With its neo-Gothic sanctuary and leaded-glass windows, the old church building looks traditional.

But the churchyard is anything but — a dense, tiered tangle of a garden, full of ripening beans, tomatoes, squash and other vegetables.

“Before, it was all sod,” said Sarah Lawton, pastor at Northeast United Methodist Church in Minneapolis. “Now, it’s totally different — wild. Some folks think it is too wild, not what a church is supposed to look like.”

But for Lawton, and others of her flock, planting a vegetable garden did more than change the look of the church grounds. “It’s changed our mission and given it clarity,” she said. “It’s changed our whole community of faith. We’re letting the garden grow and take us where we need to go.”

Northeast isn’t the only house of worship that has torn up turf grass and replaced it with a veggie plot. In the past few years, there’s been a surge in church-based gardens.

Valley Community Presbyterian Church in Golden Valley boasts a massive community garden, which took root six years ago as a way “to make better use of our property, and be good stewards of the land and the community,” said coordinator Sheila Sheldon.

Gardeners take home what they grow and also donate produce to the local food shelf. On summertime Sunday mornings, garden members pick whatever is ripe and bring it into the church, where it’s made available to whoever wants it — next to a basket for freewill offerings.

Some of the food also finds its way into twice-monthly potluck dinners at the church, where garden members gather to share food and fellowship. “We’ve become another family to each other,” Sheldon said.

Last summer, when one gardener’s husband died suddenly, “the garden community was there to lift her up and keep her garden going.”

That gardener, Jeanne Andre, commutes from southwest Minneapolis to tend her plot, even though she isn’t a church member or even Presbyterian. She decided to take part because her own yard in Linden Hills is too shady for growing veggies.

Longtime church members Beverly and Dennis Collins of Golden Valley also joined because their own yard is too shady. The garden is a big improvement, said Beverly, who has been attending Valley since she was a child in the 1960s. “I remember when it was nothing but grass and a basketball hoop. All we did was mow it.”

At Northeast Methodist, the church-grown produce is delivered to a local food shelf and shared at community dinners at the church. But “anybody can walk by and help themselves to whatever is ripe and available,” Lawton said.

Northeast’s garden has even changed what goes on inside the church. “It’s shaped how I organize and design worship,” said Lawton. “It became more creation-based. Now I don’t understand Easter without the metaphor of compost — the garbage is set out, and you watch God transform it, break it down into fertile soil, where new life grows. It’s a metaphor for resurrection.”

Providing fresh-picked produce to supplement the packaged food it was already donating to the local food shelf was the primary goal when Eden Prairie United Methodist Church put in its garden, now in its third growing season.

“We’re blessed with a large piece of property that could be used for other things,” said Lois Hyde, who proposed the garden. All the produce, about 2,000 pounds each season, is donated.

Do church-grown food donations really make a difference? Yes, said Cindy McPherson, food manager for PROP, which operates the food shelf in Eden Prairie. During peak season, August and September, close to 40 percent of all fresh produce PROP distributes is contributed by three church-based gardens, McPherson said. “We’re able to provide healthier food. And we don’t have to say, ‘You can only have two tomatoes.’ ”

It feels good to feed the hungry, but gardening is also its own spiritual reward, according to Northeast’s “garden guru” Sarah Jane Van Allen, who coordinates the volunteers. “Gardening, to me, is one of the closest connections to God,” she said. “Plant a seed … soil, sun and nutrients — it’s a miracle.”