the shape of leadership

What the Church Can Learn from Harley-Davidson

Sharing the gospel in today’s culture

Dave E Cole on July 24, 2017

The church in America is in crisis. Thom Rainer, leading church consultant, recently concluded that 65 percent of churches in America are plateaued and dying.


Only 35 percent of churches are growing. This startling news should rip at the core of every church leader. What is happening, or not happening, to cause nearly two-thirds of all churches to plateau and decline?


Although the answer to this question is complex and multifaceted, the core reason is an inward-focused culture within the church. As churches in America continue to age, they gradually become inward-focused and lose the ability to relate to people in their communities. They pressure leadership to spend the majority of church resources and time meeting the members’ escalating demands, thus reducing the church’s ability to carry out the Great Commission. Over time, many churches experience mission fog and forget why they exist in the first place.


Jesus commissioned the Church to go into all the world and declare the good news to the unchurched. Unfortunately, the majority of unchurched people today do not have a Christian friend who can share the good news with them.


In a recent survey by the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, only 35 percent of the unchurched said they had heard about the benefits of being a Christian. As a result, they form their perceptions about the Church through what they see on sitcoms, in the news or from a friend who experienced rejection at church. A huge disconnect exists between the Church and today’s culture. The average American no longer views church and the Bible as things they need to live a successful life. When the weekend rolls around, the local church is the last thing they consider attending. We can no longer quote the line from the movie Field of Dreams and declare, “If we build it, they will come.”

Perhaps it is time to go back to our roots and revisit what it takes to connect with today’s culture. 

The fact is, they are not coming to 65 percent of the churches in America.


Back to Their Roots

Perhaps it is time to go back to our roots and revisit what it takes to connect with today’s culture.


My doctoral research revealed that organizations are growing as a result of an outward-focused culture and staying on mission. One organization that has been in existence as long as the Assemblies of God is Harley-Davidson. This corporation experienced tremendous growth before plateauing in the mid-70s. To save the company from extinction, American Machine and Foundry (AMF) Corporation bought Harley and poured millions of dollars into the company.


Unfortunately, AMF’s big idea was overproduction, which compromised quality. Harleys obtained a reputation for leaking engines and constant breakdowns that still exists today. Harley-Davidson lost more than $50 million from 1982 to1983 and was headed for bankruptcy. During this critical time, Harley CEO Vaughn Beals pulled together 12 company officers who agreed to buy the company from AMF. Then the executives toured Japan to learn what they could from foreign bike manufacturers.


Returning to the States, the leaders took a giant risk. Their big idea was to go back to their roots. Harley executives chose to stay with what made the company great to begin with: the traditional sound and classic design. They contacted Willie G. Davidson, the grandson of one of the H-D founders. At 64 years of age, Willie G. Davidson began to design new lines of Softail bikes that resembled the beauty, sound and elegance of the ’40s Harley classics, and Harley-Davidson was reborn.


Every aging organization must go back to the drawing board and ask what made them great. Harley-Davidson did this, with resounding success, and the Church needs to do it as well. We will find our big idea by asking, “Why do we exist, and what is our destination?”


Building Relationships and a Culture of Acceptance

Harley-Davidson models a culture of relationship and acceptance. Staff members intentionally build lifelong customers.


When you buy a car, you probably won’t come back and buy $5,000 worth of accessories for it. But when you buy a Harley, you become a customer of the dealership and show up week after week. Almost every staff member rides a Harley and is encouraged to build relationships with clients by attending the Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.)  rides.


Newcomers are encouraged to belong to the H.O.G. group meetings and go on rides before they become members. Every person, regardless of their experience or the type of bike they ride, is encouraged to belong before they own a Harley. The Church would do well to find ways to allow people to belong before they believe or make any attempts to change their lifestyle. What would happen if the Church had a culture of acceptance versus judgment?


Respect for the Individual

Today, society pressures us to put titles, stereotypes and group labels on people. You have to be a Republican or Democrat, a conservative or liberal. By placing people into various groups, it is easy to treat people as non-human and objectify them.


Harley-Davidson treats every person who enters the door as a valued individual worthy of respect and dignity. Whether a one-percenter outlaw biker or a rich urban biker, you are treated with the same respect. In the book, I challenge the Church to treat people as individuals. Every person who enters the doors of a local church is made in the image of God.


“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” Romans 5:8 (NIV). Does your church accept people where they are, or expect people to change before showing them concern and love? The Church’s assignment is to extend love to others.


Harley accepts individuals without compromising their convictions. As the Church, we can accept the individual without condoning their actions. If you are a parent, how much do you love your child even if you disapprove of his or her behavior? Jesus successfully loved individuals while disapproving of their sinful actions. We are to love as Christ loves us.


Intersections of the Highway

When riding a motorcycle, one key instruction is to be alert at intersections by paying extreme attention to vehicles pulling out of side streets and driveways, slowing down so drivers see the motorcycle and yielding to any vehicle.


In our motorcycle ministry, we also encourage riders to pay attention to intersections with people that God might be orchestrating on the journey. We call it the intersections of the highway. Slow down enough to connect with people. Don’t be in such a hurry. And yield to everyone you encounter on the ride.


One summer, our group journeyed to Sturgis, South Dakota. Each year, about a million bikers converge on this small, rural Midwest town. I was still on my bike at our hotel when a man named Chuck started sharing his story. His insurance was not going to pay $12,000 in needed repairs on the engine for his cattle truck. He asked what motorcycle group we were with. I let him know that a bunch of preachers rode together each summer. I offered him a New Testament and asked whether I could pray for him.


The next morning, I sat down on the hotel bench. Guess who was sitting there? Chuck said, “I have been reading that book you gave me. I used to be a leader in a church. Then I went through a divorce, and my church kicked me out.”


I apologized for the way the church had treated him and began sharing that Jesus accepted him and had not forgotten him; God wanted a relationship with him. I was able to pray with him, but I assumed I would never see Chuck again. The following day as I loaded up my bike, Chuck found me. He said he had good news. The insurance company had decided to pay for all the repairs on his truck. I reminded him that God had not forgotten him and had sent me to encourage him. Every Christ follower should be praying for daily intersections with the unchurched.


Evangelism today must be more than an outreach program or big event. It takes place when every Christ follower accepts the personal command of Jesus to develop friendships with the unchurched, by loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. There is hope for the 65 percent of churches that are plateaued, as they reexamine the mission and engage in relationships with the unchurched. I want to challenge every Christ follower to make friends with the unchurched and live an outward-focused life.

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