We’re far enough away from the celebration of the 15th annivesary of the destruction of the Twin Towers to reflect on some of its lessons. There is one image that inspires me most: First responders ran toward the evil, not away from it. As people descended the stairs of the World Trade Center, firefighters ascended, not unlike police who run toward the sound of gunfire, not away from it.
This is a useful metaphor of how the church at her best should operate. When we see systemic evil, should we not run toward it, by our presence carrying the light of the Gospel into the darkest of places? Yesterday I listened to a paper presented by a pastor. His topic was corruption in society and how the church can respond in ways to weaken corruption’s grip. In the African nation where this pastor lives, raising his voice too loudly can have consequences, but he has decided it is better to run toward evil with Gospel light than run away and let the darkness deepen.
But it’s not just Africa that needs light. As Americans, have we romaticized rural areas as “God’s country” while avoiding large cities as if they are under the curse? Now as the drug epidemic impacts small villages and towns, it’s only reluctantly that we’ve admitted the problem is not geography but the human heart. If we invite believers to run toward cities it’s not that rural areas don’t count. It’s only that cities have more people whose hearts need the transforming work of God’s grace. Cities set the moral pace for a nation at-large, so it makes sense that we as Christ followers would want to live there, showing another way to live, a better way, a loving way, a Kingdom of God way.
Too often when I’ve known I should run towards evil, like Jonah, I’ve run in the opposite direction. Yet God’s question to the prophet still rings in my ears: “Should I not be concerned”? Let me be like those 9-11 first responders, going in when all the world is going out.
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).