Johnny Phillips

Johnny Phillips

Readers who have been long time fans of of television sitcoms will immediately recall “Sanford and Son.” This extremely popular program which debuted on today’s date, Jan. 14, in 1972 and retained its popularity all six of its years in prime time was actually based on the British TV show “Steptoe and Son.”

Fred Sanford, played by Red Foxx, was Neil Simon’s answer to Archie Bunker’s bigotry, and his peace loving son, Lamont Sanford, was portrayed by Desmond Wilson. The show rose to the Nielsen ratings’ second place for several years next only to with “All In the Family.”

My favorite episode was that in which Fred was traveling by air for the very first time. Aboard the plane Lamont discovers that his dad is wearing an array of religious amulets about his neck - cross, Star of David, crucifix, Crescent Moon, Egyptian Ankh and more. When the son sarcastically asks for an explanation for all the menagerie of religious charms, Fred justifies this conduct, “Down on the ground I am a Baptist, but up here, I ain’t taking any chances!”

While many in the television audience, myself included, reacted with spirited laughter at the quip placed in the dialogue by great writers, I also found it comparable to the authentic level of faith for not a few people and the actual programming strategy of many a church. There also may have been other spiritual innuendos in this television comedy than credited. Desmond Wilson was quite active in church life from his youth. Having served as an alter boy as a child, he seriously considered the ministry as a career and ,after Sanford and Son’s successful run, he did in fact become an evangelistic preacher.

But allow me to explain the spiritual comparison of Fred’s response to many a person’s attitude toward church. A speaker in a continuing education presentation for ministers urged the pastors in attendance to think of evangelism as being similar to a modern grocery store.

“Food marketing is changing and the church needs to follow its model,” he taught. “You can find almost anything in a supermarket these days, not just your traditional canned foods, meat and produce.” He was correct. In today’s food stores there are gourmet treats, varieties of ethnic foods, delis, pharmacies and a host of other never-thought-of-before departments. In short, shoppers are accustomed to a huge variety of interests.

The church, we were told, must think outside the box and develop “ministries” never dreamed of before. The congregation I was serving at that time agreed and we implemented the idea evolving it into sports, preschool, after-school and entertainment programs as well as art, music, exercise and weight loss classes. Just like the new-style grocery stores, we provided something that would appeal to virtually everyone.

And the people came.

At least they came to the athletic games, their children’s recitals, the exercise classes and all the other forms of their special interest and entertainment. But when the ball game was over, they went home. When their child’s recital piece had been showcased, they left.

Some would even exit the choir loft in the middle of the Christmas cantata after having sung their solo. But when the worship service began, the work committees met or the offering was received, few of them displayed any involvement.

Such activities did not meet their interest.

Perhaps we all are subject to the same temptation as Fred Sanford - a shallow religious commitment cannot tolerate inconvenience. In Jesus’ Parable of the Sower, some of the seed fell upon the hardened earth of the path. Having essentially no depth of soil, the seeds produced equally shallow root systems. When challenging circumstances arose, they simply faltered.

But the importance of this truth is not for us to scan the sanctuary in worship on Sunday morning trying to decide which worshipers possess an enduring faith and those who are not. The real lesson is for each of us to inventory our own heart and ask, “Am I growing deeper in the likeness of God?”

Johnny A. Phillips is a retired minister residing in Morganton and may be contacted at

Thadd White is Editor of the Bertie Ledger-Advance and can be reached via email at