the vaguest notion of what a church was. In Hank Soriano's case, the challenge was to offer a story that was faithful to the sacred nature of what we sometimes call the body of Christ yet comprehensible to a person who could only think in business terms.
Before I started writing my first of many drafts, I tried whittling down the concept of a church to its irreducible minimum. Where could one go in the Bible to see this done? I think I found my answer in these words attributed to Jesus: "Where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them."
I concluded that these words were like the DNA—a building block of sorts—of the church. All that's necessary is for two or more people to come and bond together in a common loyalty to Jesus, the Savior. Result? He becomes present in that gathering. That's all one needs to certify that a church exists for a short or long time: Christ is here!
But how would one know that Christ is present? How about these evidences? Lives would begin to change; that's conversion. People would begin to love, to care for, to enjoy one another; that's community, or fellowship. A spirit of generosity would start to fill the air as each person invested his or her energies and resources in the life of the gathering; that's servanthood. Children would be instructed; youth mentored; adults of every age would be encouraged; older people might be appreciated, even listened to. That's love.
And from there? There might follow an apostolic spirit in those people that would begin to burst outward, beyond the church, into the larger world so that others might experience the redemptive love of Jesus in all sorts of ways. That's being missional.
I found it inspiring to imagine this chain of events, and I was refreshed in the thought of how much I have loved the church when it has operated like this over the years. I have enjoyed the friendships, the things people did together, the way we all supported one another when there were difficult times. I thought of those I'd seen come to faith in Jesus and experience a marked renovation of life.
I wondered what the biblical equivalent of an elevator story might sound like. The Ephesian church came to mind because we know as much about that church as any in the New Testament.
If the Ephesian church has an elevator story, this is it: you can read it in just five floors.
When [miracles in the church] became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor. Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed their evil deeds. A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly.... In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.
Now, there's an impressive story. But did the Ephesian church stay honest? Only a few decades later, this church with its wild beginning became the recipient of one of the sternest judgments a church could imagine. A prophetic angel said to the church: "I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Remember the height from which you have fallen.... If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place."
It was as if the angel was saying, "You people are just inches from losing (losing!) the thing that most marked you in the beginning. In fact, Christ's blessing (your lampstand) is about to be taken from you. Think about that ... long and hard!"
The angel could have added, "And once the lampstand is gone, you're no longer a church."
I read these lines of Scripture, thought about them several times, and asked myself how this could have happened. How could the Ephesian church have lost so much momentum?
Remember the height, the angel had said. What I called the Ephesian church's elevator story must have described the church's peak moments, its height. But from that point forward, it was downhill all the way. The story lost its honesty.
Excerpted from GOING DEEP by Gordon MacDonald Copyright © 2011 by Gordon MacDonald. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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