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Live to Ride: What the Church Can Learn From Harley-Davidson

By Rick Chromey

It’s the epitome of cool and an American icon. Nothing rumbles down the road like a Harley-Davidson. It’s a legendary expression of freedom, happiness, and style. Even if you don’t ride or like motorcycles, you’ve heard of Harley. Yes, there are more affordable bikes, and many would argue there are even better built ones.

So what makes Harley-Davidson “the” machine to ride? And what can the church learn from this legendary bike company?

Function Sells…and Changes

Leadership guru Seth Godin argues there is a pyramid of “value” that guides the American consciousness impacting consumer attitudes. At the pyramid’s base is pure function. If a biker’s only concern is function (getting from point A to B), then any brand is fine. In fact, many bikers pursue function first and foremost. Harleys are expensive bikes—to buy, to maintain, and to fix. They also don’t make “sport” bikes. Consequently, younger and novice bikers gravitate to more affordable options.

It seems reasonable. A bike is a bike is a bike…as long as its functionality is valued. But what happens when functionality fades?

For example, the Church is currently tethered to lecture-driven, stage-based, authoritarian, closed-system functions, reflecting modern principles of control, mechanism, and rationality. This model proved historically successful since the 1500s, but in a post-modern cyber culture, it’s failing. The social expressions that now thrive are open-system, experiential, participatory, and subjective. It’s why Kodak is extinct. The function (printed photos) lost value. Culture changed. They didn’t.

Relationships Matter

Godin further argues consumers want connection even more than function. Deep down we hunger for relationships, and we’ll pay more for brands that connect us. Harley-Davidson creates a family of riders or band of brothers. Buy a Harley and you are suddenly known, valued, and wanted. They’ve mastered “stickiness” from sales to service to events.

This is where churches lose traction today. Many church leaders blindly overlook how the average church service struggles to create authentic connection. The “players” are on the stage, separated and spotlighted. Pastors engineer events, not experiences. We gather in rooms that reflect lecture halls, stadiums, and theaters. Many church services are merely a concert and TedTalk…and leave people wanting more.

Our brand is “come and watch” when our audience hungers for “interact and experience.” This ecclesiastical disconnect provides a compelling reason why many people stop going to church.

The Style of Now

The two highest levels of “value” are style and relevance. Godin contends, “At the top of the hierarchy is our quest for scarcity, desire, and the hotness of now.” He’s right. Harley-Davidson makes a great bike these days, worth every penny. But what makes Harley truly attractive is its hip mystique. Harleys boast a patented, distinctive sound that every biker knows. Anybody can ride a motorcycle, but only “cool” guys (and gals) ride Harleys. Harleys even have their own line of fashion and music. Orange and black remains the new black.

I think this is why some churches (and small groups) explode in growth. If everyone is talking about “your church,” then “your church” is where everybody wants to go. And if you have great functionality (attractive ministries, encouraging worship, engaging messages, deep spiritual practices) and compelling community (or “stickiness”), then you’ll not only draw visitors but also retain (and empower) them.

The secret sauce to growth, as Harley-Davidson reveals, is experiential interactivity.

After all, Harley-Davidson doesn’t peddle motorcycles; they sell friendships and freedom. You live to ride because you ride to live.

It’s a good lesson for the Church.

We don’t sell a system, services, or even “salvation;” we promote GRACE. We deal HOPE. We serve RECONCILIATION. We create COMMUNITY. We unleash MISSION.

It’s how we (should) roll.

4 thoughts on “Live to Ride: What the Church Can Learn From Harley-Davidson

  1. I believe this comparison of church development to Harley Davidson marketing is one of the most ridiculous, misguided pieces I have ever read. Its author’s conclusions are beyond bizarre. Kodak didn’t become extinct because it “refused to change!” Photographic film became obsolete! That’s like saying a sleigh bell manufacturer (for horse drawn sleighs) refused to change. That’s hogwash! The automobile obsoleted the horse-drawn buggy.

    Plain and simple, Harley Davidson is a false idol that automatically promises to make you “cool” and “in.”….like a college fraternity promised but never delivered. It seems the majority of “Christian” Harley owner/riders are more concerned about their identification with HD than Jesus Christ. According to God’s word, having a false god is more dangerous than a spill at 70 MHP!

    The author mentions the “brotherhood” of Harley Davidson and how “cool it is”, and he is supposedly a churchman? WOW! How misdirected can one be? He even wrote, “You live to ride because you ride to live.” That’s heresy! The Holy Bible says LIFE is only obtainable through trusting Jesus Christ, not riding a motorcycle! You cannot ride a Harley to live….but you can be deceived to think so.

    Jesus isn’t in the “cool” business, and His church better not be either! Christian bikers who eat, breathe and sleep Harley–and have Harley Davidson logos on everything they own–are permitting a false god to come before the one true God.

    If your house is built upon a “Harley Davidson foundation” rather than the solid rock of Jesus Christ as Lord and savior, GREAT WILL BE YOUR FALL.

    Pardon my expression, but this piece written to enlighten the church is pure crap. Its author is recommending the church look closely at what works for Harley Davidson (a worthless identity, a false cool and a brotherhood that isn’t) and use these methods to strengthen church. EEEGADS!

    Budweiser uses the exact same approach as Harley Davidson to define “cool,” “fun” and being part of the “in crowd,” so maybe we should model church after Anheuser-Busch too?

    I’m afraid there are many “Christians” who actually need to be rescued from Harley Davidson and the false identity it seems to furnish. Maybe this author is one of them? When you have the real Jesus living inside you, you won’t be purchasing your “coolness” any longer. ◼︎

    • Adam Bohlmeyer


      Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the article, and I can see many of the points you are making.

      I’d have to say I’m not quite reaching the same conclusions you are though. I think the author is simply using Harley-Davidson as an example of a brand that has done a great job of reaching people and uniting people around a common theme. By doing this, they’ve created millions of passionate die-hard fans who see their motorcycles, apparel, and groups as a way of life.

      I agree that Jesus, faith or church should not be on the same level as Harley, and I would say the author would agree as well. His point is, some churches have put themselves into systems that don’t reach today’s culture aka ‘lecture driven, stage-based, authoritarian, closed-system functions…’

      The author’s point about Kodak is that they continued to pour their resources and efforts into continuing to produce photographic film while the rest of the industry went digital. That’s why they failed. If you watch the film ‘When God Left the Building’ there is an interview with Steve Sasson, a former Kodak engineer and the inventor of the digital camera. During the interview Sasson talks about how Kodak had the future of the industry, the digital camera, in their hands before anyone else. And they chose to bury it in light of doing business the way they always had. They didn’t change and it lead to their downfall.

      The heart of this article is saying the same thing. The church, as you mentioned, has Jesus, the most important, life-changing, life-bringing, force in the universe. But the way many churches are running their institution, presenting their messages and operating is not resonating with culture. Is the problem with culture? Yes, of course. But I think the author is presenting that part of the problem is the way the church is communicating the message.

      Change the way the message is communicated, don’t change the message itself.

    • Mike, thank you for your critique.

      Actually I agree with much of what you said (around being cautious and concerned that anything or anyone replaces Jesus Christ). I would simply exercise caution in throwing stones too hastily that you missed the point (as Adam so clearly outlined in his rebut): Harley-Davidson is a brand that has strong cultural identity, even if you don’t own one. Now you may not like the brand (or even motorcycles) but there’s a reason they’re owned and enjoyed. The same arguments could be made for other cultural brands like Apple or Nike or McDonalds (which I could have used instead of H-D).

      My overall point is that we will never “refresh the church” without commitments to excellence, stickiness, and experiential interactivity. Like it or not, Harley-Davidson has created an experiential “sticky” brand. Many (probably all) Harley dealerships feature rides, swap meets, community fundraisers, barbecues and other communal events for those who ride Harleys. That doesn’t mean if you don’t ride a Harley you can’t participate but they only advertise these events to their own customers. The purposes of these events is to uniquely “disciple” customers (H-D converts and congregants) in how to ride, what to wear (for safety not coolness) and how to maintain/repair their bike…plus to create a FAMILY of bikers who have fun together. A great church, like an H-D dealership, has to know its members and create connective activities to foster friendships, encourage discipleship and empower ministry to ride “safely” and confidently in this life (for Jesus). We also need a place to go when life falls apart (just like a bike).

      Yes, it’s true, I do own a Harley. It’s not my first motorcycle, but it is my first Harley. I do not “idolize” my Harley either, nor do I ride it to be cool (although nothing satisfies the soul than riding on a hot day). Nevertheless, I do carefully ride and maintain my motorcycle (like any vehicle) to prevent accident or breakdown. All I can say is there’s a difference owning a Harley than a Honda. While there are always exceptions and many other brand bike dealers today have followed Harley’s lead in creating a similar after-sale environments, Harley-Davidson remains THE brand and THE bike to own in the biker world.

      And, yes, I still think we could learn a lot from Harley-Davidson.

      Much more than my word limit for this blog would allow.

      One final thought: you say Jesus wasn’t in the “cool” business. I would respectfully disagree. The gospels paint a portrait of Jesus that’s very culturally cool. Crowds (into the thousands) followed him and hung on his every word (you can’t be uncool and do that). Even a week before his death, Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem with the “cool factor” of a Roman emperor. No, Jesus was very “cool” and culturally astute (some would say “hip”). He used parables to teach (a cool method in that day). He performed miracles (that would be cool!). He outwitted the religious elite, lawyers and other intellectuals to the delight (cool!) of the crowd. Jesus stopped being cool (to some) when he forced people to choose salvation over stuff (i.e., rich young ruler) or other relationships, priorities and dreams. There’s nothing wrong with being “cool” or “hip” unless it becomes, as you rightly suggest, an idol. Being a “cool” church (culturally aware in our methods, ministry and messages) is fine. It’s when we idolize those methods that problems emerge. And that’s also my point: the MODERN church (for the past 500 years) wedded itself to methods/ministries/messages that are fading and failing. Is it not equally idolatrous (putting faith in our past success, comforts or traditions) to refuse to change? Kodak missed the point, too.

      Mike, thanks for reading and I do appreciate your concerns. I just think you over-reached, misapplied and generally missed the overall point and points (please know my salvation is secure in Jesus alone not my choice of motorcycle). Yes, I do live to ride and ride to live. On the back of my iron horse I totally experience God and enjoy His Creation (feeling the most alive). Riding a motorcycle (any motorcycle) settles my soul and that’s good.

      I suspect Jesus would ride a motorcycle today. Maybe he wouldn’t ride a Harley but when He returns He might just be on a Triumph!

  2. Nathan Firmin

    I understand Mike’s point, but see the article more like Adam. I don’t look to Harley Davidson for spiritual guidance, but they are a good example of creating community that the church desperately needs in our fractured society. I’m a children’s pastor. Children’s ministry is beset by demands to cling to ministry models and programs that do not connect with children, create community, or engage them in missions. Sunday School is a great example. Its’ original 18th century purpose was to expand literacy to underprivileged children using the Bible as subject matter. That was revolutionary for its time, but does it make sense to demand children’s ministries cling to that classroom model when kids spend 35 plus hours per week at school and don’t want or need another school experience? School modeled programs make church look like work to kids, not a community of believers learning about Jesus. To me, the article raises the question-As church leaders, do we want people to come and listen to us or do we want to meet them where they are, sharing Bible principles using methods that make sense to them to point them toward a life in Christ? I choose the latter and I’m not afraid to learn from a motorcycle company. If churches had everything figured out already, they would be full on Sundays and Harley Davidson would be coming to us for ideas on building community and lasting, loyal relationships.

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