By Ray Wheeler, DMin. The unmistakable rumble of three dozen Harley Davidson choppers rolling into the church parking lot sent a shiver down my spine and resonated over the church chairs in the sanctuary – it had only been three weeks since the leader of an outlaw gang had threatened to show up on a Sunday morning and kill me because his girl friend had accepted Christ. I was still the new guy in town and new to my first congregational assignment.
My pastoral experience up to that point consisted of four years in campus ministry. In those four years working with youth and their parents I had framed a clear view of what I thought a congregation could become. I envisioned a cross-generational, cross-cultural community that expressed contagious love for their neighbor because of the deep transformation they experienced by engaging Christ. I assumed that transformation would lead to a contagious love and growth in the character and numbers of people who would connect to Christ and to one another. However, the realities of stepping into leadership of a congregation forty years past its prime were jolting.
I may as well have used Greek in my sermons – as much as I tried to explain my vision I felt I was making zero progress. I asked the congregation one Sunday to kneel and pray together for the community only to discover in the lukewarm response and angry visitors that marched through my office the following week that such “radical” expressions of religion were unappreciated and cause for the congregation to reconsider acceptance of my appointment as their pastor! It did not take long for me to understand that what I assumed was normal Christianity was a radical divergence from the pattern of my congregation’s nearly fifty year existence. The gap between my vision and reality felt like the distance from wall to wall of the Grand Canyon.
So what lead up to the day I watched three dozen choppers pull into the church parking lot causing me to calculate escape routes to the nearest phone if things became uncomfortable? It was discouragement with the status quo I could not break in the early months of being the new guy. So one day I left the church office to walk around the downtown area of our small western Washington city. I had noticed a Harley Davidson motorcycle shop downtown and decided that I would browse around as an escape from the discouragement of the church office.
Shorty, the proprietor of the shop offered a lukewarm greeting (apparently my khaki slacks, golf shirt and flip-flops failed to exude the right look for a Harley Davidson shop). I told Shorty I had seen the sign on the shop and was curious about motor cycles. When Shorty found out I was a local pastor the conversation turned surly. I wasn’t put off, four years in campus ministry on high school and college campuses had given me plenty of experience conversing with surly individuals who had both suspicions of religion and open hostilities toward any one associated with religion. I still love to converse with people suspicious of religion. I too tend to be suspicious of religion. I would rather spend time talking about knowing Jesus Christ at a deep personal level.
Shorty and I became friends and my wife and I ended up meeting many of Shorty’s friends. That series of introductions and time spent together is how the girlfriend of the club leader ended up receiving Christ. About that same time we discovered that the bike shop was a suspected cover for an outlaw gang – the club was actually an outlaw gang and conduit of illegal drugs into the state. So, we had been in the community by this point for several years. I had succeeded in offending the congregation resulting in an exodus of a dozen families, leading a few people to Christ and ticking off one of the most notorious outlaw leaders in the state. The usher team was not thrilled with the prospect of having to deal with a mad outlaw on a Sunday morning.
But this was a Tuesday morning and no one was around. My part time secretary did not work on Tuesdays. Most the neighbors around the church property had gone to work for the day. I stood face to face with three dozen gnarly looking Harley Davidson riders and I was still dressed in khakis, a golf shirt and flip flops. I decided I had a better chance in the open than in the building if things became uncivil. I walked out the front door of the church office.
“Hey man, we are looking for pastor Ray is he here?” The spokesman for the group in front of me threw out the query with a voice that boomed with intimidating firmness.
“Why do you ask?” I answered still calculating the nearest escape route.
“We heard he had a ministry to bikers and was working with the outlaw gang in this area, we came to help him.”
“I am pastor Ray” I said nearly giddy with relief. I was jubilant to have Christians in front of me rather than outlaws.
The next exclamation surprised me and taught me a deep lesson about ministry.
“You can’t have a ministry to bikers man…look at you…you don’t even look like a biker.” The warmth I initially felt for this man cooled a bit. My jubilation melted to astonishment and humor.
After convincing the group that there was no other pastor Ray in the area we talked about what God was doing in them and through them in the biker community and how I had become involved in that community. They decided to visit that Sunday. When I looked out on the church chairs that weekend I saw more diversity than I had ever seen in that congregation – uncomfortable diversity yet undeniable unity in the Holy Spirit. We had two significant breakthroughs that day.
The first was that I realized that being a leader and a catalyst to a church movement could only happen if I was simply and authentically myself knowing God through Jesus Christ. I still don’t look like a biker. I could never pull off trying to look like a biker – I am too…well I leave the descriptors to others who know me. But, the relief of knowing that all I had to be was myself…that was huge. God called and summoned me to be myself not a farce. God asked me to follow God with my own warts and all. That is why and when ministry is more fun than wearying. I still don’t look like all the people I reach, but there is something about being authentic and a learner that works to bridge differences.
The second was that the congregation saw what I had been trying to describe. It made more sense to them to see the gospel in action than to hear me describe the action. No wonder Jesus first asked people to follow then explained what was happening. Explanations of God’s love and power doesn’t make much sense until people experience God’s love and power in their context. For example; when the 6 foot 2 inch 280 pound leather clad bearded spokesman for bike club walked over to the chairman of the board and smothered him in a bear hug that lifted him right out of his church chair and expressed deep appreciation for what the congregation was doing to minister to bikers in the area – the chairman began to grasp what transformation felt and looked like. He changed after that and became as “radical” as he accused me of being.
It has been almost thirty years since those three dozen Harley Davidson motorcycles rumbled into the church parking lot. But the lessons for me are just as poignant today as they were then. When I hear Thom Rainer talk about the diversity represented in the Millennials, when I look at the changing demographics of my community, when I encounter customs and languages I don’t comprehend at the local neighborhood gas-mart I take comfort in the fact that authentic love that engages people in the context in which they live still reduces suspicion and hostility. Authenticity still opens the door to see God do powerful things in the lives of others. I am still learning. To hear some people I am still radical. I still wear flip flops although the rest of my wardrobe has morphed. I still go exploring when I am discouraged…only now there is an expectation in the wandering. I expect God to bring people across my path who will deepen my understanding of grace like Shorty and the outlaws did by their own encounter with the grace of God.
The expectation makes me wonder – what is the next great rumble I will hear resonate across the church chairs in the sanctuary? I can’t wait to find out.
Dr. Ray Wheeler is the Director of Global sales for Bertolini Inc and an adjunct instructor in leadership, church growth and ethics at Bethesda University California in Anaheim, California and Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California.