Is There Still a Rural Purge?

Aisha Brooks-Johnson preached for the Presbyterian Urban Network gathering last week and she (almost) sang the theme song from Green Acres, a 1960s sitcom about a couple who move from NYC to the rural town of Hooterville. Oliver believes “farm livin'” is the life for him and Lisa adores a penthouse view. Hilarity ensues.

Aisha’s point was that God reigns in both urban and rural landscapes.

By the mid 70s, television executives had canceled most comedies and drama series in what networks called “the rural purge.” Out came programs about farm families and small town life (The Andy Griffith Show, Lassie, Green Acres) and in came programs featuring urban and suburban families (Sanford and Son, Seinfeld, Full House.) Although today, the vast world of television offers a variety of families and settings, but city life is featured most prominently.

Although most people in my denomination are part of large congregations in urban and suburban settings, most Presbyterian congregations are small. According to Leslie Scanlon’s article here 20% of the congregations in the Presbyterian Church (USA) have 25 members or fewer. About two-thirds of our churches have 100 or less members.

These small congregations can be found uptown, downtown, in the suburbs and small towns, and in rural areas. But it’s rare to find a large congregation in a rural area. Our rural congregations are almost always less than 100 members and many have less than 50 members.

They can rarely afford a full-time pastor and if they can, that pastor is most likely earning the minimum required salary. What can we do about this?

One thing we must do – as Mid-Council Church Leaders – is avoid a rural purge. We cannot cancel these congregations. We cannot ignore either the needs or the gifts of small town and rural neighbors. One of the actors from Green Acres, lamenting the cancelation of that show said, of CBS:

“They canceled everything with a tree in it – including Lassie.”

As long as most employment is found in more populated areas, small towns will be unable to attract young people seeking industrial, professional, and skilled trade jobs. Pastors with a working spouse might hesitate to accept a call with no employment options for their spouses. Pastors with young children might hesitate to accept a call where the schools cannot attract teachers to move to their county.

But there is hope for our rural congregations:

  • If working from home continues to trend and people can work from anywhere – at least in some fields – this will help lure people to beautiful, affordable places with lots of fresh air.
  • If local officials honestly want their communities to grow, there are many tools available for shifting the culture of our farms, small businesses and manufacturing industries. Great example in Mooresville, NC: Carrigan Farms was once a regular family farm with row crops and cows. It has evolved into a different kind of farm with pumpkins (and the requisite pumpkin patch), fruits for self-picking, hay rides, haunted trails, and quarry swimming. They are now a venue for weddings, proms, and corporate events.
  • If urban and suburban churches partner with rural congregations, there could be opportunities for shared preaching and teaching, and invitations for farm VBS, etc.

If you are interested in this kind of creative ministry, don’t just look for it in wealthy city congregations. Calls to rural churches make for some opportunities that would never happen in the city. (I learned how to hypnotize a chicken in my first call in Schaghticoke, NY.)

Green acres might indeed be the place for you.

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