John McKnight and Peter Brock (San Francisco: Barrett-Koehler Publishers) 170 pages
What does it take to build a strong community? What gets in the way of that happening?
It occurs to me that these are two key questions that we, as churches and as communities in general, need to take seriously as we try to imagine what sort of a society we want to live in. Because, to be brutally honest, I am feeling more and more that the idea of community is falling more and more by the wayside with each passing decade. Maybe it is because of the drive to be “productive”. Maybe it is because we have decided to over-schedule ourselves. Maybe it is because we don't trust the people around us anymore (although arguably that is also a result of not having strong community-mindedness – bit of a chicken/egg spiral there) and so often believe that we are to live in a level of fear all the time. Maybe it is because we are so much more of a mobile (or even transient) society – building strong community often takes time and rootedness. Maybe it is because, as McKnight and Brock claim, we have moved from being 'citizens' to being 'consumers'.
At any rate, it is harder and harder to find people who live in a truly encompassing and supportive community. 20 years ago when I was working in a crisis nursery I quickly learned some of the costs of that lack of community. When I was growing up there were a number of people (largely from the church congregation in our case) who could care for my sister and I in case of emergency (or in the case of a planned trip) or people who could share each others' struggles and offer wisdom and support. The people I was talking to on a crisis line had no-one. The lack of community put them into an even deeper crisis. And even then, in the 1970's and 80's I think we could see that community was different than it had been for my grandparents' generation.
In this volume McKnight and Brock begin by outlining the difference between living as 'citizens' where we take ownership for issues, where we live in a more community-building mindset and living as 'consumers' where we go out to buy goods and services to resolve our issues (or possibly to hide from them), where we rely on professionals rather than the community. They suggest that in following the path into consumers we have put much of the strength and wisdom of the community behind us, that maybe we have even lost much that used to come naturally to us as people. They then lay out an alternative way of life, and start to give the readers a map that would take us back to living in the “abundant [and competent] community” where we re-learn that we have the gifts and tools and skills within our communities and associations to live healthy productive lives.
Over and over as I was reading this book two thoughts occurred to me. One was that this is the sort of book that municipal politicians need to read. If we want our communities to be stronger than our leaders need to see a different way of building them. The other is that these are the sorts of things that communities of faith should be doing almost automatically. The church can be a force for modelling a different for of interaction. Much of it we still do just because that is how we are. I fear that we are, even in the church, starting to lose the full sense of what community can be and accomplish.
One of the challenges of following this approach in this century, I think, is going to lie in how we define community. Is it the neighborhood in which we live? Yes, and much of what McNight and Brock talk about works well in that milieu. Is it the groups of which we are a part? Yes (they talk of these as our associations). BUT community today is also something different and broader when we consider the on-line world. In many ways the whole on-line phenomenon is a product of the consumer mindset. But can it also be placed into the paradigm of the abundant, caring community? And how? It would be interesting to ask the authors that question....