“Our wisdom about individual transformation is not enough when it comes to community transformation.”
Block makes this bold statement in the Introduction, and if he is right, then much of our literature and practice around discipleship will prove inadequate – possibly even counterproductive – for the church in the coming generation.
The arrival of Peter Block’s book, “Community: The Structure of Belonging,” was momentous for me. Reading the introduction and looking over the table of contents, I realized that Block has done something that no one else has done, filling a gap in the literature and practice of community transformation. In the WELCOME he writes,
“This book is written to support those who care for the well-being of their community. It is for anyone who wants to be part of creating an organization, neighborhood, city or country that works for all, and who has the faith and the energy to create such a place.”
A little later he continues,
“Community as used here is about the experience of belonging. We are in community each time we find a place where we belong. The word belong has two meanings. First and foremost, to belong is to be related to and a part of something. It is membership, the experience of being at home in the broadest sense of the phrase… The opposite of belonging is to feel isolated and always (all ways) on the margin, an outsider.
“One goal in exploring the concepts and methods of community building in this book is to increase the amount of belonging or relatedness that exists in the world. Experiencing this kind of friendship, hospitality is not easy or natural in the world we now live in.
“The second meaning of the word belong has to do with being an owner: Something belongs to me. To belong to a community is to act as a creator and co-owner of that community. What I consider mine I will build and nurture. The work, then, is to seek in our communities a wider and deeper sense of emotional ownership; it means fostering among all of a community’s citizens a sense of ownership and accountability.
“Belonging can also be thought of as a longing to be. Being is our capacity to find our deeper purpose in all that we do. It is the capacity to be present, and to discover our authenticity and whole selves. This is often thought of as an individual capacity; but it is also a community capacity. Community is the container within which our longing to be is fulfilled. Without the connectedness of a community, we will continue to choose not to be…”
“My intent in this book is to give definition to ways of structuring the experience of belonging – that’s why the first noun in its subtitle is structure. Belonging does not have to be left to chance..”
Already Block has made two critical moves: he has connected community to the whole process of human becoming and wholeness, and he has argued – and this based on experience – that structures will be critical in this journey. That opens new possibilities, even as it speaks against the anti-structure, anti-organization (gnostic, really) tendencies in the spiritualist paradigm so popular in emergent circles. He continues,
“I especially like the word structure because it stands in relief to our concern about style. To offer structures with the promise of creating community gives leaders relief from the common story that leadership is a set of personal qualities we are born with, develop, or try on like a new suit… We can create structures of belonging even if we are introverted and do not like to make eye contact.”
So – there you have it, this is the trajectory Block develops. Last night I finished reading the introduction for the second time. In the summary or precis that opens the introduction, a significant thesis is offered. If Block is correct, the implications are quite profound. Block writes, “We.. need to acknowledge that our wisdom about individual transformation is not enough when it comes to community transformation.”
Did you hear that? On the whole, western churches have focused on individual transformation. We haven’t done a very good job, perhaps, and the implications of the REVEAL study are in my mind. But we have for the most part assumed that individual transformation is the path to transformed communities. Or, in the other scenario too common in our churches, we have not thought community transformation a significant end, and we focused on individual transformation because we believed that God is not concerned for the well-being of our cities – “it is all going to burn anyway.” And who said eschatology isn’t important?
Further along in the introduction, Block advances his argument. His entire focus is on community transformation. On page 4 he writes,
“To create an alternative future, we need to advance our understanding of the nature of communal or collective transformation. We know a good deal about individual transformation, but our understanding about the transformation of human systems, such as our workplaces, neighborhoods, and towns, is primitive at best, and too often naive in the belief that if enough individuals awaken, and become intentional and compassionate beings, the shift in community will follow. The core question, then, is this: What is the means through which those of us who care about the whole community can create a future for ourselves that is not just an improvement, but one of a different nature from what we now have?”
“This is why we are not focused on individual transformation in this book. Individual transformation is the more popular conversation, and the choice not to focus on it is because we have already learned that the transformation of large numbers of individuals does not result in transformed communities. If we continue to invest in individuals as the primary target of change, we will spend our primary energy on this and never fully invest in communities. In this way, individual transformation comes at the cost of community (p 5. Italics mine).”
But individual transformation has been precisely the focus of western churches. Our soteriology has been a gnostic one – too often, divorced from life in this world. We have commonly lapsed into privatism, worried about our own lives. Our churches, like we ourselves, have been overly concerned for our own well-being and survival. Where is the Spirit of the suffering servant, who gave his life for the broken world? What if, as John 3:16,17 advance, God really does love the world? What is the call of the Spirit on this generation? What will it take for us to learn again to really dwell in the places where we live?