Book review: No Wastelands

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Ash Barker, No Wastelands: How to Grow Seedbeds of Shalom in Your Neighbourhood, (Birmingham: Seedbeds Communications, 2023)

reviewed by Jonny Baker, CMS

Ash and Anj Barker have done several cycles of a decade or more living in urban neighbourhoods where there are multiple issues of deprivation. The latest is Winson Green in Birmingham. I have taken groups of pioneer students to visit them over the last seven years and they always come away challenged and inspired. The reason is simple – they are living out the gospel in their neighbourhood in ways that are bringing visible change, visible good. Ash’s word for that is shalom – life flourishing in a place.

In No Wastelands Ash distils the wisdom of that experience, practice and theology into one accessible volume. It’s a mix of inspiring stories, gritty honesty, practical ideas, advice and frameworks, spiritual practices, theology and missiology. It combines into an amazing handbook to guide anyone wanting to follow in this direction.

The book is structured in five sections around the notion of seedbeds – beating the weeds, sowing seeds of shalom, the soil we need, sustainable roots and branches ready for fruit, and work with the seasons. Each chapter has some questions for reflection and each section has some suggestions for practices to try. This creates a good frame for the book. It is rich and deep and runs to 400 pages. There is a lot here.

There has been a push in mission circles, inspired by Sam Wells, to focus on “with” in the last few years, i.e. to see mission as with a community rather than something done to or for them. Ash pushes this on a step, suggesting that transformation really happens when it is “by” local people. Ash’s passion for enabling innovative leaders and changemakers from inside those neighbourhoods shines through so that community transformation is led by them. That’s the thing that has grabbed me personally the most. This is drawn from Ash’s experience and nous about community development and organising, which is refreshing and I think could help a lot more ministers and pioneers.

The church (I can certainly say this for the Church of England anyway) has not found it easy to inculturate the gospel in neighbourhoods with people experiencing poverty. But there seems to be a renewed concern and stirring and hopefully investment in this direction. The book is perhaps timely in the UK. It is ideal for anyone who is ministering or senses a call to work in neighbourhoods with people experiencing poverty. It should inspire you, but also be a handbook that will get very worn at the edges. I will be coming back to this again and again and passing it on to others.

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