When the pandemic hit the country a year ago, it set me spinning off my axis, just as it did to everyone else. But here in Florida we are in full blown spring and heading quickly into summer. It is a fantastic time to be outside. Regardless of the pandemic, I was already spending a fair bit of time in my garden, which just happens to be my entire front yard.
There is nothing better than getting out there barefoot: pulling up pernicious crabgrass (grass is the #1 weed in my yard), tending to seedlings, delighting in the new flowers blooming and the buzzing and fluttering of bees and butterflies—in abundance due to our many pollinator plants. More than this, spending time in my front yard garden turned out to be some of the best mental health care and community building I could have possibly done this past spring.
You see, I am lucky enough to live in the same neighborhood as our church, Audubon Park Covenant Church. As everything was shutting down, we Floridians were taking to the streets and sidewalks, getting out to bike and walk and run as much as possible. So as I was working in my yard alongside the bees and butterflies (and lizards), practically the entire community came by. From a safe distance, we checked in with each other. Masked, we talked about how we were doing, what was going on, and the conversation turned to what I was doing. Would you like to try some of what is growing in the garden? Would you like some seeds? Cuttings? It was rare for someone to walk away from my garden without something in their hands to plant or eat later. In other words, these encounters were relationship and health (both personal and community) building 101.
How did I get to this point in my ministry?
I came to serve as pastor of Audubon Park Covenant Church back in 2013 with an idea of how I wanted to approach my ministry. It is what I have dubbed “church as demonstration plot.”
I grew up in Fort Wayne, IN, where in just a few minutes drive from my suburban housing development you could find acres and acres of corn and soybeans. Sometimes along the road I would see signs declaring this field or that a “demonstration plot” defined as “a field that is used for teaching, sharing ideas and showcasing a proven agricultural practice.”
I have come to see the church in its local expression as a demonstration plot of the Kingdom of God. If indeed our calling as the church is to live out Kingdom of God values, the church building and grounds, as well as the membership and larger community become space where those values can be lived out. It becomes a place where others can, in the words of Psalm 34:8, “Taste and see that the Lord is good!”
These Kingdom values go far beyond practices of worship and discipleship, beyond Christian formation and Bible Study. To become a demonstration plot means embodying values like: peace, beauty, justice, reconciliation, creativity, integrated health, wholeness, healing, creation care, as well as the fruits of the Spirit.
Now, we find ourselves at a unique point in history, one filled with opportunity if we dare to embrace it. There is no going back to the way things were before March 2020. As we find ourselves moving out of pandemic times and discovering our new normal, I encourage you to be in prayerful reflection about what comes next.
What is the Holy Spirit calling your church to let go of?
What is God calling you to embrace as you live out your calling in the place you are planted?
How to transform your ministry into a demonstration plot of the Kingdom of God
- GET OUT IN THE DIRT
For real. It’s healthy for you. Start with a little plot or even a container or two. Get barefoot and reconnect with the very dirt you were created out of. Every once in a while, don’t bother with the garden gloves and go straight in for the good stuff!
In this time people are getting out in nature and starting gardens at an exponential rate. There is an opportunity here for new and deeper theological and missional conversations and action if we choose to take it.
- GET EDUCATED
Spend some time studying the biblical and theological reasons that stewardship of the earth, creation care, etc. is an integral part of our life of faith and purpose on the earth.
This is a great primer article: The Stewardship of Creation: A Theological Reflection
While you are doing that, also connect with an indigenous Christian understanding of creation; it is crucially important. I recommend Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision by Randy Woodley as an excellent foundational book.
- BRING THE EARTH INTO CHURCH
Recognize there is an environmental dimension to everything we do, even (and especially) as the church. Consider care for the earth not just a mission arm or ministry of the church but a foundational dimension of everything you do as a church:
- every sermon you preach
- every decision about the building and grounds
- every event that takes place on your property
- every Bible Study and Small group
- every other ministry at your church
- seeking justice for vulnerable communities/people
- how you encourage people to put their faith into action in daily life
- LEAD BY EXAMPLE.
Take reflective stock of your own life: when and where are there even small changes you can begin to make to live more sustainably, more simply, more in harmony with God’s design for creation? My friend Rob Greenfield has a wealth of online resources to inspire and invite change. I encourage you to start with his YouTube Channel (you might even see my yard and church featured in a few videos!)
Now more than ever it is important to invest in local food and local business. Consider your own and your church’s everyday purchases: are you investing in your community and strengthening your local food network with those choices? Author and “farmer theologian” Wendell Berry encourages in his article titled Conserving Communities: “Make sure that money paid into the local economy circulates within the community for as long as possible before it is paid out.”
- DEVELOP PARTNERSHIPS.
Consider if there might be space and opportunities to partner with local sustainability and food growing organizations.
Look to see if any churches in your community are part of the Black Church Food Security Network. If not, this is a perfect time to engage with your neighbor churches and become part of the amazing work they are doing to sustainably bring local, nutritious food to historical food deserts and underserved communities.
Our church has some wonderful partnerships that extend the work and our reach as a small local church. Check out the work of our partners Fleet Farming, IDEAS For Us, Orlando Permaculture, O-Town Compost, Audubon Park Garden District for great ideas on whom you might be able to find to partner with in your own community.
We were created by God out of the earth, and were created to be dependent on it for our very sustenance and survival. This is a crucial relationship that we must nurture just as much as our relationship with God and our fellow humanity.
For God’s glory and neighbor’s good.