Revving up the gospel ... on Harleys
A building with a phalanx of motorcycles out front generally would not be seen as a church, but at biker churches across the United States, Harleys and heaven are often part of the same discussion.
Pastor Doug Carlson of the Biker Cell Church in Stratford, N.H., doesn’t flinch when a leather-clad biker with tattoos across his body, a beard and jeans walks through his doors. In fact, that’s exactly who he wants to come.
Carlson—or as he’s more commonly known, “Pastor Shoe”—feels a deep kinship with those in the biker lifestyle. For him, motorcycles serve as literal and figurative vehicles, attracting attention and an opportunity to share testimonies. His 4-year-old Biker Cell Church currently is organized as a house church. Shoe said the congregation was renting a nearby storefront but gave it up to save money. Besides, he says, the open road is where the heart of most of his parishioners is in the first place.
To that end, you can often find the group on the highways along the Eastern Seaboard. The church takes a booth at swap meets across New England as a base from which to evangelize. They also get together with other riders from other churches and motorcycle clubs to sponsor a variety of events, including a charity ride. Wherever the meeting place, the fundamental principle behind gathering is openness and acceptance.
“Many of them are recovering addicts,” Shoe says of his churchgoers. “Not all of them are bikers.”
And for many, the open door for contact with him was simply his unique moniker. Shoe says the name came to him in a vision from God and is loosely based on the use of a shoe in the story of Ruth and Boaz in the Old Testament book of Esther.
Thousands of miles away, Hope Fellowship Church in Irving, Texas, has also attracted attention because of its biker orientation. The church, located in a banquet facility called the Pigeonhole, began meeting in March 2004. Many mistake the building for a bar, but pastor Dennis King says it’s never been one, though it does have a lively local history.
King uses the place to conduct what would be considered more of a Bible study than a traditional church service on Sundays. Coffee and doughnuts are served each week. And although a praise and worship band is part of the presentation, King makes sure to keep the atmosphere casual.
Using this approach, the congregation has grown from five to 200, which means that on occasion, people have to be turned away at the door. Because of this, a building next door is being retrofitted as an expansion project, eventually doubling the number of people who will fit.
Hope Fellowship Church is nondenominational and attracts people with a variety of church backgrounds and some with no background. “It’s a group of people whose lives have been turned around,” King says with a gleam in his eye.
Yet one of the reasons the Texas pastor is most proud of his congregation is an understanding of outreach and service. Once each church service is over, members saddle up and head out into the surrounding community, visiting hospitals and nursing homes and anywhere else they might find a venue in which to minister.
As expected, the group of 25 to 50 bikes attracts attention, people and, as King describes it, “God works.”
King, himself an avid biker from his teen years, says the church’s unique membership provides a steady stream of media interest, which has helped it grow. The church was recently featured in the Dallas Morning News, a newspaper with about a half-million daily readers.
For both congregations, the opportunity to evangelize a hard-to-reach population is taken wherever it is found.
Paul Wahl has been a journalist for more than 30 years and lives in Eden Prairie, Minn.