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.

“As congregations become more interested in Earth care and environmental stewardship, there’s more interest in how we treat our grounds,” said Jerad Morey, director of program communications for the Minnesota Council of Churches.

Water-guzzling, unproductive lawns are giving way to plots of veggies, fruits and herbs that can be tended and shared as a community, or donated to people in need.

‘Growing our faith’

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.

The first year, the church dug up a section of lawn and put in five 15- by 30-foot garden plots. “Then it went to 10. Now there are 20,” said Sheldon, with edible gardens covering almost an acre of Valley’s 4-acre site. Members pay $60 for a full plot or $30 for a half, which almost covers the church’s increased water bill, she said.

The goal of the garden is “outreach — growing our faith outward,” Sheldon said. “We started with church members, then started talking to neighbors — people from the community started to join in. It was exciting last year — we finally had more community members than church members.”

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 heard about the garden when she worked for the city of Golden Valley, and 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 it’s also there for the taking.

“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, from seed-starting in the narthex to the content of weekly services.

“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.”

‘Can we have one?’

Bob Dahm met some initial resistance when he proposed putting raised vegetable beds in front of Colonial Church of Edina. “There was a lot of pushback at first,” he recalled. “It’s a church, in Edina. They don’t want edgy gardens in front. But we worked hard. Now some of our worst critics are exclaiming how beautiful they are.”

Dahm started growing food in back of the church last year, in louvered raised cedar beds that he designed and built. (He also sells the raised beds via his website, organicbob.com.)

“Initially, it was for myself and my buddy,” he said, of a friend who couldn’t grow at home because of contaminated soil. “People would see them and ask, ‘Can we have one?’ ”

This year, Colonial’s garden includes seven raised beds in front of the church, plus on-site beehives maintained by a pastor. In all, they’ve donated hundreds of pounds of food to two food shelves.

Dahm has personal experience with donated food. When he was first diagnosed with lupus, “I had to go to the food shelf. It’s just a crime what we give these poor people,” he said. “Low-quality food. Stuff you wouldn’t buy. That’s what they got.”

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. The church got help from a Master Gardener at the University of Minnesota, who continues to advise on planting and crop rotation. 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. “We pick up produce from grocery partners, but it tends to be near the end of its shelf life. Getting fresh food right out of the garden is so impactful. People prefer it to canned products.”

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.”