Wednesday, March 01, 2000

The gospel according to Andy Griffith

Eastside church preaches the morals of Mayberry to reach a TV generation

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The congregation at Eastside Christian Center watches a video from the Andy Griffith Show last Sunday.
(David Baxter photo)
| ZOOM |
        After Matthew, Mark, Luke and John comes Andy. Between Andy Taylor's twangy Southern drawl and Barney Fife's one-bullet fumbling, Eastside Christian Church members are finding in The Andy Griffith Show moral messages befitting the Gospel.

        The Rev. Rex Brown spins from one of Barney's jealous huffs a sermon on rivalry and love. He springboards to a lesson on honor and commitment from an early episode when Andy presides over the marriage of his housekeeper. And the segment called “Opie's Charity” morphs into a homily on kindness.

The Rev. Rex Brown
        The Milford church is in the midst of its seven-week sermon series, “Everything I Needed to Know I Learned from Andy Griffith.” It's a long way from shiny black-patent shoes and polite piano riffs of traditional Christian services. And that's what the Rev. Brown intends.

        “I grew up with Andy Griffith, and I liked it when I was a kid,” said Bev Holden, 46, of Goshen. “Now that I'm an adult, I still like it. You can watch Andy, Barney and Aunt Bee sit there on the front porch and think, "Oh, I wish I could live in Mayberry because life is simple.' You know it's just a fantasy, but you wish you could go there for 30 minutes.”

  Mayberry devotees have turned reruns into spiritual lessons:
  “Opie's Newspaper” provides a lesson on gossip. The town is turned upside down when Opie publishes a newspaper airing the town's dirty laundry — and the rumors.
  “In Andy on Trial,” Barney almost causes Andy to lose his job. He takes to the witness stand, offering a heartfelt defense and a testament to the value of friendship.
  “Man in a Hurry” offers a particularly relevant lesson for today with its message of slowing down and putting priorities in the right order.
  Even an episode on Otis the town drunk becoming a special deputy has a lesson. Otis pretends to be someone he's not instead of dealing with the problems he has.
Pop culture icons
        Like many contemporary churches nationwide, Eastside is tapping pop culture to reach nontraditional audiences. And Andy, Barney and the other fictional cast from the 1960s show are firmly lodged as pop-culture icons.

        Groups across the country have found spiritual direction in Mayberry reruns. A Huntsville, Ala., church started an Andy Griffith Bible study in 1996. Fans — and a Web site ( — spread the idea.

        It's a church gimmick, diehard fan Greg Akers said, but one that works. Inserting Andy Griffith into the sermons Mr. Akers heard as a kid might have made them more interesting.

        “There was a moral lesson in every episode,” said Mr. Akers, president of Toon Art-Hometown TV, a Cincinnati company that sells Andy Griffith Show merchandise. “Whether it was Opie having to be responsible for killing the mother birds or (the episode that) teaches Andy how to believe in his son, it's all about trust and following the golden rule.”

Simple things of life
        The show revels in the simple things of life, uses humor to defuse sticky situations and values integrity above all else, the Rev. Brown said.

        With six kids under the age of eight, he's careful what they watch on TV.

        “Andy Griffith is one of those shows we as a family watch together,” he said.

        So does the church family.

        Between the three services, Andy Griffith trivia pops up on the large screen at the front of the church. Before the sermon begins, a two- to three-minute clip airs. Then, settled into padded pews, the congregation jots notes from the Rev. Brown's PowerPoint presentation on blue paper already three-hole punched to keep in a binder.

        The sermon series “takes the simple lessons that are important in life and brings them to a focal point where people in this day can relate to them,” said Dick Hess, chairman of elders at the church.

        His favorite episode: “Nip it in the bud.” Barney goes around town trying to stop trouble before it starts. He keeps saying he's got to “nip it in the bud.”

        “I think that's true in life,” Mr. Hess said. “If you let something get to the point where you should have dealt with it earlier, it's a much bigger problem.”

Attendance doubled
        It's a philosophy Eastside tried out last June. Facing declining membership, the church decided to change its tactics. Members hired the Rev. Brown and spent $60,000 to $70,000 fitting the church with high-tech audio-visual equipment, screens and a sound system. Acoustic guitars, keyboards and drums accompany Sunday songs like “You are holy, you are mighty.”

        There are no stained-glass windows. A projection screen at the front of the church covers a large cross on the wall. TVs hang from the ceiling in the back for those in the last pews.

        In eight months, attendance has doubled, to almost 500 each Sunday. Church leaders are considering adding a fourth service.

        “We live in such a high-tech society,” the Rev. Brown said. “Everything is multimedia and Hollywood. That's where America lives, where people are today.”

        The Andy Griffith Show didn't deal much with newfangled technology and the latest in multimedia, but cast members would have understood Eastside's mission.

        They're trying to build a bridge to meet people where they are.


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