One man drove the 700 miles or so from Pascagoula, Miss., alone. A mother and daughter, both recently widowed, were there.
Another woman was just a month removed from the death of her husband. In the past, an attendee has celebrated the end of her chemo treatments by heading to the conference.
All these years later, a fictional North Carolina town and its beloved inhabitants still have that kind of allure.
More than 500 people from 18 different states attended the sold-out Life Lessons from Mayberry: It's All There in Black & White conference at LifeWay Christian Resources' Ridgecrest (N.C.) Conference Center. The event showcases Bible studies that are structured around episodes of the classic 1960s sitcom "The Andy Griffith Show." Attendance has doubled in the three years it has been held at Ridgecrest.
"God has provided this means for us because the show has such practical lessons," said Debbie Whisenant, the event's creator and producer. "It's not a lot of deep theology, but it's how to treat your fellow man. It's how to treat people right. I think what most people need is just inspiration to live a better life based on biblical principles."
This year's conference featured Karen Knotts, daughter of Don Knotts who played Barney, the show's bumbling but well-meaning deputy and perhaps its most beloved character; LeRoy McNees, who appeared on two first-season episodes; and tribute artist Allen Newsome. Breakout sessions covered some of the most popular episodes in the show's eight-year run, including "Man in a Hurry," "A Feud is a Feud," "Rafe Hollister Sings," "Barney Fife, Realtor," "The Haunted House," "Bailey's Bad Boy," "Opie's Newspaper," "Aunt Bee's Medicine Man" and "A Date for Gomer."
None of the episodes have an overtly Christian message, but each has themes that are directly connected to Scripture –- restlessness, pride, gossip, strife, deception, arrogance and vanity.
"I do know that Andy Griffith was quoted as saying that he insisted on there being a moral in every episode, something that we could learn from it," Whisenant said. "I just really feel like God must have had His hands on some of those writers and their scripts, even though some or maybe all of them weren't Christians."
The show-flavored Bible studies didn't start with Life Lessons from Mayberry. Joey Fann, author of "The Way Back to Mayberry: Lessons From a Simpler Time" (B&H Books 2001), is widely credited with starting the trend in Huntsville, Ala., in the late 1990s. Since then, hundreds of churches have dug into the Bible, looking to Andy, Barney, Opie, Aunt Bee and the rest of the Mayberry gang for inspiration.
That's actually how Life Lessons from Mayberry got its start. Whisenant, who works as an advertising writer and project manager for LifeWay, has taught semester-long studies at her Nashville-area church for more than a decade. She mentioned the idea to one of her managers.
One thing led to another, and the Life Lessons from Mayberry conference was born. In the fall of 2011, 240 people attended. Last year, 260 showed up. This time around, the Sept. 24-26 conference exploded in popularity through a few ads here and there, word of mouth and Whisenant's efforts on social media. "I don't attribute it to anything other than God just saying, 'Go for it,'" Whisenant said.
The show has definitely become a part of Whisenant's life. She has a picture of herself taken at around age 13 with George Lindsey, the actor who portrayed the lovable Goober Pyle on both The Andy Griffith Show and its spinoff "Mayberry RFD." A Mayberry trivia contest was a part of her bridal shower. She and husband John also have an adult son named Andy.
Filmed and originally aired during the turbulence of the 1960s, the wholesome simplicity of the show resonates with viewers in reruns and on DVD more than 50 years after its debut.
"It just takes you away from the culture that we live in now for a few minutes," Whisenant concluded. "The characters are so lovable. They have their own foibles. They're not perfect. Barney and Gomer are so childlike. It's like the comfort food of television for me. It's just such a comforting place to go."
Dates for next year's event are Sept. 21-24. Register at lifeway.com/mayberry.
This article first appeared in the Biblical Recorder (brnow.org), newsjournal of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. Rick Houston is a writer who lives in Yadkinville, N.C.
Copyright (c) 2013 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press www.BPNews.net