Saturday, June 18, 2022

Why Every Church Needs A Garden

“Do you have any fresh produce?” asked the homeless young woman.

Hellen, the leader of our church’s food bank program replied, “Sorry, we are all out. We don’t get that kind of stuff in stock very often.”

“How about canned fruit?” the young woman inquired.

“No.” said Hellen, “That is usually the first thing we are out of.”

The young woman left looking a bit disappointed. I asked Hellen why we didn’t provide more fresh food at our community food bank. She told me people don’t often donate that kind of food because it is more expensive than canned or dried goods. She also explained that canned fruits and vegetables are immensely popular, so they are often the first items to run out.

The CDC has found that roughly 90 percent of Americans do not eat the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables for a healthy diet. That is shocking considering we live in the wealthiest country in the world! Of course, for many people that is due to unhealthy choices. But for the poor, it is more often a result of unaffordable prices and accessibility. The simple fact is that prepackaged junk food often offers the highest number of calories for the least cost. And when you are pinching pennies, calories are often the number one factor. A bag of 8 apples may cost $5 whereas a dozen donuts may cost only $3. While that seems close, one apple offers a mere 55 calories while one donut can be 300-450 calories. One donut can offer the same calories as that whole bag of apples.

Another big issue is accessibility. For those who do not own a car, getting to a grocery store or produce shop can be extremely difficult. Major grocery stores and super centers like Walmart are the norm now. These large stores are often centralized to serve several communities. It’s not a big deal to drive 5 or 10 miles if you have a car. More than 50 years ago, grocery stores tended to be smaller and within walking distance of the community they served. Large box stores have put these small stores out of business. For those without a car or driver’s license, getting groceries is a significant challenge.

Population areas where a high concentration of residents without cars live more than one mile from grocery retailers have been designated food deserts. A food desert is an area where access to healthy food is extra difficult. Fast food restaurants and convenience stores may be present. But these do not offer healthy food choices at a reasonable price. The USDA found that about 19 million Americans or 6.2 percent of the population lived in such locations in 2015.[1]The COVID-19 pandemic has only made things worse as many small grocery businesses did not survive mandated closures.

Food banks and other nonprofit community food programs help to fill this gap. But as I discovered, providing fresh or canned fruits and vegetables is challenging for them. What can be done about this? Food deserts have been a recognized problem for a few decades. One of the best solutions that has arisen are community gardens. Churches and nonprofits have helped communities hard hit by loss of local food stores to take initiative and supply their own fresh foods by growing them independently. Abandoned lots, spare space in church yards and community centers have become the grounds for a local farming revolution. People who have never grown a plant in their life are being taught to grow their own food. This movement is taking place in large and small towns across the country.

A community garden is one where the land and farming supplies are provided by a nonprofit and community members tend a small plot of the garden with voluntary labor. They get to keep a portion of the produce from their plot. Usually, their plot produces much more than they need so the extra is given to other community members. This is not a new concept. It is one that Churches promoted heavily in the 1890s and early 19th century when similar food deserts plagued sprawling urban centers in the United States.[2] They were very popular during the Great Depression.

A community garden is a ministry every church should operate. The benefits of gardening and agriculture have been understood by many church leaders. Community gardens have been growing in popularity again at churches in North America and globally over the past 15 years. Even if your church is not located in a food desert, there are poor in your community that could benefit. My own church operates a food bank and even though we are not in a food desert, there are homeless and poor people who depend on it. So, what benefits would a church community garden ministry provide?

A Big Outreach Opportunity for Little Cost

All that is needed to begin a community garden are a few dozen square feet of land. Many beginner community gardens are only 10 feet by 10 feet. A large size is 20 feet by 30 feet. Nearly every church has that amount of land sitting idle. In fact, most church yards are costing money to mow and maintain grass that the vast majority of the time sits unused. Why not make better use of that land for the gospel!

A small community garden can be started for as little as $1,500. If some hand tools and supplies can be donated by church members or acquired used this can keep startup costs low. If you seek to keep costs low, pray for God’s blessing to help your endeavor become a success.

Additionally, brothers and sisters with a talent for growing things are sitting idle in many congregations. Let their talents work for the gospel cause. Speaking, teaching and music are often viewed as necessary skills for the Lord’s work. Not so! If you have a talent for gardening, go to your church leaders and ask them to support you in starting a garden-based mission. If you are a pastor or church leader, call for those with gardening talents to lead this ministry. All the labor can be provided on a voluntary basis.

Prepare Children and Adults for the Soon Return of Jesus

In this time of fast food and ready-to-eat snacks, the skill of gardening has mostly been lost. A church garden offers the perfect teaching space for training church members in gardening techniques so they can take the skills and use them at home. It will provide seeds from which they can begin their own garden at home. The tools could even be loaned temporarily to help families till the ground for their home garden.

The Great Recession of 2008 and the COVID-19 pandemic have demonstrated that even in the 21st century we cannot depend on modern society to reliably provide all our eating needs. Local gardens are still a vital resource for God’s people in these last days.
Gardening offers so many valuable spiritual lessons. That’s why Jesus taught using metaphors from the garden so often. What better place to learn about the Creator than from His creation? The garden holds lessons for both adults and children. They are waiting to be uncovered.

Improve Your Church’s Outreach Efforts

One of our primary outreach tools is health education. One missionary gardener called gardening an “entering wedge” that should be paired with the broader health message. It will invite interest and open doors for people to not only hear more about health but also to hear the gospel message![5]

How many opportunities a church garden would provide for outreach. When you speak to members of your community are they familiar with the location of your church? If you had a community garden out front it would be a fantastic public relations opportunity. It would enable your church to meet a physical need for community members. This will lead to opportunities to share the love of Jesus with them. Not only could produce be provided for those in need, but garden classes could be offered to all community members.

Also, excess produce from your garden could provide a means of relationship evangelism. What neighbor would say “no” to garden fresh tomatoes or cucumbers? Any produce that is not used to serve the needy could be placed in attractive baskets and given to church members to take to their unchurched neighbor and co-workers. This creates an opportunity for dialogue with hardly any effort and can be the basis of forming a deeper relationship that may lead to sharing the gospel.

Build a Stronger Church Congregation and Promote Inter-generational Relationships

A church garden project is beneficial for building a stronger local church congregation. Church congregations are often fragmented by generation. Many churches have separate departments for children, youth, young adult and seniors. Church activities like vacation bible school, senior groups, singles groups, and couples groups all encourage church members to associate with their own peers primarily. People are naturally more comfortable with similar-aged peers. Churches must promote inter-generational interaction. The wisdom of older church members needs to be passed to young adults and especially the youth. Division and disconnect between generations have led some congregations to split. Churches should regularly provide activities that foster inter-generational relationships.

A community garden is the perfect activity. Younger generations often lack gardening skills. The older generations can share their knowledge in this area. Grandmas and grandpas in the church can become mentors to all the children and youth as they instruct them. The youth and young adults can carry out the heavy labor while the seniors plan and coordinate. Gardening is naturally inter-generational.

Additionally, a church garden provides for endless spiritual edification to all church members who participate. The spiritual benefits are one of the biggest advantage in gardening. In 1897, J. H. Kellogg wrote in The Indicator, “The spare hours spent in the cultivation of such a crop [for mission work] may be as truly hours of communion with God as a church service or a prayer meeting.”5

All these benefits are awaiting anyone who will work in concert with the Creator to grow food as He intended. That is why there is a revived movement within church to grow garden ministry.

To get your church garden ministry started, I recommend referring to this free 24-page e-book by the Christian conservation organization International A Rocha, "Why Every Church Should Plant a Garden and How." It contains everything you need to know on how to organize and start a church-based garden.

Notes and References:

[1] Alana Rhone, Michele Ver Ploeg, Chris Dicken, Ryan Williams, and Vince Breneman, “Low-Income and Low-Supermarket-Access Census Tracts, 2010-2015,” United States Department of Agriculture (January 2017): 12, PDF

[2] David F. Garner, “On the Back Burner: Adventists and Environmentalism,” Spectrum (November 3, 2021),

[5] J. H. Kellogg, “Missionary Acre Farming and Gardening,” The Indicator 7, no. 14 (April 7, 1897)