retro reprint: your hometown

“You know … the household of Stephanas … they have devoted themselves to the Lord’s people. … they have supplied what was lacking …  they refreshed my spirit and yours also. Such men deserve recognition.” (1 Cor. 16:15,17-18 TNIV)

1984 was an incredible year for rock music. Amidst the ocean of tunes, one powerful wave after another rocked the American shores. However, among those waves one loomed particularly large – Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s album entitled Born in the USA.

Springsteen is a compelling storyteller. Some of the best evidence for that is found in the last song on the Born in the U.S.A. album, entitled “My Hometown.” It’s the story of a young father’s reminisces of how his hometown has changed through the years, not for the better, and how that forces him to decide whether or not to raise his own children there.

Hear the lyrics afresh:

I was eight years old and running with a
dime in my hand
into the bus stop
to pick up a paper for my old man
I’d sit on his lap in that big old Buick and
steer as we drove through town
He’d tousle my hair and say son take a
good look around this is your hometown
This is your hometown
This is your hometown
This is your hometown

In ’65 tension was running high.
At my high school
There was a lot of fights
between the black and white
There was nothing you could do
Two cars at a light on a Saturday night,
in the back seat there was a gun
Words were passed, in a shotgun blast
Troubled times had come to my hometown
My hometown.
My hometown.
My hometown.

Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows
and vacant stores
seems like there ain’t nobody
wants to come down here no more
They’re closing down the textile mill
across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are goin’ boys
and they ain’t comin’ back
to your hometown.
Your hometown.
Your hometown.
Your hometown.

Last night me and Kate we laid in bed
talking about getting out
Packing up our bags maybe headin’ south
I’m 35, we’ve got a boy of our own now
Last night I sat him up, behind the wheel
and said son take a good look around
this is your hometown.

Not a few of us have had to wrestle with this very decision. And even if not, strictly speaking, in the realm of our home town, certainly in regard to our home church.

With time, age and perspective, changes come. Not all of them good and most of them beyond our individual control. A community’s freshness and vitality begins to wane and, consequently, so does some of the church’s potential for growth and expansion of ministry. Churchtensions occasionally flare up. A church may even come to find itself facing something it had never planned to see – it’s own mortality. And so the question – “Do we stay or do we go?”

When a congregation has apparently seen it’s best years, great is the temptation to leave and find what appears to be greener pastures. To find a new hometown. Still, it is no small thing to leave one’s roots and familiar ties behind to start again. Which is best: to make a fresh start or to stay, pray hard, work hard, and fight valiantly for freshness?

The choice is never easy. Clearly, resolve and courage are called for on both paths. And who can say which is best? Surely there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question for every situation. Still, the road most often taken is to leave – and naturally so, for it has the least

In the song, we’re left to marvel at the courage and determination of the father to raise up his son in a dying town. It surely would have taken great strength to leave, but we sense that it took far more strength to stay. And we’re also left to wonder what trials were faced and how the story ends. We don’t know, for the story is still being written.

The same is true in churches everywhere. Too many churches are slowly, and unnecessarily, hemorrhaging to death by the steady trickle of members leaving their hometown for what appears to be places of greater personal promise. It’s ever easier to go along with growth than to strive to help bring growth. What is needed is more resolve and devotion, more determination and grit. To choose the best roads, not necessarily the easiest.

Long ago in a church which surely must have appeared to be on the downhill slope, Corinth, there were some who dared to stay. They dared to continue to call the church in Corinth their hometown. Such people deserved recognition. And two thousand years later we still remember the name of at least one of them – Stephanas. Long after, mind you, the names of many others, no doubt, pulled up stakes and left.

Having said all that, what is the point?  Just three thoughts. But I’d ask you to think about them carefully and to pray about them seriously.

One. If you’re considering leaving “your hometown,” consider again. To leave is to follow the path of least resistance. Consider the possibility of deliberately choosing a more challenging path for the good of others … and yourself. It may be that you must go. And you should not be faulted if you prayerfully conclude you must. But bathe the matter in prayer, and personal sacrifice, whatever you decide.

Two. Pray for those who labor in fields which are not nearly so large or outwardly productive as your own. Many of those who labor there do so by a deliberate choice to devote themselves to the service of the saints, come what may. Such people deserve our encouragement, support and recognition.

Three. Wherever you find yourself, dedicate your ways to God and the service of others. Lay down your life in for the generation to come.

Isn’t that what Jesus did for you?

(originally published on July 13, 2001; appearing here with light editing)