Ray Bakke, senior associate for large cities for the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, directs the Chicago-based International Urban Associates. He has led consultations in some 130 cities around the world and was himself an urban pastor for several years. Bakke chaired last month’s biennial urban congress sponsored by the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE), which was attended by 950 people representing 40 states and 32 countries. He discussed with CHRISTIANITY TODAY the problems and possibilities for urban ministries.
What is the most significant thing you have learned in your role as an urban consultant?
If I have made a contribution to missiology, it is the discovery that 80 to 90 percent of the barriers to successful ministry are inside the churches. The problem is not poverty, Marxist oppression, or Islam. It’s the ego of our leaders—in some cases, mission and denominational leaders committed to outdated structures. It’s the we-never-did-it-that-way-before syndrome, or the attitude that says, “The seminaries didn’t prepare us for this,” or, “If we do this, they’ll accuse us of being liberal.”
Have theological conservatives abandoned the city?
Sometimes it seems only mainline churches are active in urban ministry. But there are many evangelicals, including myself, who come from mainline denominations. Evangelical denominations—Nazarenes, Conservative Baptists, and the Baptist General Conference—were well represented [at the SCUPE congress]. And there are conservatives outside these categories, including Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics, the Salvation Army, charismatics, and black churches.
But the traditional evangelical establishment in many ways abandoned the city in the era of “white fright, white flight.” The foreign mission field became a popular alternative. In leaving the city, the evangelical church abandoned its roots. In the 1890s, D. L. Moody and A. B. Simpson were working in the same neighborhoods as [social gospeler] Walter Rauschenbusch. R. A. Torrey served on a slum-clearance committee in Chicago chaired by a Unitarian. Part of my task is to call evangelicals back to their roots.
How do you respond to the view that the city itself is immoral?
I recently sat down and read the Book of Job. All the enemies that killed Job’s kids—wind, earth, animals, marauding armies—were rural. Sin was invented not in the city, but in the garden.
There are many images for the church and for God that are pastoral and rural. But there are over 1,000 biblical texts about cities. Heaven is called a city. Psalmists cried out for a city to dwell in because they were getting clobbered in the countryside. I could make the case that cities have been far kinder to the poor and to minorities than rural areas have ever been in our social history.
But the question is not how we like the city. Most of the world lives in cities. The current census will show that 51 percent of the U.S. lives in 44 cities. We were told to go to the ends of the earth. God has brought the earth to the city. That’s where we ought to be.
Are there legitimate fears of city life?
I had two preschool children when I moved into the city 25 years ago. What helped me most was reading how Elisabeth Elliot moved in among the headhunting Aucas and lived without walls for her two-year-old daughter.
Missionaries have always buried their kids in foreign countries. Why should we be so concerned about this now? All of a sudden we are concerned about giving our kids the best of suburban education. But it’s no longer an escape; all the city’s problems are now in the suburbs.
Living in a community that is 14 percent white has taught me very well. In the world as a whole, only 13 percent are white. The U.S. is the second-largest black nation and the third-largest Spanish nation in the world. Just when the world comes into our neighborhood, we relocate or build a wall, take our kids out of the schools.
Those who visit urban centers—particularly in the Third World—come away feeling there is no hope. Are they right?
In traditional, optimistic America things are supposed to get better. My city neigborhood looked a lot worse after I’d been a pastor there for ten years. The city as a system is like the Titanic. You can’t just minister to people, you’ve got to patch the holes to stay afloat. I’m still committed to refloating the city for the good that is there. I’m a realist. The Lord never said we’d be able to do this before he came. But we can be faithful, courageous, and obedient.
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