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Ministry in the Ditched Cities of America

Recently the city I grew up in, live in, and minister in appeared at the top of a national list by Bloomberg. It had the dubious honor of being the “most ditched city in America.” The El Paso Times laid out the grisly details that “In 2013, El Paso reported a net loss of 1.37 percent, losing 11,437 more people to other U.S. communities than moved here.” It’s a two-fold problem: the job market is slow here, especially for high-paying upper middle class jobs, and elsewhere the economies of Dallas, Austin, Houston and other Texas cities are booming.

Here’s what this means in my church: Over the last 10 years we’ve watched as, slowly and painfully, our church members have relocated elsewhere. In a church of less than 200 people until very recently, we’ve seen dozens of our best people leave over the last several years. We lost 10% of our members, then lost 10% again, and after that we lost count. To some degree, it continues today.

It’s not all bad news, though. The city is in the midst of something of a cultural resurgence — with a resurgent Downtown, innovative restaurants, and a stronger art and music scene–and there’s hope that brighter days may be just ahead. But right now the reality is that for many there are better jobs and more amenities pulling elsewhere. So how do you minister in a place like this?

Perhaps you’re in a city where unemployment is high, where jobs are scarce, where it’s not unusual for a family at church to catch you on Sunday and say, “We’re leaving.” Even if you’re not there now you may well be called to a place like this someday, or find yourself there by circumstance. In an era with a renewed emphasis on the Christians moving into “the city” the reality is that not all cities are thriving. So what do you do?

Here are a few ideas for how to minister in the ditched cities of America.

1) Ground yourself in your calling

In areas like this it’s easy to battle discouragement and to think, “What am I even doing here?!” The answer is found in Scripture: You’re there because because Jesus has called you there. Jesus said “as the father sent me so I am sending you” (John 20:21) and even then El Paso was one of the places the Father knew his disciples would go.

Jesus still loves El Paso. There are lost people that need to hear about a Savior. There are marriages that can be restored. There are addicts that can find hope. There are young adults burned out on sex and music and longing for eternal life. In that place Jesus says, “Go therefore…and make disciples…” (Matt 28:18-20).

It’s also crucial to remember that your calling really is this simple. There are times when faithfulness will not mean that your attendance or budget go up that year. It’s easy when things are hard to subtly drift into prioritizing people in seats over biblical priorities. So ground yourself in your biblical calling.

2) Trust the Preached Word

In the first few years of ministry here the slow but constant pull of church members out of the church made me anxious and casting around for “The Strategy” that would somehow fix the problem. I tried too many things, driven by too many worries. But all along I kept preaching. And as I preached the word did things in people’s lives.

At the end of his life, writing to his protege in the faith, Paul urges Timothy:  “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus… preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. (2 Timothy 4:1-2 ESV). The priority of preaching is clear in the abstract, say, in a cabin as you pray on a retreat. But the siren song of new strategies or methods can lure your confidence away. “No,” Paul says to us stubbornly, “preach the word.”

Trust that God’s Word will do God’s work in God’s way. There are many things you simply cannot control, but faithfulness in preaching is one thing you can control. So brother, preach the Word.

3) Invest Generously

I remember coming home from a church party once, hearing at least four of the couples there talking about considering moving, and fighting severe discouragement. But the next day I was fighting a different temptation–the temptation to pull away from the four couples that were talking about moving. It’s tempting to try to judge “will this person be around 5 years from now?” and invest only in people that you think have a shot of staying.

But we’re called to care for the sheep, regardless of how long they’re in our care. We’re called to disciple people who will go out and make disciples, regardless of whether that’s in our city or far beyond. While there’s nothing wrong with investing intentionally in men and women that will likely be around for many years, there is something wrong with closing off your heart and time to others.

And God, graciously, sometimes defies logic: one of our deacons moved from Buffalo, NY to attend grad school here and planned to leave as soon as it was done. He’s still here 5 years later. You never know what God will do as you invest generously in the people around you.

4) Broaden Your Vision

Jesus is doing big, amazing things, not just in your city but around the world. It’s one thing to rejoice in people moving away to take the gospel to India, it’s another to rejoice that an out-of-work dad found a job in Dallas and will be going to make disciples there. But it’s no less true. Learn to love the many cities your former members will find themselves and rejoice that you got to play a part in the gospel work of cities far beyond you.

After all, our call is to make disciples in “all nations.” Jesus wants us to have a global vision. If that’s true then surely we can have a national and regional vision.

5) Call Your Church to Love Your City

I love my city. It’s not the best looking, doesn’t have a powerhouse economy, doesn’t even have a Whole Foods (yet). But I still call my church to love my city. I still invite people to stay for 5 or 10 or 50 years to invest in the church and community.

In Jeremiah 29:7 God calls his people, even in exile, to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7 ESV). We are still in exile (1 Peter 1) and called to work hard, and respectably where God has placed us, and we too can carry on our hearts the welfare of our cities.

In the Bible Jesus doesn’t call us to love cities in the abstract, per se. But he calls us to love people. And loving people also means loving them in their context. You don’t have to love the geography or economy or cuisine, but you should love the people. And here’s what I’ve found: as you love those people you will begin to love what they do, what restaurants they run, what community activities they participate in. The reverse is also true to a large degree: as you find things you love about your city you’ll grow your heart for the people there.

There are reasons to love your city. They may not be the same reasons people love other cities, but there are people doing cool things in cool places right around you. Find them. Celebrate them in front of your people. This won’t mean that all your people will stay. But it will mean that while they’re in your city they’ll have a greater heart for it. And sometimes, it will mean people will feel burdened to stay and help.

6) Trust God

I have friends that have planted churches in booming suburban areas with houses, schools, shopping centers, and amenities going up every week. Optimism and opportunity are in the air. In some ways it’s easier to walk those streets and think, “God could do something here.” It’s another thing to walk through a largely empty downtown at night and think, “God could do something here.”

In this way ministering in a ditched city is a blessing. Yes, a blessing. Because it forces you to rely on God, not on strategy or economy or anything else.

So take heart, friend, if you find yourself on the outside of cultural coolness. Take heart, if you’ve watched too many people say goodbye. Take heart, if younger people diss your city. Take heart in the words Galatians 6:9 “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9 ESV). We can’t make the crops grow, but we can trust the Lord of the Harvest.