Little white clapboard churches with belfries and steeples conjure images of white gloves, hats, and sixties Sunday-go-to-meeting dresses. Movies like to play the old hymn “Bringing in the Sheaves” sung by shrill sopranos slightly off key to depict backward congregations out of touch with modern life.
I think they’re on to something. Sheaves is a metaphor for a spiritual harvest, but most churched people think of that as bringing lost souls into the church. Literally, sheaves are the grain gathered after the fields have been harvested. They are bundles of leftover grains to be collected by villagers, or in this case, the Christians seeking to share the salvation story with those who haven’t heard or believed.
When I hear the song “Bringing in the Sheaves,” I picture the revival meetings of the seventies with people flocking to the church bringing bulging station wagons full of neighbor kids to hear evangelists share the message of salvation. Bus ministries harvested sheaves from trailer parks and projects and brought them to church every Sunday morning through the seventies and eighties.
Somewhere along the way, our culture shifted. People had generally accepted the social norms that included church attendance obliging some sort of social responsibility to the institution. That has changed.
My mom related a story about the church I was born into whose pastor was not only accused but convicted of molesting girls, but he got out of jail on Sundays to come preach. If memory serves, I’ll get the details that were related to me years ago right. Some of those girls had to sit in the service and listen to sermons from the very man who victimized them. Their parents did not leave the church and even forced their daughters to sit under the teaching of a man who had no business anywhere near children, much less teaching them.
My family left and started another church, but scandals prevailed over the years of my childhood and into early adulthood. I could recount event after event in institutional churches where horrible abuses and embezzlement went unpunished, and victims suffered.
This is church done badly. It’s the reason culture shifted away from the institutions of the day, religious ones especially. People no longer trust large organizations that wield power over them. Yet we keep trying to drag those sheaves through the doors of our brick and mortar churches before we get into their lives and draw them to God. Why do we expect people who have not accepted the Christ of the Bible to come to our churches to hear the Gospel?
I don’t suggest that we throw out the idea of church. No, in fact, I know that God ordained the church, and believers have a responsibility to the local Body. That’s where we refuel and meet one another’s needs, but it’s not the place where unbelievers feel comfortable with no context.
Over the years, we’ve found our most effective ministry has happened, not in the church building, but around our kitchen table. Often under our maples on lawn chairs or around a bonfire, people loosen up and begin to share their hearts. In those moments, if our own lives have demonstrated faithfulness and authenticity, we’re given permission to speak into the lives of those we’ve shown love. They have shown us their willingness to hear us by allowing us to build a relationship with them.
In a very natural encounter with the barista from whom we purchase our coffee every morning or the neighbor lady who enjoys long walks, we speak of our faith and plant the seeds that grow into the harvest, and that priceless harvest is the soul of a human being who needs Christ. We can be bold in these contexts because we’ve earned the right to have input into an unbeliever’s life, but all this takes time and intentional effort.
I read an interesting story of such ministry from a pastor who eats breakfast at Waffle House each morning, and this habit allowed him to influence lives of people who would never consider visiting a church building. Be forewarned: people in real life use real-life language.
Thinking outside the box, or walls, takes work. We have to be authentic in our day-to-day lives and make the effort to live our faith, well… faithfully, regardless of who’s watching. When we do that, though, that bank teller or teacher’s aid or neighbor will know where to come and seek help when life has them ready to hear from the Father.
Then we can “come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.”
…and that’s the view from My Front Porch.