Ray Bakke. The Urban Christian: Effective Ministry in Today’s Urban World. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1987.
Most of my Christian life has been spent in middle class churches in Melbourne. One church was inward looking, meeting the spiritual needs of its small congregation, most of whom came from outside the local area, but having little impact in its local community. The other church was larger, and had the resources to adequately provide programs for most age groups, and to also engage with its surrounding community in different ways. While I reject any suggestion that the gospel message is out of date and irrelevant in this modern age, the fact is that those outside it may see the institutional church as irrelevant. This may be a generalisation, but overall, it seems that the church is failing in our cities. We need to understand why this is so.
Ray Bakke has had extensive experience in ministering to poor and multiracial urban communities. He suggests that the church has often seen the city as a threatening place, but this view is unbiblical. Scripture actually demands that the church have a presence in the city, and actively engage with the people in it. Rather than see cities as impersonal places, he wants us to understand that people and cities are interconnected. Therefore, a Biblical view of the city sees it as an extension of the people who live in it. To Bakke, cities all over the world have common problems. Poverty, social unrest, political corruption, religious and racial divisions can be encountered in cities in most countries, not to mention the presence of different ethnic groups and subcultures. His concern is to construct an urban theology as a framework from which the church can effectively engage with the city and the different group in it.
One of this book’s strengths is that theory is combined with practice. I have recently looked at other materials that ponder the question of how churches can be evangelistic largely from an academic or theoretical perspective, so I found the approach articulated here refreshing because it is also informed by his experience in urban ministry.
We must understand our cities to be effective in ministering to it. To his credit, he has a good grasp of what appears to be occurring in modern cities. This phenomenon is not just confined to the First World. Urbanization, which changes the way people work and live with one another, is affecting families and communities around the world. Interestingly, in some countries the population of cities is declining as people move out to the suburbs. Elsewhere, people may move from outlying areas to the cities looking for better work opportunities.
In Christian circles, we often hear people objecting to the church engaging in social ministry because it is seen as a distraction from its central task of preaching the gospel. Does social ministry have a place in the church’s work? Social ministry accompanies evangelism and mission. This is not done in order to communicate the gospel but as a sign and evidence that the gospel has already been received and acted upon. As such, the two are interrelated. It follows that we cannot do social ministry with people without sharing the gospel with them at the same time.
“The work of the pastor is to equip and enable all Christians to be ministers…I argue for a better-trained clergy with biblical, historical, geographical and sociological competence, to complement laypeople, not to replace them.”
In approaching this text, I expected to be challenged in my thinking concerning how the church can be an effective presence in these areas. As a starting point, I read it as a call to action, so that I can personally equip myself to play my part in meeting this task. The challenge for me is to be more intentional in the ministries I’m currently involved in, and in which I may participate in the future.