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Book Review: A Theology As Big As The City by Ray Bakke

Ray Bakke is Chancellor, distinguished professor of global urban ministry and Chairman of the Board of Regents at Bakke Graduate University of Ministry. He has also served as Global Urban Studies Professor at Northwest Graduate School and Executive Director of International Urban Associates. In 1989, he founded International Urban Associates (IUA), which has catalyzed a network of more than 100 urban-based church and mission leaders to serve some of the largest cities of the world. He spent much of his early ministry years in Chicago, where much of his theology of the city was formed. He holds a diploma from Moody Bible Institute, BA from Seattle Pacific College, an MDiv from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, an STM and a DMin from McCormick Theological Seminary. He has authored numerous books on urban theology and ministry, highlighting the need for Christians to address the plight of the urban poor and marginalized.

After laying out the unique challenges in and need for urban ministry, Bakke notes that the thesis of this book is that “the primary challenge” of urban ministry “is theological” (Bakke: 14). His goal is to show from the Bible that God is deeply concerned about the structures and the individuals in cities. From Moses to Jeremiah, Bakke sets forth a biblical theology of ministry in and to cities. He lays out not only the need for an urban theology for our quickly urbanizing world (Introduction), but he also makes the case that many of the leaders and stories of the Bible are completely urban-centric. From Moses to Ruth, and Jeremiah to Isaiah, Bakke is quick to point out that many of our well-known biblical narratives are firmly rooted in God’s concern for cities. While looking at education, community, leadership development, migration, and the family, Bakke not only deals with many different subjects, but also how they interrelate with urban theology.

Bakke’s book was not only a paradigm-shifter for me when I first read it, but also a ministry-saver. I first read this book several years ago right after moving into the inner-city of Memphis. I had a heart for the city, but very little theology of the city. Bakke’s book was not just refreshing and insightful, it was engaging and practical. I owe much of my understanding, language, and strategy to this book. Even today, it informs my ministry in and for the city. I currently live in an at-risk neighborhood in Austin. It’s no Memphis, but it has its challenges. And Bakke’s book has refreshed my once again, giving me a renewed vision for God’s heart for not just this community and city, but for the many global cities that still pine underneath the weight of injustice. I have to admit, the strength of Bakke’s book is that he reads almost everything in the Bible through the lens of this theology of the city. Unfortunately, this is also its only weakness. There are slight stretches at times to make the jump to urban ministry (i.e. reading the Song of Songs through the lens of urban kids with sexual temptation). I appreciate the application, but it can still be made without the leap to urban-specific theology. Again, Bakke’s book has been and still is one of the most formative books in my theology of the city and of ministry in an urban (and therefore, global) context. It is a must-read for anyone wanting to do ministry locally and/or globally.

You can download helpful study notes here.

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