Monday, September 18, 2006

The Urban Christian

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 While I reject any suggestion that the gospel message is out of date and irrelevant in this modern age, the fact is that those outside it may see the institutional church as irrelevant.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.


Kitty Cheng said...

Great post, review and reflection Ross :)

Anonymous said...

Is it true you have the hots for Ludi?

Ross said...

Thanks for your intelligent critique of this post. By the way, the answer's no.

Roger L. Sieloff said...

My idea of an urban church springs from my interpretation of Christ's central message - man's highest calling is to serve others. I visited Los Angeles and saw a part of the city most "tourists" never see. There are lots of homeless people living there and I attended several ministries. They provided free meals and this to me seems to be what an urban church ought to do. To be honest I'm not christian, so the manditory service meant little to me. What touched me most was the effort the Christians made to try and improve the lives of those less fortunate. Therefore it seems to me the proper role of the urban church is to provide community service. If salvation is the primary goal of the church, then it ought to go a little farther and point out what this means on a day to day basis. Love others enough to want to help whoever needs assistance, if you can see it will benefit them. As far as I'm concerned, if you can teach someone to put other's interests ahead of their own, then these people are "saved". Mention Christ of course, but never let the man become more important than the message - at least that's what I think.

Ross said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ross said...

Roger, thanks for stopping by and sharing your views. Living Christianity out is what gives it credibility. There's no point giving someone in need a word of encouragement if you don't do anything to help them practically.