Last year the city I grew up in, live in, and minister in appeared at the top of a national list by Bloomberg. Good, right? It had the dubious honor of being the “most ditched city in America.”
So, no, not good.
The El Paso Times laid out the grisly details that as recently as “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. There has been for decades what’s been described as a “brain drain” where many of the most academically strong kids in my city end up elsewhere, perpetuating a cycle.
But I chose to live here. And continue to choose to live here.
Most importantly, God gave me a heart for this place and these people. But I’ve also grown to see where I am as strategic. I’ve grown to believe that a lot of people like me that could be living elsewhere should live in my city and in cities like this. There are cities like mine all across America being ditched and ignored, and I want you to think about staying there or even moving there. Why? Read on.
1) God is at work in my city
How many from your city and area will be around the throne in heaven? We don’t know but we do know that there will be people from every tribe and tongue and nation (Rev 7:9). That mission field, then, includes my city and we should minister there with a gospel optimism that God has people here too that will be there on the final day. We do know that God has sent us to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). That mission field includes many towns, cities, and suburbs, that have been overlooked by “top cities” lists but they haven’t been overlooked by God.
I can guarantee without a doubt that God is at work empowering someone very specific in your area to bring the gospel to others. Absolutely guaranteed. Why? Because that someone is you, the one reading this post. Jesus is at work in you, calling you to be his witness, with his power, (Acts 1:8) and being a witness means telling others about Jesus. So we know this: that God has sent at least one disciple to make disciples in your city, and I bet you’re not alone.
My friend Jacob is planting a church in Manchester, NH. The city got some national attention earlier this year largely because of a drug epidemic that has gripped the area. This is not the Bible belt, this is an area where the religious legacy has largely been abandoned, and planting a thriving church here will likely take years. But when Jacob talks about his plant he often uses this phrase, “We want to join what God is doing in Manchester. Manchester has forgotten God but God has not forgotten Manchester.” I love that. Could God be calling you to place very much like this?
2) I’m living for more than my city
Not everything about my city is easy to love. For one thing, it has one unavoidable and predominant color: brown. It’s a brown desert. And it’s not the desert with lots of bright orange rocks and tall green cacti–it’s the brown desert with brown rocks and (usually) brown bushes. I’m exaggerating a bit but this is what a lot of people comment on when they drive in or fly in. There’s beauty to be sure but if all I cared about was a beautiful environment there’s a good chance I wouldn’t live here. Add to that, El Paso is a city just big enough to make you wish you had the amenities of other areas like theme parks, cheap flights, and pro sports teams. If we’re just talking city amenities there’s a good chance I wouldn’t stay here either.
You may be thinking, “Then what are you doing there?” I’m here because life is more than beaches and pro sports.
As a follower of Christ, my life our lives are found in Christ. We say with Paul “to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). This frees me to live in a city but live for more than the city. I’m increasingly concerned at how many people in their 20s are moving to places after looking at the quality of the schools, the lifestyle, the restaurant scene, and…that’s about it. We think “I want to live for Jesus! I just want to be able to pick where I do that. That’s not too much to ask right?” But following Jesus for the original disciples meant following where Jesus led, when he led, often into uncomfortable places they wouldn’t have chosen themselves.
My friend Ian McConnell likes to point out that when Jesus looked out at the crowds and saw people, he didn’t just see people he saw a harvest (Matthew 9:35-38). I remember him staring out at the skyline of his city of Philadelphia talking about missional opportunities there and seeing eyes shining with joy–not just because he saw Philly but because when he sees Philly he sees a harvest. Ian really does love Philly but that’s totally tied to his love for Jesus. Ian loves Jesus so much that he loves his urban area of Philly even more.
3) In a ditched city, staying can make an outsized gospel impact
In our US context much has been made of the fact that there are growing areas of the country that are increasingly secularized, with little to no gospel framework. In these places, evangelism is often a process, not a 30-second tract-based conversation. But in other more religious areas, there is often rampant confusion about what the gospel is, meaning evangelism is often a process, not a 30-second conversation. So normally making disciples in our American context, regardless of where you find yourself, involves not only sharing the message of Jesus, but sharing our lives that reflect Jesus (1 Thess 2:8). And normally this takes time.
That all means this: You want to find people who don’t know Jesus, then stick around them long enough to both share the message of Jesus as well as show them how that message is changing your life. This means that staying in any one place can have an outsized global impact, but this effect is even greater in a ditched area.
There are two specific reasons this can have an outsized gospel impact in a ditched city:
First, when you stay you often have a greater influence and opportunity for gospel work that someone just arriving. My dad grew up in El Paso and worked for his family’s business here for over 40 years before retiring earlier this year. In that time he’s gotten to know people in El Paso. He has served on the board of a large local non-profit for years, as well as on the boards of various other organizations here. Had he worked here for 5 years he could have made an impact, but not the same kind of impact. And I would argue that his impact is even more pronounced since other people have left El Paso. There’s a unique trust and kinship built among those who stay when others go. Add to this that often in transient areas like mine there are locals that aren’t too quick to open up their whole life to you, since they seen a lot of people come and go. Or in slow-moving, rural areas, the pace of getting to know folks is slow.
Second, if many are ditching the area, and not many are arriving, then you are the gospel reinforcements. We had a church leadership meeting a few years ago where we talked about our desire to plant some neighborhood churches in our area but it seemed far off for us. We wondered aloud if there were many people planting churches in our area. Some are and we’re grateful for them. But there is not a focused effort here like in other areas of the country, nor is there a natural pull here for planters. There are no seminaries within hours of driving, no major ministries headquartered here. Someone said in our meeting, “I guess the cavalry isn’t coming.” “No,” someone else countered, “I think we’re the cavalry.”
4) In a ditched city, there are still people and places and things to love
Perhaps I’ve painted a not entirely accurate picture thus far. Because if you only read the above you might think that I think you should just put your head down and suffer in the most boring, brutal, mind-bogglingly horrible place you can find. Absolutely not. Because your city is not boring or horrible.
You might say “Oh you don’t know my city.” No, but I know two things about it: First, I know God made it. Whether it is a swamp or a mountaintop or freezing cold or blazing hot, there is something of the character and creativity of God there. My city of El Paso is brutally hot, has insane dust storms, and is far from everything. But it also has the best sunsets I’ve ever seen. You can see for miles, especially when you climb the mountains up to 6,000 feet and survey three states and two countries. And the moment before the rain starts falling the desert comes alive and smells like new life. When night falls the lights of two cities blur together, and the star of El Paso shines out at night toward the giant X of Juarez across the river.
Second, I know that people God made live there and have made some good things too. It may reflect the brokenness of the world through crime or poverty. But even there something of the creator shines through. I think my city is ridiculously cool. I love that I can get a $1.99 breakfast in a diner unchanged from the 60s, or drive a little further and find fresh tortillas and conchas at a panaderia, or a little further and drink slow-brewed coffee from a leather couch across from a Vinyl record store. It is totally unpretentious–what you see is what you get here. No cheap suburban sheen over it all. And it is quite literally smashed up against another country, intertwined with language and food and culture and bridges. It is amazing, raw, and breathtaking.
So here’s what I know about your city, or any ditched city in America: There are things about it to love. God made it and made the people there. Dig a little further.
Is God Calling You to a Ditched City?
I’m in my city not primarily because it’s comfortable but because I’m called here. But I really do love it. Sometimes I think people in my generation especially waste time trying to find the perfect city for our interests and personality. Portland? Austin? Boston? We scan best places to live. We long for what we don’t have. But sometimes, I think God is calling us to learn to love the city in front of us instead.
Once I was talking to a friend from Yuma, AZ who was a blunt guy and summed it all up bluntly: “My city is a sun-charred piece of rock, but I love it.” There’s a piece of rock, or swamp, or cold, or field in front of you now. It may never appear on a list of best cities for singles or young families, it may not be a hotspot of church planting, but it’s a place God made with people who don’t know God. Is God calling you to stay?