Her church was advertising a Wednesday morning Bible study, but, as usual, Cheri Guenzel had her doubts about signing up. "I'd never taken Bible study before," she said.

But Guenzel, 53, was willing to try the sessions at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in St. Louis, Mo. The study group watches episodes of "The Andy Griffith Show" and uses themes from the show to launch into biblical discussion.

"I enjoy the show, and I enjoy seeing how it ties into the Bible," Guenzel said. "Plus, it's not intimidating."

The Rev. Scott Lohse, the senior pastor at Mt. Zion, got the idea from the Internet a year ago, and this is his second round of Andy Griffith-based classes.

In fact, Bible study classes all over the country, made up of people of all ages, are now listening to the familiar whistle as they watch the "Griffith" father and son head down a country road with fishing poles in the show's opening credits.

Software engineer Joey Fann, 33, of Huntsville, Ala., came up with the idea two and a half years ago. Fann, a longtime Andy Griffith fan, wrote the Bible study curriculum for his own church, Twickenham Church of Christ, then put it on a website he created (BarneyFife.com) for others to use. The site currently gets 200-300 hits a day. Fann knows of at least 100 churches in 23 states that are currently running some form of his class.

Fann says "The Andy Griffith Show" seems an obvious choice for such a format, because Griffith and the show's writers made sure each episode had a moral lesson. George Lindsay, who played Goober in the series, told Fann it made sense that the show was being used for Bible study. "One of the incredible things about every single episode is that Andy insisted each show have a moral point, something good, lofty, and moral," Lindsay said.
In one of Fann's favorite episodes, "Opie the Birdman," Opie accidentally kills a mother bird while he's playing with his slingshot. Opie is reprimanded by Andy and decides to care for the three babies, since he's the reason their mother can't raise them. The babies thrive under his care and soon must be set free. Opie has trouble letting them go, but knows he must.

After setting them free, Opie says, "The cage sure looks awful empty, don't it, Pa?"

"Yes, son, it does," Andy replies. "But don't the trees seem nice and full?"

Fans of the show point out this one episode teaches the biblical lessons of the cost of disobedience, the importance of accepting responsibility for actions, the fruits of parental guidance, and the free will of each individual.

At first, the Mt. Zion congregation was skeptical. "To be honest with you, when we first heard Rev. Lohse mention they were going to have "Andy Griffith" shows in church, we thought, what is the point of that?" said Roger Sturdevant, a Mt. Zion member. But the class caught on, so much so that he had to scramble to get the specific episodes Fann wrote about on his website. Lohse began setting his VCR at odd hours to record episodes off Nickelodeon and other cable channels. Then, he began swapping tapes with other ministers.

A company called Systems Media got wind of the craze and of ministers' difficulties in obtaining all the episodes. The company approached Fann and hired him as a consultant to create a formal workbook and videocassette series. Systems then sold the concept to Word Publishing, which published Volume One of a planned series in June 2000. It features four episodes, a facilitator's guide, student guides, and an instructional audiocassette. Word sold nearly 20,000 student guides in the first 60 days and plans to release Volume Two in December.

"It struck me that, theologically, what Joey had done was combine chocolate with peanut butter," said Stephen Skelton, co-writer on the project and a Word employee. "He took a very popular secular product and used it to illuminate biblical lessons."

Is it the nostalgia? Are people yearning for a simpler way of life? Do they miss the straightforward way the residents of Mayberry, the fictional town in the series, seemed to live out moral lessons?

Something about Mayberry is resonating in thousands of people, and it's resonating across denominational boundaries. Lohse's church is United Methodist; Fann's is Church of Christ. "I saw [the class] was in a Catholic newsletter not too long ago," Fann said.

"I think people are just really looking for a return to some of the moral values society has lost sight of," Fann said.

Lohse said, "Andy was the sheriff without a gun," and that obviously has some appeal in a society tired of hearing about shootings at high schools, day care centers, and fast food establishments.

The enthusiasts are not just the elderly, as might be expected with a show that first aired 40 years ago in black and white. Lohse's Sunday morning class is full of twenty- and thirty-somethings.

"You've got a new generation coming along that's more media savvy and has a higher degree of comfort with the media," Skelton said. "You take a media show that's 40 years old, and you catch all the boomers and above, and all the twenty-somethings and below, because they grew up immersed in the media." "Retro is in with the young crowd," Lohse adds.

Skelton admits he's heard some criticism of the study. "Some consider it pandering to the entertain-me generation," he said. But he sees no harm in using the show as a starting point or as an icebreaker for Bible discussion. "Jesus taught in parables," Lohse said. "These seem to be terrific contemporary parables."

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