Since the 1980s, natural resource management (NRM) in Australia and New Zealand has been an ambitious experiment with community engagement. Underpinned by theory about public participation, adult education and agricultural extension, but also influenced by neoliberalism's calls for 'smaller government', governments embraced engagement as a cost-effective approach to effecting change. Critiques of community engagement are often misguided as they are frequently based on inauthentic or poor engagement practices. Moreover, these critiques have often failed to grasp the nature of the problems being addressed, acknowledge the contributions of engagement or understand the importance of building adaptive capacity to respond to an increasingly complex and uncertain future. The foundations for this commissioned article emerged at a workshop where we reflected and deliberated on our experience as NRM researchers and practitioners over the past 20 years. We begin by identifying the key theories underpinning community engagement and community-based NRM (CBNRM). We then reflect on the experience with community engagement in NRM over the past 20 years and identify key lessons for practitioners and policy makers. Drawing on these insights, and the developing theory around new governance and resilience thinking, we identify opportunities for community engagement under a range of possible futures.