[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly church activities, Cultivating Community, published on Thursdays.]
“The more a truly reverent person knows about a flower or an insect or God, the more overwhelmed he is…truths give to the reverent saint a burning heart, a thrilling encounter with God.”
- Warren Wiersbe, Real Worship
Can we manufacture a “thrilling encounter with God?” We certainly try. Longing, like Moses, to even glimpse God’s back (Exodus 33), or, like Elijah, to be reassured by God’s gentle whisper (1 Kings 19), we create worship experiences—with music, visual art, drama, dancing, etc.—that we hope will elevate our spirits to a place where we will encounter God.
But pastor and author Warren Wiersbe, in his quote above, implies that such an encounter with God is likely to happen in God’s creation as we familiarize ourselves with the work of his hands.
Yet how many of our churches have outdoor spaces that invite these encounters? Space for outdoor prayer and praise is probably the one thing many of our churches lack, despite their best efforts to cultivate robust worship experiences. That’s an unfortunate state of affairs, not only because we miss having our eyes, ears, and spirits opened to God in ways that don’t occur indoors, but also because creation suffers when we don’t spend time in it and learn how best to steward it. Creation “overwhelms” us with an encounter with God. In turn, our encounter with God compels us to care for his creation.
Fortunately, church communities—because they tend to own property and coalesce the efforts, talents, and passions of so many people in one place—are uniquely positioned to create outdoor spaces of worship. More and more churches are planting vegetable or native plant gardens. But we can also create prayer gardens, synthesizing art and nature to welcome the reverent person into a “thrilling encounter with God.” Here’s how:
Approach your church’s governing body with a proposal for a church prayer garden, and begin talking about how much space the garden will be allotted, how and by whom it will be used, how much it will cost to install and maintain the garden, etc. In your proposal, be sure to include:
- An estimated budget – Will a large, intricate garden best suit your church family? Perhaps a small, simple space will better resonate with your church’s personality. Consider these questions and the availability of utilities like electricity and water as you estimate the garden’s installation and maintenance costs.
- The benefits and uses of the garden – Will it reduce the amount of turf space the church will have to maintain? Will only your church family use it, or can it be used as a community outreach tool as others are invited in to experience a moment of peace and the presence of God? Will you incorporate native plants into the garden and reduce the amount and cost of maintenance? Most importantly, how will it provide a place for both Christians and seekers to experience the moving of God’s spirit?
Once a prayer garden is approved, you will need to work with a team to plan exactly what it will look like and how it will serve
your community. This is the fun part, where your dreams can run wild! As you plan the garden, ask yourselves questions along the way to clarify your mission and next steps:
- Who – Who will care for the garden, and who will the garden serve? Unless you have an especially committed (or even paid) gardener or landscaper willing to oversee the project, you will want a team to volunteer to plant and maintain the garden. Determine if the garden will serve only your church family or also groups and individuals from the larger community. You may find that folks beyond your church’s doors are longing for a peaceful place to rest and be ministered to by the Spirit of God.
- What – What form will your garden take? Will it include only native plants? Will it include plants with traditional Christian symbolism? Will it include inspirational signs with Scripture passages on them? Will it include places for seating and shelter and paths for guests to follow as they pray?
- Where – Where you situate your garden is important. Will it be accessible to the public passing by your church, so that strangers can experience the beauty and peace of the Lord by happenstance? Will it be placed in a secluded area of your church property so that it offers visitors a special measure of peace and solitude? Place it according to the purpose you hope it will fulfill and according to God’s leading as you ask for his guidance.
- Why – What is the purpose of your garden? Is it to provide rest and peace to weary pilgrims? Is it to inspire and enrich lives of prayer? Is it to gather believers and non-believers together in a beautiful atmosphere for conversation and ministry? Is it to educate folks about Christian traditions of seeking God’s face in creation or to educate about the mysteries and intricacies of what he has created? Establish a mission for the prayer garden and make it public in the garden or in information available in your church’s lobby or on its website.
The execution of your prayer garden planning is an opportunity to invite members of your church family to contribute their time, energy, and gifts to cultivating something beautiful out of the land. So gather as a community to break ground for your church’s prayer garden, and make what might seem like work into a celebration, instead!
- Provide plenty of food and drinks for volunteers as you work. Landscaping and planting a garden is physical work, and it requires sustenance.
- Learn as you go along. Referring to Warren Wiersbe’s quote again, we are more awed by God the more we understand about the complexities of his creation. Working together to plant a prayer garden helps us learn how to properly plant a flower, dig a garden bed, prepare soil, and do so many other things that equip us to be knowledgeable stewards and cultivators of creation. In the process, we discover more about the natural world and—by extension—the God who created it all.
- Have fun as you work, listening to music, taking breaks and celebrating after a task has been accomplished, and letting yourselves play in the sprinkler once and a while. Ultimately the prayer garden will be a place of joy and peace; its creation should be the same.
Your prayer garden planning and planting will be accompanied by plenty of prayer, but the greatest prayer and celebration will occur at the garden’s grand opening. Invite your church and, if you plan on opening the garden to the larger community, your town or neighborhood, as well. Celebrate with song, dance, food, and Scripture—acknowledging that now, in addition to all those other modes of worship and invitations to the Spirit, your church family has a new place to encounter the Living God thrilling ways.