Children’s author and illustrator Peter Brown wrote a fine book a few years ago entitled The Curious Garden, containing wonderful metaphors of church planting and disciple-making. I first read this story to my kids when we happened upon it at our local library. It made such a good impression on us that we eventually purchased the book, and it is now a mainstay in our reading rotation.
The story centers around a young boy named Liam who lives in a city filled with industrial exhaust and no greenery of any kind, all depicted with brick-and-mortar buildings, urban steelwork and drab colors. In spite of much rainy and dreary weather, Liam spends a lot of time outside, walking around and exploring the city. One day, he discovers an unexpected little patch of foliage barely surviving on a forgotten stretch of elevated railway. He begins to care for the plants, helping them grow and reproduce, and over time the work of Liam and others creates a wholesale movement of gardens and vegetation that covers the whole city.
Embedded within this intriguing storyline are some incredible pictures of church planting. The themes especially correspond with the biblical kingdom imagery of “planting seeds” and “harvest” (which is why we call it “church planting”), as well as eschatological themes of God’s future restoration of all things. Each page is soaked with metaphor on what church planting can look like in a city, from the beginning work of a single Christian, to the reproducing growth of a large-scale movement. I still remember the first time I read this story to my kids – when we finished reading, I declared emphatically, “Kids, this is how you plant a church!”
So, here are six principles for church planting that can be derived from The Curious Garden. If you have children, or lead a kids’ ministry with your church, you might consider using this story as a way to teach them about the mission of Jesus to make disciples.
- Church planting exists because cities are broken and need the gospel. Liam’s city is full of factories and millwork industry, void of any organic life, and in need of restoration. In fact, the weather is often so gray and dismal that everyone stays indoors, isolated from each other. This is a picture of the widespread sin and brokenness of a city. Wherever life is rebellious and broken, there is need for the mending, healing and transforming power of the gospel. God works the life-changing power of the gospel in and through his churches to bring his good news to cities, so that the city might enjoy restoration and bring glory to the Redeemer God.
- God is already going ahead of you to begin the work. As Liam traverses the city one day, he discovers a lonely patch of vegetation, barely surviving. The boy is pleasantly surprised to find this tiny spot of color in the midst of a colorless city! The lesson here is that if we believe in the God of such timeless narratives as Noah, the patriarchs, the Exodus or the Resurrection, we come to find that he is sovereignly at work, even at a time when we would least expect it. The task of church planting, then, always begins with a profound awareness that the Lord of the harvest is constantly at work, and has already begun his work before you even got to the scene. When you become more aware of his amazing pre-work, you now simply get to follow him in it.
- The first steps are obeying the call of God to go, then to begin the work. The boy knows nothing about gardening, but as he realizes the plants are failing, he senses the need to do whatever he can and begins the work. At one point, he even sings to the flowers in hope that they might be encouraged to grow! It is important that a Christian going into church planting or any kind of ministry first hear a definite call of God to a specific task, city or people-group. They should then obey what God is telling them to do. This calling may coincide with a broken heart for the needs of a specific people-group or city, but the Christian must also be confident that God’s voice is heard, regardless of emotions or other external reasons.
- Build a core team and equip them with the tools they need to make disciples. Once Liam has had time to learn the skills of gardening and planting seeds himself, he leads a team of would-be gardeners who all are equipped with the tools and knowledge to continue tending the garden and helping it grow. Church planting always starts with a core team of disciples who gather around Jesus, and become equipped to go and make disciples themselves. They do not gather just to receive preaching from a lead pastor, but to be equipped in such a way that they, too, might lead and make and multiply disciples themselves. This is an age-old method of mentoring seen in Scripture from the Master Teacher himself as he prepared and equipped his disciples to carry on the work of making disciples. As well, it is part of what the Apostle Paul envisioned for the church (Eph. 4:7-16). This methodology is still relevant and necessary today.
- God brings about growth, even in the most unlikely places. As the garden continues to grow and spread, more vegetation sprouts in some of the most surprising areas: long-forgotten things like old broken-down cars lying ‘dead’, or common everyday spaces like fire hydrants and stop signs, or spontaneous spots like appearing on random doorsteps. Whenever a church is planted or a new ministry started, there is always the plans of the leader and how they want things to look. But then there are the plans of the Holy Spirit and how he desires it to look – which always turn out better than our humanly generated plans. I think we could all agree that the work of the Holy Spirit in ministry often happens in the most unexpected ways, at the most unlikeliest of times, with the most improbable of people, sometimes even with people we forget about or write-off as irrelevant.
- Pray for the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest. As the garden spreads throughout the city, other workers come out of the woodwork to help further the movement. Through this, the garden flourishes, achieving exponential growth, literally cover the whole city. What we see here is the joyful fruit of the long-term work of many Christians and churches for a city or region. As well, we need to remember that prayer is vital in the work of church planting and ministry. Jesus clearly commands us to pray and ask earnestly for the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the work of making disciples (Matt. 9:38; Luke 10:2). The more workers there are, the more a city is saturated with the presence of Jesus, and in turn the more people might see, hear and believe the gospel and ultimately be restored for Jesus’s honor and praise. And the wonderful by-product in all this is the joy, rest and freedom – indeed, shalom – we get to enjoy with God and each other in a restored city. This is how the story of The Curious Garden concludes, and, of course, how the biblical story of our world so happily ends.
 As far as I can tell, it was not Brown’s intention to write this story as an allegory for church planting. I am not aware of his beliefs. The themes in his story are more of an environmental flavor, as well as he highlights an old elevated railway no longer in use. At any rate, the inadvertent metaphors of church planting in his story are intriguing and, in my opinion, very remarkable.