The Abundant Community

Awakening the Power of Families and Neighbourhoods.
By McKnight, John and Peter Block
Reviewed by Darren Cronshaw on 01/06/2016

What kind of world do we want to leave for our grandchildren? What kind of neighbourhoods do we want to foster for our children to grow up in? These sort of questions encourage us to dream and act for a better world. A temptation, however, is to leave planning for better communities to others – such as government, institutions or “community development experts”. The Abundant Community puts the responsibility for engaged citizenship back into the hands of ordinary people.

The writers bring decades of community development and organizational leadership experience to their writing. John McKnight is a community organizer and recognised as the leading architect of Assets Based Community Development, which he wrote about in Building Communities from the Inside Out. Peter Block is an early expert in organization development who now focuses on fostering local civic engagement. They describe their working and writing partnership together as seeking to explore how communities can be “villages” that band together to raise their children.

The clearest and most refreshing word of the book was “enough”. It showed me new ways of understanding and using the word. Firstly, applied to goods and services, “enough” invites satisfaction and contentment with what we have (rather than having to buy more). The book offers an excellent historical critique of the development and promotion of consumer society. Basically, early in the 20th century, American industry shifted from meeting basic needs to creating new “needs”, and the burgeoning advertising sphere has been marketing “dissatisfaction” ever since in order to sell the latest products and experiences.

Secondly, and core to the underlying principles of community development, “enough” urges confidence that we have sufficient resources in our families and neighbourhoods to create a better world (rather than having to rely on outside experts or institutions). Rather than something to be obtained by purchasing more things or paying for services from professionals, McKnight and Block argue that the “good life” is obtainable together as we collaborate for abundant communities. Local initiative from our families and neighbourhoods is the best way, they argue, to foster neighbourhood necessities which they discuss as community health, neighbourhood safety, environmental conservation, resilient economy, local food production, care for the vulnerable, and “village” life to raise our children. With stories and principles, they develop how “when we join together with our neighbours, we are the architects of the future that we want to love within.” (p.xiv)

Furthermore, I especially appreciated two concepts from the book relevant for my ministry. Firstly, the authors unpack lessons from early pioneers. Unfortunately, in a postcolonial context, the word reminds us of injustice and mistreatment towards indigenous people. McKnight and Block focus on positive lessons though – about how pioneers created community for themselves and fostered village life with the gifts and resources they had. Pioneers associated and banded together for the common good, yet also showed hospitality to newcomers – welcoming their knowledge and capacities. This is a story worth reflecting on for “pioneers” fostering community development and social entrepreneurship in postmodern (and postcolonial) times. Foundationally, pioneering or any community development involves the giving of gifts, fostering association and showing compassion with hospitality. Our neighbourhoods desperately need more of this kind of leadership – or to change to other metaphors – this kind of jazz music or potluck style community.

Secondly, McKnight and Block get practical in outlining what it takes to bring people together and foster their gift-giving, association and hospitality. Key elements include time, silence and storytelling. I especially appreciated their affirmation of the power of stories:

“Inviting stories is the single biggest community-building thing that we can do, especially when the stories we tell are stories of our capacities, what worked out. Since stories tell us what is important, speaking of our capacities establishes them as the foundation upon which we can build a future.

The stories about our gifts, about how our kindness, our generosity, our trust, our forgiveness define us and give our life meaning – this is where an authentic sense of identity comes from, not from what we buy.”

This reminded me of the central importance of inviting people – in local church gatherings and training courses – to share and reflect on one another’s stories as citizens.

The Abundant Community offers a high view of the potential of grassroots activism, community and neighbours. It stresses important principles of citizenship rather than consumerism, and empowerment of neighbours rather than institutional reliance. It is an excellent primer for anyone interested in bringing people together to collaborate for the greater good, and so deserves a values place on reading lists for community development or Christian ministry students and practitioners. More resources and stories are available at the related website www.abundantcommunity.com/.

McKnight, John and Peter Block. The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighbourhoods.San Francisco: BK, 2012.

This was review was originally published in Journal of Contemporary Ministry Number 2 (2016), 110-111, accessible at http://www.journalofcontemporaryministry.com

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