A Theology as Big as the City and Discipling the City

Ray Bakke. A Theology as Big as the City. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997. ISBN # 0-8308-1890-1Roger S. Greenway, ed. Discipling the City: A Comprehensive Approach to Urban Ministry. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1992. ISBN # 1-57910-552-1 A Theology As Big As The City and Discipling the City: A Comprehensive Approach to Urban Ministry are both about urban ministry published in the last fifteen years, but their approaches and the effectiveness of their respective messages are very different. Bakke’s book uses metaphor and analogy to make points about a Biblical view of urban ministry, while Greenway’s edited collection provides advice from a practical and ideological standpoint. To begin, we will examine the premise of Bakke’s book: to find a theology “as big as the city,” that is, a theology that adequately addresses and deals with the peculiarities of urban ministry. He presents his ideas within the framework of the story of his journey from being a small-town boy to being the pastor of an inner-city church and speaking internationally on the topic of urban missions. This book is, as well, a survey of the entire Bible with an emphasis on what God has to say about the city. Chapters cover material from Genesis to Revelation, highlighting specific passages as they are relevant to the author’s point. Various aspects of urban ministry are discussed in these chapters, for example, the topic of urban leadership in the story of Moses, or the ministry strategies of Paul and Barnabas in Acts. This book is helpful in showing modern evangelicals where their rural bias or focus has shut t hem off from the possibility of ministry in a city, as well as pointing out the fact that in coming decades, much of our cross-cultural missions may take place in our own cities, where thousands of people-groups live in close proximity. Also, Bakke excels in showing how God used the city throughout the course of redemptive history in His plan to bring the Gospel to the nations. He also stresses the need to explain the Bible in a way that urban Christians can understand, instead of only using outdated or rural motifs and metaphors. Bakke’s work presents a few difficulties, however. Most importantly, the way he draws teaching on urban ministry and situations from the Biblical text is almost too city-centered; that is, in some cases the applicability of the Bible to all men and all types of ministry is nearly ignored and certain passages are made to be exclusively about the city. It appears, in a sense, that Bakke is attempting to make the city to be the theme of the Bible, when it is Christ who holds that role. Instead of appropriating the principles of all of Scripture to apply to urban ministry, he seeks to make all of Scripture about the city. In seeking a “bigger” theology, he has actually narrowed his view of the Bible. The result is a book that talks a great deal about cities in the Bible but does not clearly explain a comprehensive, Scriptural system of thought surrounding urban ministry. A problem with developing a “theology of _____ (fill in the blank)” apart from a systematic understanding of the whole thrust of the Bible is that often, themes which are not central are made to be so. A “theology” of anything cannot be properly understood without an adequate theological framework beneath it. A commitment to the centrality of Christ and the sovereignty of God, and all that they entail, will inform an understanding of a particular topic addressed in the Bible. Without that framework, however, topical studies may be doomed to misinterpretation and improper emphasis. In this case, the city is, to be sure, an important part of God’s redemptive plan, but it is not the only place the Holy Spirit works or the only context in which ministry was, can, or should be done. The collection of essays edited by Roger Greenway takes a different approach. The topics covered by the eighteen chapters in Discipling the City are, for the most part, extremely helpful in developing a Gospel-centered understanding of the needs of the city and the ways urban ministries can meet those needs. To better explain the thrust of this book, it will be helpful to examine briefly the topics of each chapter. The book begins with a discussion of the meaning of cities in Genesis and how that should affect urban ministry. It moves on to discuss the need for a pastoral example of ministry to the poor in middle-class churches, and the necessity and importance of dealing with religious pluralism as well as the effects of rural religious backgrounds in an urban environment. Following is a survey of the work of various women of the last few centuries who have devoted their lives to urban ministry. Another chapter addresses the need for efficient research in order for overseas and cross-cultural urban ministry to be effective. The next chapter deals with the effects of modernity, post-modernity, and secularization on urban ministry, followed by a discussion emphasizing the need for urban ministers to become a part of the communities they want to reach and to develop personal relationships instead of relying on programs and other less personal techniques. Following chapters discuss the places of counseling and discipleship in urban ministry and talk about ministry strategies for specifically urban environments. Another surveys characteristics of successful urban pastors, followed by one outlining the various ways churches worship in cities, depending on culture, ethnicity, financial resources, and other factors. The next three chapters present valuable practical knowledge for urban ministers. Chapter Eleven studies a successful African-American inner-city church for the strategies that helped build its ministry. Chapter Twelve gives an insider’s look into how to minister to the poor, and Chapter Thirteen offers advice on what to consider when ministering specifically to white, blue-collar workers. Further chapters stress the importance of “getting to know” a city where ministry will be done, and of being aware of the way one’s lifestyle can affect one’s ministry, as well as proposing a Bible-school curriculum for inner-city children. Chapter Seventeen is an excellent look at the need for theological education both in preparing urban ministers and in sustaining a ministry by training lay leaders. The final chapter is a survey of the ways that the church and the city have interacted since the time of Christ, giving helpful critiques of the excesses of both the liberal and conservative viewpoints. Discipling the City provides a comprehensive survey of the problems one face when embarking on urban ministry, the Biblical principles that must inform a ministry, and a hope both for the transformational work of the Holy Spirit in the cities of the world today and for the eternal, heavenly city of the world to come. It is a balanced, Biblical guide to urban ministry, and provides discussion questions and footnotes for the further study it will no doubt inspire.