HOLLYWOODS IMPACT ON BIKER CULTURE
2008 was a terrible year for bikers and a great year for Harley. That fall, FX introduced America to a new television series that – for the next seven years, would draw an average of 4.8 million viewers a week. Sons of Anarchy captivated the attention of a key demographic – 18–49-year-old men and it did so with gusto. The show became a lifestyle brand for many men, driving them into their local Harley dealership where eager salesmen were happy to clothe and equip them. Every weekend, bars were filled and roads were backed up with middle aged family men playing biker. For some, riding around in a bandana wasn’t enough so they took the fantasy even further by starting up their own MC’s (motorcycle clubs), putting patches on their ‘cuts’ and inviting their friends to join – it was like the movie ‘Wild Hogs’ but painfully played out in real life. For those true ‘outlaw’ bikers, the ones whose history and existence were the inspiration for the show, this was not a good year.
What used to be a landscape dotted with clubs whose history and traditions could be traced back to soldiers returning home from WWII, was now overrun by pop up clubs willing to accept anyone with bike and the money to pay for a patch. What used to take years to earn was now being shipped in the mail overnight. Brotherhood was quickly becoming nothing more than a buzz word used to define glorified social clubs. Image and looking the part became more important than commitment and living the part. Upholding and enforcing standards took a backseat to gaining numbers. Long held phrases embroidered on patches like ‘MBBM’ (My Brother Before Myself) were now sewn on vests with no regard to what they truly meant. On the outside these new MC’s looked the part – they had the right patches and road the right style of bikes. They rode the right formations and built the right type of clubhouses. They used the right language and outwardly presented themselves like the clubs that live and bleed this lifestyle 24hrs a day 7 days a week. But, if you looked closer, if you saw past the carefully crafted veneer, you would see that internally there was no depth, no authenticity and nothing within them that proved them to be of the right substance.
MY UNIQUE VANTAGE POINT
I am writing this not as an outside observer but rather as one who has – by God’s grace, been welcomed into this world. For the past 4 years I have been riding alongside one of the largest ‘outlaw’ clubs in the nation and have had the unprecedented opportunity to serve and minister to them and the clubs around them, as a pastor. I have not only been graciously welcomed into their world, but God has sovereignly moved in such a way that I have been ‘patched-in’ to one of their support clubs allowing for me to have the rare privilege of being addressed as ‘brother’. The last 4 years of entrenched ministry with this guarded group of men has been filled with surprises to say the least, the most shocking of all was the object lesson in Biblical ecclesiology that was hidden amongst the worldly hedonism.
Before we go much further let me be clear lest you get the wrong idea of what I am intending to convey: there is a very dark and an extremely brutal side to some of these ‘outlaw’ clubs and we will simply leave it at that. But there are also elements within them that if isolated from the nefarious are not only admirable but surprisingly Biblical. I have spent many years watching these clubs’ walkout their own brand of costly discipleship, unapologetic discipline, authentic community as well as meaningful membership, and time and time again I find myself shocked at how often these unregenerated actions reflect faithful Biblical ecclesiology that is often lacking within our churches.
THE PROBLEM, THE SOLUTION & AN UNLIKELY EXAMPLE
The problem the American church faces isn’t primarily external rather it’s internal. The problem has been slowly growing since the middle of the 20th century when ecclesiology began to take a backseat to sociology. The church began to care less about how the body should function for the edification of the saints and more concerned about how it should present itself for the approval of the world. The bride of Christ began to lose it’s focus at a rapid rate as it her leaders began devoting their time, energy, effort and resources into determining what the church should become as opposed to what the church was called to be. Meaningful membership that takes courage and demands commitment gave way to lose friendships that were comfortable and asked little.
In an effort to grow and become attractive, we watered down our membership process, and as a result, found ourselves looking more like knock-off clubs as opposed to authentic ‘outlaw’ MCs. In many evangelical circles the word church become nothing more than a buzz word attached to a weekend social club. These ‘churches’ are more concerned with image and looking the part as opposed to living the part. Standards are being lowered, commitment is being downplayed in an attempt to see numeric growth. The centrality of the local church in the life of a member is no longer expected and expounded upon with great joy and urging. Words like discipleship and sanctification are being used by people who haven’t the faintest idea of what they truly mean. On the outside, these institutions look the part but once the veneer of ekklesia is pulled back there is very little ‘called out’ about them.
The symptoms of our problem have become hard to ignore: inconsistent attendance, unfaithful giving, grumbling and complaining against leaders, gossip and division amongst the body, members turning blind eyes to sin as opposed to confronting it, lack of accountability and an aversion to church discipline as laid out in Matthew 18. Evangelism is at best a Sunday invitation, at worst it’s left to the pastors and ‘professionals’. Discipleship outside of church run programs is non-existent and fellowship only happens on Sundays between the hours of 9 to 10am. Let’s be clear the solution will not come from preaching more sermons on the symptoms nor will the solution come from offering more programs to combat the symptoms. The solution to the problem lies not in what we do once our people have entered in the front door, rather it lies in how we bring them through that door – namely our membership process.
Friends, the membership process should not be seen as a speed bump on the way to serving, or as a hurdle we need to get people over so we can add another name to the rolls. Rather the membership process should be seen as the point of entry into the life of a local church, and as such we must take it gravely seriously. I believe that all churches – not just the ones that function like social clubs, can benefit from having a membership process that looks more like that of an authentic ‘outlaw’ MC.
BECOMING A MEMBER OF AN ‘OUTLAW’ CLUB
My relationship with the club is quite uncommon as it has always been and will always be ministerial. I was introduced to them through a funeral I officiated for one of their members, and what should have been a short, one-time, interaction became something long-lasting and by God’s grace, fruitful. When I was first invited to spend time with the club they kept me at arm’s length. While I was welcomed into the clubhouse, attended their parties and even had the privilege of riding with them (in the back of the pack) I was not allowed to participate in all of their activities nor was I privy to know what was happening in the life of the club. Rather I spent well over a year simply being what they called, a ‘hang-around’.
This ‘hang-around’ period is important for two reasons: First it allows the prospective member to find out if the club is the right fit for him. As he observes the club, he gets a chance to learn about that club’s unique life, the pace at which they run at, their requirements, the people that make it up as well as what it means to commit to being a full patch brother. During this season he must consider can he or even does he desire to submit to these burdens and come under these expectations or is this not the right place for him. Second it allows the members ample time to vet the individual. During this time the prospective member will be watched carefully so as to know if he would make a good brother: What are his strengths and weaknesses? Is his life in line with the values they uphold? Will he fit in with the rest of the club? Are there things in his life that might preclude him from brotherhood? Does he understand the gravity of being a brother? Is he here for the right reasons? All these things and more will be carefully considered as he is watched over this season. He is welcomed in as an outside observer and how he responses to what he is observing will serve as the basis for whether he is considered for the next step.
Once the individual as well as the club determines the hang-around is a good fit he is invited to become a probationary member or a probate, signified by a single rocker or patch on their back displaying the word: “Probate” or “Probationary”. He is no longer invited to be around the club but is expected to be at everything they do. He is expected to spend this next season proving his worth, working late nights and selflessly serving. The club may have looked attractive from the outside but now, when the work is hard the question will be answered: Will they stick around when brotherhood is hard and uncomfortable? Will they stay when they realize their work involved and no room for passivity? Or will this time reveal them to simply be consumers that were looking for low commitment entertainment? It’s important to understand there is no set time frame for this, the offer to move on to full patch membership is only extended if and when it’s deemed appropriate. Yes, this means the club might not grow fast but it means that when it does grow it will grow with quality brothers that understand what they have committed to and will not quit on the club with times get challenging, or leave for a club that’s more comfortable.
IS OUR MEMBERSHIP AS MEANINGFUL?
Can you begin to see some parallels? Can you begin to see how we as those within the local church might profit from this example? Friends, membership is not a trivial matter, it’s not simply another label we tack on to the many other ones we wear. Membership within the local church is a Biblical mandate that we need to treasure, love, and protect. 1 John 2:19 says: “They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. However, they went out so that it might be made clear that none of them belongs to us.” The apostle whom Jesus loved expects that local Christians are not only part of a local church but are counted and established members of a local church. In this text, John calls the churches receiving his letter to reflect on the people that had recently left the church and states “they went out from us” as well as “none of them belongs to us”. John expects that the early churches knew who was in otherwise they couldn’t know who was to be out. This should cause us pause as we ask ourselves: Is membership in our local church meaningful to the point that the body would know who is in and who is out? As well as do those who are members within our local churches feel the weight of membership so significantly that being in or being out is gravitas?
Friends, consider this: The American church is filled with members who signed up for a few short classes after services that consisted of little more than glorified tours of buildings and the programs they offer. In better case scenarios there may be some time allotted for looking at the ‘What We Believe’ statements but even then, the gravity of membership isn’t conveyed, and in-depth interviews that dig into the life of an individual are seen as intrusive or out of line. We have turned the process of covenanting with a local body into a transactional experience and we are not better off for it. Our members have no clue who is in or who is out, the body fails to be the body because the body is often unaware of it’s own members. Is it possible that our membership classes in their current form fail to convey the significance of what being a member means? Is it possible that making our entry point into the life of the local church more significant, even uncomfortable could mitigate this problem?
When God placed the burden upon me of shepherding a local church, I initially failed to grasp the weightiness of my burden. I desired growth, I desired a large ministry, I wanted to get people in the doors and increase numerically and meet all the standard matrix of success. But then one day I read Hebrews 13:17 and God, by His grace, lovingly wrecked me. Paul wrote: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, since they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account, so that they can do this with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.” Ouch… I had frequently read it and used it to reinforce the need for the members to come under my leadership but this time God hit me hard with this part: “as those who will give an account”… Brother pastor, do you not understand that every name you and your church have affirmed the title ‘member’ upon will be spoken back to you by God, and you will have to give an account for how you shepherded them? Take that in. These are people God has entrusted over to your care and He is expecting you to execute your role as their shepherd faithfully. Since this truth is a future reality for those of us who hold the title of pastor why would we not want to do everything possible to ensure that we are careful with not only whom we let in but how we let them in? How many pastors will have to give an account for unregenerate members? How many pastors will have to give an account for names they have never heard or people they never met? How many pastors will have to give an account for members who have poor theology and hold to heretical doctrines? How many pastors have members under them who don’t understand the need for regular participation in corporate worship, the need for discipleship, the need for submission to authority, the need for service and fellowship within the body, the need to not only be accountable but hold others accountable? Brothers, these are people God will ask you to give an account for and it would behoove us to do everything within our power and authority to ensure everyone feels this weight before we affirm that title and jointly accept that burden.
These clubs do this well, they have very little turn over in members, all the brothers know what the club stands for, what their role is and must be from day one. Everyone pays their dues on time, fellowship is not only expected but longed for, accountability and correct happen regularly and is welcomed by all even the one on the receiving end. It’s unusual to not see a brother for a month and typically after one week away phone calls are made. Can we say the same about our churches and our church members? We blame them when they fail to tithe, when they fail to make corporate worship a priority. We blame them when they continue to run from correction and discipleship, but the hard truth is they aren’t the problem, we are the problem. We are the problem in the sense that we have failed to convey the expectations from day one. We are the problem as it is us who have failed to train them, inform them, covenant with them and teach them that membership in the local church is deeply meaningful. The fault lies not with them but with us.
HOW CAN WE MAKE MEMBERSHIP MEANINGFUL?
To claim there is only one way to do this is arrogantly ignorant, but it might be helpful to share with you some practices our local church has put in place to ensure membership is a meaningful experience for not just the prospective member but for the body as a whole. First off, we intentionally prevent people from joining a membership class until they have been regularly coming around for at least 5 months. Our reasoning is not legalistic, but loving as we want them to have had time to hear the hard sermons: the ones that call them to consider their salvation, the ones that address the sensitive topics our culture is normalizing, as well as the ones that lay out the demands of Christian life. We also want them to see the way our members serve and do life with each other. And lastly, we want our congregation to have time to get to know them, have meals with them and learn more about their faith and how it’s being lived out in their lives. We believe it’s important for the individuals to have time for all this to happen before they jump into the process of becoming a member lest they come in ignorantly and leave expeditiously or worse yet stay begrudgingly. You might be worried this will make the person feel unwanted or offended but I believe it does the opposite (if the reasoning is clearly explained). Rather I believe this is one clear way we can show these people we value them, and membership means more to us than simply a number on a report.
Once they’ve had time to get to know the local body and the body has done the same, we bring them into our membership class which is unapologetically 12 weeks long. All of our prospective members gather every Sunday for one hour over the course of 12 weeks to learn what the Bible says about church membership and what is expected of those who submit to walking it out in the context of a local church. We spend the first week on the why we believe membership is a Biblical requirement to be joyfully submitted to. The next few weeks we dig into our statements of faith – giving space for the class to address questions or concerns. Over the course of the next 8 weeks, we cover everything from the expectation to give, pray and serve as well as uncomfortable topics like church discipline and submission to leadership. We try to be as exhaustive as possible as we want to ensure our members are ‘all-in’. We deeply desire for these individuals to understand membership within a local church is not becoming an aloof consumer of a well-polished product that asks nothing of you but rather it’s about being a committed servant within a living body. We do everything within our power to ensure they understand the body will hold them accountable and expects them to do likewise.
Aside from ensuring our potential members know what we believe, what we expect of them as well as what they should expect from us, we also believe it’s gravely important that they are properly equipped. I never cease to be shocked and grieved at how many members of local church are unable to articulate the full Gospel in a clear and concise manner. I am appalled that these same people believe a testimony should focus on stories about their childhood and the bad things they used to do as opposed to focusing on who they were, what God did and who they are now. It’s because of this prevalent problem we spend our last two weeks of class doing workshops where the candidates are taught how to speak the simple Gospel and how to faithfully present their good Christian testimony. At the end of the 12 weeks, they are required to stand before the class and present each one. If you’re wondering if this is awkward, uncomfortable, and embarrassing for the individuals the answer is yes. Extremely. But I can’t tell you how often I have had people who have been Christians for decades and previous members of church come to me in tears saying how ashamed they are they have never been able to do this but how overjoyed they are that now they are confident in speaking these truths.
Finally, we end our membership process with an elder interview that focuses on asking hard questions about their faith to ensure we are not filling our churches with unregenerated memberships. This isn’t an interrogation rather it’s a loving conversation where the future member and an elder can discuss the important matters of the soul for the edification of the individual and the body. We consider this to be a sweet time of fellowship that helps the potential member see that the leaders and the body truly care about their soul and truly want to know them as opposed to only wanting another number added to the books.
WILL THIS WORK?
We have been using this model for the past five years, and by God’s grace, it has served us well. The common objections I get is that people won’t want to wait five months to join a class and once they join no one will want to sit through 16 weeks of one to one and a half hour classes after an hour and a half service! To that I say you are correct. Many people are looking for low commitment Christianity and I am convinced the call to take up ones cross and follow Jesus is not a low commitment endeavor. Many will think the idea of doing an elder interview that seeks to evaluate the fruit on a potential members tree as unloving and offensive. I say it’s not unloving but rather one of the most loving things we can do as a pastor. Mark Dever wrote about this exact objection to this very same process in the book ‘How to Build a Healthy Church’ and said: “Perhaps it sounds unloving to question people’s salvation when they ask to become members of our churches. But if membership is a local church’s external affirmation of a person’s spiritual conversion, then the most unloving thing we can do is mislead condemned people into thinking they are saved by conferring membership upon them too hastily.”
Again, this is not meant to be a one size fits all when it comes to making membership meaningful. I believe we have freedom in our methodology, but it should cause us to consider if we are we doing enough to ensure we are presenting membership into the local church as something that is weighty and serious? Or are we presenting membership as something that is simply casual and comfortable? We must be honest with ourselves as we answer these difficult questions less we find ourselves making members who are self-focused consumers of low commitment Christianity that we, in turn, grumble about. This isn’t easy, don’t think that you can implement all this at once. In many cases this will be a slow process with lots of push back but brother do not grow weary in well doing, the Great Shepherd is pleased with faithfulness even if the local sheep aren’t.
Maybe you are bristling against this believing this will only push people away from membership to that concern let me answer clearly, it will. It absolutely will. I would implore you to be okay with that. Friends, if your goal is to grow rapidly and increase membership quickly then making membership meaningful will absolutely prevent you from meeting your matrix of perceived success. But if your goal is to see a church formed that holds fast to Christ and each other through all seasons of life, one that doesn’t walk away when things get messy, hard, or uncomfortable, one that will receive correction, plead for fellowship, not neglect the gather together of the saints as many are in the habit of doing, give of their time, energy, effort and resources to see the body edified, God glorified and His Kingdom magnified than this will absolutely prove to be successful. There is a reason ‘outlaw’ clubs continue to thrive and continue to grow under adverse circumstances. There is a reason restless men looking for belonging and purpose are willing to endure years of suffering and serving to become a member. This is because these clubs have made membership meaningful and in today’s climate of comfort and ease, where people expect things to be simply handed to them, finding a place that takes belonging seriously is compelling, captivating, and beautiful. Shouldn’t the church be those things as well?