I was in the back office preparing for a baptism when Bruce came looking for me. It was his first time attending our church, he had just finished listening to a guest presenter, and I had wondered how he would react. I could not help but be nervous about whether he would ever return. When Bruce found me, he let me know how he had appreciated the presentation and then excitedly informed me that he and his wife considered themselves “de facto members” of our church! It hadn’t always been this way.
Seven years before I began pastoring the Templeton Hills Seventh-day Adventist church, our congregation had been challenged with the thought, “If your church burned down, would the community notice?” Our leadership team knew we could do far better. We wanted our church to become engaged with the community and make a positive impact!
The church sits on about 15 acres. Through the years, members and pastors had dreamed of various ways of using the property. One pastor pursued a health and wellness center. A member suggested a community center. Another member thought we should turn the open space into a soccer field. None of the ideas had come to fruition for reasons ranging from finances to county requirements.
Our church leadership realized that it is essential that we let the Holy Spirit lead us in ministering to the needs of our community. He knows what it is that people need most.
Jesus characterized His ministry as one of mingling with people, meeting them where they were in order to reach them. “He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38).1 No one could walk away from an encounter with Him without realizing that He sympathized with their needs and wanted to benefit their lives. His benevolence was attractive! Could it be that when our ministry follows His model of drawing close to the people in our communities, we, too, will experience true success?
Begin with prayer
Paul challenged the Colossian church to “devote” themselves to prayer, “praying at the same time for us as well, that God will open up to us a door for the word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ” (Col. 4:2, 3). When we pray together as leaders for God to open the right doors and then move forward as the Holy Spirit directs, He often guides us in an entirely different direction than we ever expected.
Our church prayed and prayed. One day, as I drove through our parking lot, I glanced toward the big, empty field above our church. Suddenly it hit me. What if we started a community farm right here on our property? I ran the idea past my wife, Leah, who thought it would be great. Our community has a lot of farmers’ markets, and local, organic produce is a hot commodity.
A newly baptized young-adult couple, Matt and Sabrina, had shared with us that they had a dream to find a piece of land on which they could start a farm to support their family. As Leah and I prayed and talked about the idea of a community farm, we thought that maybe God was opening a door in bringing to our church a family passionate about farming.
Trust others to help
I decided to see if Matt would have any interest. He was mowing the church lawn. When I asked him what he thought about starting a community farm on the church property, he jumped off his tractor and told me that he and Sabrina had just been talking and praying about the same exact idea.
Excited about the concept, we told our special projects team about it. That led to further interest and planning, but then things seemed to hit a standstill. Matt had taken a traveling job and was out of town for a couple of months. Was this really God’s plan?
Then one day, our school principal called to tell me about an evangelism endowment available for funding creative evangelistic projects. The catch was that the application was due the next day. Quickly, I contacted various leaders in the church, and the collective response they gave was to move forward with a community farms. We immediately created our proposal and were surprised to be awarded $20,000 for the project.
As we began looking for the necessary materials, God began opening doors. Matt knew we needed a hoop house to keep the plants from freezing in the winter and shaded in the summer. He figured out that the metal tubing and connections and the work of bending all the tubing were going to be very expensive.
Then he decided to see what he could find on Craigslist. That very day, a woman who had stored hoop houses in her backyard for 10 years had posted them for sale. It turned out to be enough materials for four times the size of Matt’s original hoop-house plan and was already in the right shape with all of the necessary connections. Furthermore, she was selling all of it, easily worth far more than $12,000 in materials, for just $700!
Matt then told us that we really needed a tractor. Before long, a family from a neighboring church that was leaving to be missionaries offered to sell us their nice John Deere tractor at a reduced price. Community members and church members donated attachments for the tractor.
Step through the doors
Still, we continued to experience plenty of obstacles along the way. As the project continued to grow, it seemed we would need to hire Matt to manage the farm and volunteers. It would involve a big financial commitment. I am thankful our church simply kept stepping through the doors, even when we did not know how we would find the resources. God continued to provide in surprising ways.
We finally set a date for the grand opening in February 2020. The timing was miraculous. We had no idea that our church’s physical building would be closed March–June because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the farm is an essential service to the community and grew into a thriving ministry in the midst of the pandemic. In fact, we made more friends in our area during 2020 than we had in the previous five years I had served at the church. Only God could have known that this was exactly what our community needed. The level of impact that this ministry has created in two years is something only He could have arranged.
One of our church members had been reading the Bible with a neighbor. The neighbor reported that another elderly neighbor was being treated for cancer and had excitedly talked about our farm, where she was now getting wonderfully fresh produce to help fight her cancer.
Another community friend, Kate, had come to the plant-based cooking classes hosted by our church for several years. She became so excited about the farm that when Matt went to a local repair shop to get our weed eater fixed, her husband, Jeff, who owns the business, repaired it for free. He has since offered to loan us any equipment we need for the farm and wants to sponsor the farm financially.
Mike, a local beekeeper, offered to place several hives on the farm in exchange for some produce. When the hives produced enough honey, he hosted all of our farm friends at the church for a honey extraction, giving everyone a free jar of local honey. The level of excitement it generated in the community surprised us.
We began with only field crops. Then a local nursery approached us, offering to donate 60 fruit trees. Soon the farm will have an abundance of fresh fruit to add to the items visitors can pick on a donation basis.
Previously, we had attempted to get news organizations to cover big events at the church, with limited success. Since we started the farm, we have had reporters contact us without any solicitation. We also had our County District Supervisor visit the farm and present a certificate of appreciation from the county.
Pray with people
Matt often tells me with amazement about how many people call him asking for prayer or about how people come up to the farm when they are facing a family crisis in order to have him pray for them! God has definitely used the farm in a major way in Matt and Sabrina’s life. They, along with their three children, have become actively involved at the church and school. Rather than simply trying to provide for their own future, they now live to serve others. God has also opened opportunities for them to speak with other churches and ministry groups interested in starting their own community farm.
In addition, Matt started a weekly Bible study that began by looking at Jesus’ parables on farming. Aurora, one of our farm friends, recently told me how it has helped her as she has dealt with challenges, and she has found the Bible study to be a place where she can talk about real-life issues. She has a vast amount of experience in helping people through addiction, mental-health crises, and homelessness. Her connections to community resources are something I have come to lean on heavily as a pastor when aiding community people. God has used the farm to create many such connections that have broadened our ability to serve others.
Steve, a doctor in our church, retired and has since volunteered at the farm on an almost daily basis. Steve got the idea to hold a vegan blueberry pancake breakfast on the first Sunday of each month. It has provided an incredible opportunity to mingle with our community, letting them know we believe that the love of God compels us to do everything we can do to benefit their lives.
Inspire the community to help
A couple who lives a few doors down from the church became inspired by Steve’s efforts and offered to throw a free Indian feast. The RSVP list for the event quickly filled with people from the community, many of whom we had not met previously. At the feast, I met a local pastor and his family. His wife commented on how difficult the pandemic had been for them, with many of their members leaving the church. It has opened an opportunity to minister to a fellow pastor who I did not know was struggling.
Such stories are just a taste of the way God has opened doors for us to minister to the needs of our community. Steve, our retired doctor turned farmer, summarized the difference he has seen the farm make: “Bruce, our next-door neighbor for many years; Sue, a dear friend from work; and Skye, our daughter’s close friend, all visited the farm today. These friends have known of our church, known of the programs, but never visited the church property before. Each one of them was thrilled at what was happening. Jenny, our daughter, who hasn’t come to church in a long time, said, ‘This is the best thing the church has ever done.’ ”
Yes, Steve’s neighbor is the same Bruce who informed me during his first visit to our church that he and his wife consider themselves de facto members! He regularly volunteers at the farm on Sundays, and his wife is a musician who has provided live music for our honey extraction and recent two-year farm anniversary event. As I sit here writing this, Bruce just texted me, asking to get together next week to talk more about the Bible and what it has to say about current events; praise the Lord!
Allow God to open the doors
This is not about brilliant planning, wise leadership, or inviting other churches to duplicate a similar ministry. I believe we are far too quick to attempt to franchise ministry models, hoping the same program will work in our community and produce the same results that it did elsewhere. Ministry is not about operating the right model but connecting with God and letting Him open the right doors to minister to our community in the way He knows they need it most. We must let God open our eyes to what people around us require, allow Him to show us ways to meet those needs, and let the Holy Spirit work through our efforts as God calls and leads people to Himself. The Lord has an infinite variety of ways to do His work of reaching people. Heaven will be a place of eternal relationships. God wants us to begin learning how to have them with others in this life through service to them. Ask Him to reveal the right ministry for every situation.
- Scripture is from the New American Standard Bible.