Know your neighbourhood
An interview with Dr. Ray Bakke
Perhaps the first name that comes to mind when you think about the idea of exegeting your neighbourhood is Dr. Ray Bakke, a founding father of urban theology, popular author and speaker, and one of the keynote speakers for this year’s Regent College’s Pastors and Leaders Conference, May 10-12. Dr. Bakke was gracious enough to provide a sneak peek of his upcoming conference talks in the following interview.
Can you unpack some foundational pieces of a theology of the city?
I believe the city is what John Calvin called a gift of common grace: the transit system for people who are blind or need to move about, healthcare systems, the city walls for protection. Universities and hospitals and so on are always in the cities. …
In the Old Testament, wherever God spoke they built a tabernacle. It might be just a pile of stones, but it’s Bethel. It’s where God touches the ground. In John 1:50 Jesus takes the Bethel concept on himself and says someday you’re going to see the angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man. … I think [in this passage] Jesus is taking upon his person the Hebrew doctrine of sacred space.
Also, people in the Bible are defined by places and families. So Paul is identified as Paul of Tarsus. Unfortunately the church lost that idea of parish. If you study the priesthood in the Bible, priests were never allowed to be anywhere except cities. They were identified with place. They had to live among the people, whereas prophets could come and go: they were peripatetic. Unfortunately the churches have lost a theology of place and have limited it to a theology of persons and programs. As a result, the evangelical church is not putting down roots in the city.
One of your conference talks will distinguish between the theology of the city and mission to the city. Can you unpack that?
People who have what I call a mission to the city are often following a John Dawson Taking our Cities for God theme, where the city is to be taken in a military model. The outsiders have to come in and take it. So you get a lot of church planting today that’s based on the idea that, ”Okay we’ve been ignoring the city; we’ve been in the suburbs and the small towns, but now we have to get to the city because that’s where the people are.” … This approach doesn’t start by saying, “can we augment the church that’s already there?” It assumes you have to church-plant. You go for market share.
The difference between that and what I think is a biblical theology of the city is this: if you analyzed the 1,250 references to cities in Scripture and if you do case studies of the 140 or so cities that are mentioned in the Bible, you see a theology of the city and you see how God reached out in cities. Study Paul’s mission: I would argue that Paul almost never approached a city the same way twice.
… Reaching a city requires all of the ministries—the body, the kingly, the priestly, the prophetic. The church’s ministry is the ministry of the whole body. If you approach the city in that way you see that pastors and church planters are not the whole answer to the city. You have to penetrate the systems.
So your message is to the layperson as well as the pastor.
Absolutely. The pastor’s job is to equip laypeople. If you ask people who they are in the city they don’t tell you who they are. In a rural area they do. They say, “Oh my name is Bakke and I live over there.” You’re defined by your biology and your geography. If you ask people in the city who they are they tell you what they do: “I’m a truck driver; I’m a teacher; I’m a lawyer; I work in the City Hall.” You’ll never get to know these people until you visit them in their workplace, and validate their workplace. That is where their identity is; that is where their best relationships are. … The church’s job on Sunday is to prepare for the job on Monday to Friday.
To read the full interview and get more information on the conference go to rgnt.net/pc2017