Ray Bakke: A Courageous Leader who Dared to Reimagine

May 22, 1938 - February 4, 2022


Jesus fully used his imagination to bring life as God intends it to very broken human circumstances. His reimagining of Israel’s religion brought the Torah to life, presenting God as a grace-filled father who was for people and against sin.


The conceptual core in Jesus’ reimagined story was the kingdom of God. His teaching is filled with imagery that reveals this kingdom in parables, in confrontations with religious leaders and those in authority, and through his actions. Jesus taught the mighty words of the kingdom and enacted the mighty deeds of the kingdom; a one-two  prophetic delivery that confronted people, institutions and systems that made up a twisted status quo. He lifted the oppressed and afflicted the oppressors to the extent that they wanted him killed. He knew his kingdom actions and teaching angered those in power. Yet his concern was for the lost, the left-out, the broken children of God. In this, Jesus reveals the core of his courageous reimagination that expresses God’s expansive vision for life.


As followers of Jesus, we hope to be like him. It helps when we find role models in our time who have taken up Jesus’ call; who reflect on our times and our local circumstances theologically, sociologically, politically, and economically; and offer a courageous reimagined message of hope and redemption for neighborhoods, communities, and cities. One of my role models was Ray Bakke.


I first learned about Ray Bakke through Reid Carpenter as Reid was starting the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation. Ray was serving as the Senior Associate for Large Cities for the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. He embodied the Lausanne mission of the whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world, while at the same time, reorienting the mission from rural tribal missions toward cities.


Ray came to Chicago from rural Saxon, Washington as a student at Moody Bible Institute. He didn’t limit his education to books, but applied his intellect and imagination to understanding Chicago.


As an urban pastor in Chicago, Ray developed the concept of exegeting the city. He valued the history of neighborhoods, influence of ethnic groups, the historical and missional roots of churches, the roles of institutions, understanding the local economy, all with a biblical emphasis on ministering among the poor. Ray pointed out that “…the world has come to our cities” when referring to American cities. In doing this, he was teaching all to begin our missional work in each city where we live rather than seeing missions as a far-off enterprise.


At the same time, Ray knew the value of global missions. His focus for much of the latter part of his life was on fostering the growth of the church and providing theological education in Asia. He could see the rapid growth of the church in the global south and was concerned that without theological education, heresy could easily develop.


For Ray, life in Christ was about both the academy and the local practice of applying a biblical world view. When I studied and traveled with Ray, he asked us to keep a journal to reflect daily on our experiences and a reading log to reflect and apply what we were learning. One of his personal disciplines involved reading a book each day. Being a somewhat slow reader, I’m awed by this practice.


In 1998, Ray was offered the opportunity to lead Northwest Graduate School and to offer of urban ministry leaders a practical academic program that would give greater focus to their work and help them attain an affordable Doctor of Ministry degree (DMin). I was a member of the first cohort of students at the turn of the Millennium along with leaders like John Sharpe, Dave Hillis, Ron Harvell, Cal Uomoto, Arloa Sutter, David Gnai, and others.


Ray served as my academic Advisor overseeing my studies and my dissertation. In the process, he became my mentor. He was the first reader of each chapter of my subsequent book, The Good City: Transformed Lives Transforming Communities (2010: GoodPlace Publishing, Talmadge, OH). Through the years, Ray taught me so much about having an integrated Christian approach that celebrated Jesus victory over sin on the cross, but was not triumphalistic. He lived the life of a servant leader who found his place among church historians as he celebrated missional leaders of the whole church, East and West, Liturgical and Pentecostal, Catholic and Protestant, in every era and place.


Ray developed what he called a “theology of place.” This was the teaching that God values the local context and history of a people. In this sense our lives as Christ followers must be incarnated, fleshed out in the local context where we live our lives providing a faithful presence along with a faithful witness to the person and work of Jesus Christ, led by the Holy Spirit and honoring the Father.


Ray Bakke died on February 4, 2022 at the age of 83 after an extended battle with cancer. He will be remembered as an intellectual and a practitioner; a follower of Christ who understood our time, used his gifts well, inspired, educated and encouraged leaders of movements from Reid Carpenter and Dave Hillis of Leadership Foundations to John Perkins and the leaders of the CCDA, to Corrie and Stuart DeBoar of Manila to David Gnai of World Vision in Hong Kong to Eric Swanson of Gloo, countless others in cities around the world, and me too,


Glenn Barth of GoodCities.<glenn@goodcities.net>

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