Posted in book reviews

Ray Bakke’s winsome theological vision for the city

bakkeThe world is moving to the city.

The tipping point came in 2010 when 52% of the world’s population lived in cities. Estimates are that by 2050, 2/3 of planet Earth’s human beings will be urban dwellers.

Ray Bakke is a prominent Chicago pastor and professor who has wrestled with the implications of rapid urbanization for the church. In A Theology as Big as the City (IVP, 1997) – a follow-up to his acclaimed The Urban Christian (IVP, 1988) – Bakke emphatically answers the mistaken notion that the Bible views cities uniformly in a negative light. Instead, he systematically surveys both Old and New Testaments, painting a picture of cities that are the object of divine love and concern. The implication is clear: If God loves cities and the people who live in them, can the church do any less?

While there are many themes raised in Theology as Big as the City, let’s take a look at three key ideas advanced by Bakke:

1) God’s hands are in the mud;

2) Jesus as an agent of personal and social transformation;

3) The role of an urban pastor.

God’s hands are in the mud

Ray Bakke begins his biblical survey of urban themes by looking at the creation narratives in Genesis 1-2. Genesis 2 depicts God as one down in the dirt, using his hands to form Adam from the “dust” of the earth (2:7).

Urban ministry is not aloof but engaged. It acknowledges hard realities yet works toward change. Bakke (p. 37) affirms:

We acknowledge that inner-city neighborhoods are often ugly, and the systems are broken. We all know a healthy person needs a healthy family, and a healthy family needs a healthy community…Yet there’s a sense that if Christ is with me in the midst of the slum, the neighborhood is a slum no longer. For Christ lives in me, and his kingdom agendas confront the neighborhood.

Our motive to work alongside God in “the mud” is not the need that exists. Rather, ministry in cities is fueled because “God has done a work of grace in my life that compels me to share. It overflows”(p. 36).

Jesus as agent of personal and social transformation

Moving to the New Testament, Ray Bakke mines the life and ministry of Christ for lessons for those serving in cities. Bethlehem and Nazareth were small towns yet the cities where Jesus worked are sometimes overlooked. These included 10 cities in the Decapolis (p. 131). His disciples followed him to places both rural and urban.

How may the message Jesus announced in city and countryside be summarized? It was Good News, including not only personal salvation through the Cross but also kingdom building, a willingness to engage in what Bakke calls “power issues” (p. 135). Bakke explains (ibid.):

Jesus presupposed that we don’t have power; we are power. The gospel unleashes in us processes that can’t be stopped, short of social transformation.

Though Bakke does not address the issue of corruption, it is a huge concern internationally and fought against by organizations such as Transparency International. Though often framed as “paying a bribe,” it is better characterized as the abuse of office by officials who extort money from those who must seek government approval for commercial or other activities. On the other hand, if government functionaries who are also followers of Christ band together to swim against the tide, could they not become agents of transformation, reducing the suffering of the people?

The role of the urban pastor

A third topic that Ray Bakke touches upon is the role of the pastor living in the city. He clarifies (pp. 80-81): “Personally, I am committed to the vision of a local church and its pastors with two basic functions: pastor to the faithful and chaplain to the whole community.” It is not a distraction from the pastor’s work to be involved with parent/teacher organizations in the public schools, service clubs such as Rotary International or the Lion’s Club, or as a part-time chaplain at the local hospital, police precinct or fire station. Rather, this is an extension of his/her presence in the community.

A fascinating model of taking ministry into the community is being pioneered by Trevecca Nazarene University. Located in an urban section of Nashville, Tennessee that has been identified as a “food desert,” TNU has been awarded a grant to expand its urban farming program. The farm uses students to teach gardening methods to nearby city residents, helping them locally produce fruits and vegetables not readily available in their neighborhoods.

While Bakke is writing about the city, his description of the pastor’s work applies equally to small towns or rural areas. No matter the setting, effective pastors find bridges to interact with their community, making themselves visible at community celebrations and breaking down the perception that “clergy” are somehow different than others.

Summing it up

This brief review has only scratched the surface of excellent material contained in A Theology as Big as the City. Though 19 years old – since it not only tells stories from the author’s experience but also grapples with biblical materials – it has aged well. As God leads the church to engage in both personal and social transformation in urban settings, it’s helpful to have a guide who has gone before. Bakke’s is not the last word but his is an important word. May his writing be an inspiration to Christian urbanologists from areas outside North America to advance the conversation in their own cities.



Photo of Ray Bakke is from (via Duck Duck Go).







Greg is interested in many topics, including theology, philosophy, and science.

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