What’s with Mister Rogers?

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

– Matthew 22:37-38, NRSV
Fred Rogers, aka Mister Rogers, late 1960s
Wikimedia Commons CC 1.0

Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister who lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Not unlike John Wesley who felt called to preach in the open fields in the eighteenth century, Mr. Rogers felt called to try an experimental form of ministry in the mid-twentieth century. He started an educational, entertaining, and spiritual television program for children. It was on every day, Monday through Friday, for a half-hour, for 33 years. Mr. Rogers died in 2003, at the age of 73, two years after the program ended.

Though Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a steady and predictable presence with wholesome and even profound teachings for all of those years, it was not what most would consider a cultural phenomenon. But in recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in Mister Rogers. His theme song, “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” is now the title of a Tom Hanks movie that will be released November 22. The punchline from that song, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” is the title of a hit documentary from 2018, that has sparked the imagination of many preachers for sermon series. Several recent biographies have been released about the life of Fred Rogers, including one written by the wife of a Virginia Conference elder.

It’s like the message of Mister Rogers is catching on in our culture in a way that it did not catch on earlier. What is going on here? Is it that our culture of “expressive individualism,” is hungry for more neighboring? Are people tired of living in communities where they hardly know the people who are living around them? Are we tired of being polarized by wedge issues that stir up the worst instincts of fear and anger and attacking one another? Are we needing to find a better way, fed by the nourishment of care and peacefulness and loving one another? I believe this is a cultural opportunity that is ripe for the church’s input. We do not need to reinvent the wheel; we only need to remind ourselves of who we are. John Wesley said on numerous occasions that the essence of being a Christian and a Methodist is to follow the teaching of Jesus’ Great Commandment, to love God and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Mr. Wesley created many practical ways to put that commandment into practice.

I invite us to experiment with practical ways that we can help our neighbors discover the value of getting to know one another, caring about each other, helping one another, and putting love into practice through our churches into our neighborhoods. Could this be God’s way to open a door for us to reach a new generation that has been alienated from the church? Teaching us afresh the importance of loving one another, in the church, in our neighborhoods, and to the ends of the earth.

Grace and Peace,

Jeff