Church Planting as Garden Growing
October 8, 2019

The closing chapters of the Bible bring to fulfillment the mission inaugurated in the opening chapters of the Bible: the dwelling place of God expands to fill the entire new creation. The story of Scripture concludes having achieved God’s original intent for His people in the Garden of Eden, and the implications for everyday life and ministry are myriad.

Adam was called to garden the Garden, “to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). God commissioned mankind: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion [over everything]” (Genesis 1:28). In short, God’s image-bearers were to cultivate and cultivate until the earth was glorified into one big, well-watered Garden. In fact, a river flowed from Eden, nourishing the Garden, dividing into four, and flowing further into the yet-uncultivated wilderness. Creation waited with eager longing for the revealing of God’s gardeners, who would baptize the land for fruitfulness in accordance with their divine commission.

Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. Rather than giving life to all the earth, the Garden became the source of death. Adam failed “to keep” (guard) the Garden; rather than exercising his dominion by subduing the serpent, he was subdued by the serpent. Adam failed in his calling as a gardener, and the commission to cultivate a worldwide Garden was left unfulfilled. The ground brought forth thorns and thistles, and the gardeners were exiled from the Garden. Who then will open the way back into God’s presence?

The next few chapters of Genesis reveal the earth to be filled with human wickedness and death, not with abundant life. Nonetheless, Adam’s commission to grow the Garden is passed down to his descendants.

We see this first with Noah. The flood is a de-creation. The baptism of God saves the faithful and destroys the apostate. Through a global death and resurrection, the world is given a fresh start, and God re-commissions Noah to pick up where Adam left off: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1). But just as Adam sinned in the Garden, Ham sins in a vineyard (a cultivated garden). Once again, the earth is filled with human wickedness and death, which is dispersed “over the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11:9). Who then will open the way back into God’s presence?

The divine commission is again passed down to the Patriarchs. God’s stated purpose for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a continuation of His stated purpose for Adam: to “multiply” them greatly and to make them “exceedingly fruitful” (Genesis 17:1-8). As a foretaste of God’s future grace to their descendants, the Patriarchs sojourn within the Land of Promise (Genesis 17:8, 28:4, 37:1), often meeting wives, prospering, and multiplying near bodies of water (Genesis 24:17, 29:2, 30:38). Despite man’s rebellion, God orchestrates a return to the Garden. Israel’s purpose in the Land was to serve as a new Adam amidst the nations; to work and to keep; to cultivate, filling the earth with joy, peace, wisdom, and glory; to turn all of creation into a well-watered Garden, a land of milk and honey, vines and fig trees, where kings and nations would come to eat of its fruit (Deuteronomy 28:11-13, Psalm 72, Isaiah 51:3, 61:11).

The nation of Israel had glimmers of this, but it did not last. The house of Israel was the “vineyard” and “pleasant planting” of Yahweh, but it did not bear good fruit (Isaiah 5:7). Like Adam and like Ham, Israel sinned and defiled the Garden. The people were again cast into exile. Who then will open the way back into God’s presence?

In the midst of exile, the prophets give hope to Israel. They describe Israel’s condition in terms of ruined crops, rotten trees, and arid land (Joel 1:10-12). But they also describe Israel’s return from exile as a restoration and expansion of the Garden. There would be blooming plants and well-watered hillsides; “Jacob shall take root, Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots and fill the whole world with fruit” (Isaiah 27:6). “The land that was desolate shall be tilled… like the garden of Eden,” and the nations will know Yahweh (Ezekiel 36:34–36). From under the threshold of an enormous Temple flows a swelling river: ankle-deep, then knee-deep, then waist-deep, then too deep to cross. Everywhere the river flows, there is healing and abundant life. Everywhere the river flows, there is Garden (Ezekiel 47:3-12).

The image is wonderfully Edenic, but there remains a problem. The sons of Adam have defiled every garden they’ve been given. To whom will God entrust this Garden? We need more than just a son of Adam; we need a new Adam. The new Adam obeys God in the Garden (Gethsemane), and He subdues the serpent. How? By death and resurrection. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Jesus is buried in death like a grain of wheat, but He bursts forth into new life and fruitfulness. The new creation grows out of a tomb in a garden. In fact, when Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb of Jesus, she mistakes Him for a gardener (John 20:14)! 

Or does she?

The Church is a garden. The Church is the Garden. We are the Land of Promise and the fruit of the buried and resurrected Seed. We are God’s field; one plants, another waters, but God gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:5-9). We scatter the seed of the gospel, the word of God increases and multiplies, and we harvest the nations (Acts 6:7, 12:24). The Church is called to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it, to work the Garden and keep it, until the world is made over into a global Garden. Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of God’s gardeners, who are called to baptize the nations for fruitfulness. “In the whole world [the word of the gospel] is bearing fruit and growing” (Colossians 1:6). As the Word of God “grows” and “multiplies” and “bears fruit,” as we feast upon God’s Word and the riches of the gospel, the Word finds good soil, and the Garden expands. 

Therefore, we plant (plant!) churches. The Garden of God is always expressed locally, but it’s never limited to a particular locality. The Garden of God is “glocal” in the truest sense of the word. It would have been disobedient for Adam to simply tend the Garden he had been given because there was an entire planet waiting to be subdued, cultivated, and glorified in the name of Adam’s God. He could not neglect the Garden God had given him, but neither could he neglect Havilah or Cush or Assyria (Genesis 2:10-14). Adam’s calling was as universal as his dominion. Thus, when we plant new churches in new locations, we step more deeply into God’s global plan of redemption and into our most fundamental purpose as human beings: to garden God’s Garden.

Working and keeping a local congregation is full-time work, but God’s gardeners do not focus on that work to the neglect of what remains uncultivated. Our planet is home to neighborhoods and nations still longing to be subdued and glorified in the name of King Jesus. So we cultivate and cultivate and cultivate until the earth is filled with glory. We cultivate until every man, woman, and child has access to the tree whose leaves bring healing to the nations (Revelation 22:2). We cultivate until the Garden of God multiplies into every dark corner of the earth.

Annexing the wilderness is not the same as growing the Garden. To grow the Garden, faithful pastors have to step out into the wilderness and plant something new. We have to do the hard work of tilling the arid land, planting the gospel seed, baptizing and nourishing the sprouts. We have to protect the Garden from pests and predators even as we guide what is weak and fledgling into maturity, fruitfulness, and harvest.

And yet, church planting is more than just a pastoral vocation. Pastors are servants of the servants of God, gardeners of the gardeners of God. Every Christian is a gardener, and every Christian has a role to play in turning parched land into springs of water (Psalm 107:35). We grow the Garden by keeping our marriage vows, by rearing godly children, by serving the poor, by participating in local politics, by exercising hospitality and neighborly living, etc. We glorify and beautify the earth through honorable vocations and through the planting of literal gardens. We love our neighbors, and we serve the Church. Each and every gardener is allotted land to till and seeds to plant. We are each given gifts to be used for the common good. We bring these gifts to the community Garden, and we tend to one another until the land bears the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Without lay gardeners, church planting would be truly impossible.

So we persevere. We work and keep the Garden of God. We subdue the wilderness around us. There are thorns and thistles everywhere we turn, but we can bear them as a crown for the joy set before us. Then we pray and sing to the God of Heaven for rain, because for all our faithful gardening, only He can give the growth. The wilderness shall not prevail.

Drew Knowles is a Theopolis Junior Fellow and pastor serving in Houston, TX.

Related Media

To download Theopolis Lectures, please enter your email.