Allow for Adaptation
Harley-Davidson changed for the sake of their customers. They broadened their type of merchandise and allowed for customization to help previously-disconnected people feel welcome in their community. They adapted to fit their culture and their people without losing their brand, their focus.
What if the Church did the same?
In his book, What the Church Can Learn from Harley-Davidson: Connecting with Today’s Culture, Dave E. Cole talks about the reasons for Harley-Davidson’s success and some strategies the Church can adopt. He suggests bringing the focus back to Jesus, forming a strong community, and stopping to connect with others. Yet another way he suggests is to allow for adaptation.
An Antagonistic Church
Many people do not like the Church. They might have been hurt by someone in the Church, or they might have seen legalism or hypocrisy in church members and leaders. In many ways, the Church is an “antagonistic symbol” (p. 36); people see it as an organization “that exists to judge them and take their money” (p. 90).
Perhaps people see the Church this way because our evangelism tends to be more like a “high-pressure sales pitch––with a religious argument that intends to close the deal…[which] makes evangelism feel like meeting an adversary. The Christian is righteous and correct, and the other person is dead wrong” (pp. 36-37). We’re convinced people will listen to our loveless verbal barrages and join our communities.
Basically, we try to win souls instead of friends.
That kind of evangelism displays human arrogance, not God’s love. We need to adapt our ways to better reach those around us.
But how can we do that if we don’t understand the people around us?
One of the reasons for Harley-Davidson’s success is that they “[study] people and [build] their business around that” (p. 7). They understand the people they want to reach, and they provide what those people want and need.
The Church often struggles with this. We are disconnected from the world we want to reach. We use Romans 12:2’s charge of not being “conformed to the world” to justify staying inside our churches and disengaging from cultures apart from our own. After all, we are called to be “in the world but not of it.”
Well, Jesus Himself said He wants us in the world. During a prayer shortly before His death, He said, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one…. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:15, 18). He was referring to his disciples, but He also gave the universal charge in Matthew 28:19 to “Go…and make disciples of all nations.”
He doesn’t want us to hide inside our church walls. So let’s go into the world and show people who Jesus is.
But, we need to deliver the gospel message in a way that people understand it.
What if we allowed ourselves to change with the cultures we inhabit?
That doesn’t mean we should dilute or disregard the Bible’s teachings. As Cole reminds us, “Jesus refused to allow the culture of his day to compromise the truth,” and neither should we (p. 37). But, he also points out that “[w]hen the Church becomes unwilling to change its habits and culture, we lose our ability to take the brand beyond our walls and reach more people” (p. 67).
So, what if we used diverse and adaptive methods “to serve those outside of the Church’s current influence” while keeping our message the same (p. 67)?
Jesus used metaphors, stories, and material objects to “illustrate God’s truths and His plan for humanity” because “He knew that, without metaphors and narratives, people can feel a disconnect between the physical world and the spiritual world” (p. 7).
The apostle Paul adapted himself to the cultures he inhabited to better reach the people in those cultures (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). His philosophy was to “try to please everyone in everything [he did], not seeking [his] own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved” (1 Corinthians 10:33).
What he was talking about is not mere people-pleasing. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul said, “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10). No, he was referring to a selfless, loving attitude where others become the highest priority in hopes that they will come to know Christ.
Let us adopt that attitude, seeking to understand and connect with the people around us while staying true to the Bible. Perhaps this would cause people to be more willing to listen to our messages.