• Joel Ryan

How Can the Ministry of Mr. Rogers Transcend Time and our TV Screens?

Updated: Jul 26

NOTE: this post is adapted from a previously published article I wrote for Crosswalk entitled “5 Ways Mr. Rogers Exemplified Love and Integrity.” You can click on the link here if you’d like to view that original article.

In an era when the Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles, X-Men, and Animaniacs dominated children’s television, I’m still amazed that I chose to watch Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood as much as I did growing up, but I wasn’t alone.

By all television standards, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood wasn’t flashy. It wasn’t laugh-out-loud funny. It wasn't supposed to be a cultural game-changer. It was a low-budget PBS children’s program broadcast from station WQED in Pittsburgh.

There were no space battles, sword fights, or buckets of slime.

The main character didn’t have any superpowers, wear a mask, or fight crime.

He didn’t tell hilarious jokes or fall down the stairs.

Just a gentle, old man in a cardigan sweater, who sang songs, played with puppets, and talked about things like kindness, community, and how to navigate the difficult emotions of life.

And I loved it!

Like many children, I cherished my trips to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and grew up feeling loved, seen, heard, cared for, and understood by the show’s soft-spoken host, a man known by millions around the world as Mr. Rogers.

A humble Presbyterian minister, Fred Rogers believed that children deserved more from television and cared enough to do what no one was willing to do on (or off) camera. With every life encounter and episode of his show, Fred Rogers spoke directly to the hearts of children by focusing on the intrinsic value of every child.

He was bold, intentional, honest, authentic, and deeply in touch with his own feelings. And though he dedicated his life to caring for the youngest amongst us, his message of kindness extended far beyond his target audience.

To this day, Mr. Rogers ministers to the child in all of us by speaking to our eternal desire to be loved and valued.

In the words of John Maxwell, “a leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” When it comes to kindness, gentleness, and living with purpose, if anyone led by example, it was Mr. Rogers.

So how can his message of love and mission of kindness transcend time and our TV screens?

1. Consistency Matters

People have often wondered who Fred Rogers was when he wasn’t being Mr. Rogers. Those who knew him have told us. The same Mr. Rogers we saw in his television neighborhood, Fred Rogers was in life.

He wasn’t playing a character. He wasn’t performing for the cameras. By today’s standards, he wouldn’t be bowing to the trends on social media or posting content that would increase his likes or boost his public image.

He was authentically and consistently himself, both on screen and off. That kind of genuine love for children cannot be faked, nor is it temporary.

From the way he opened each episode to the songs he wrote and sang on the show, every word was intentional and every action purposeful. Everything was designed to make children feel valued, cared for, and invited.

Mr. Rogers said in a 1969 congressional hearing that, “one of the first things a child learns in a healthy family is trust.”

Children knew what to expect from Mr. Rogers and trusted him because he was consistent with his words, his tone, and his interactions with others. In any relationship, consistency in character creates trust, and actions will always speak louder than words. When we trust someone, we’re more inclined to listen to what they are saying and believe it.

2. If Feelings are Mentionable, They’re Manageable

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood never shied away from heavy topics. I mean, how many television shows are brave enough to tackle death, divorce, loneliness, assassination, self-worth, and racism, especially for kids? Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood did, and Mr. Rogers always approached these conversations with honesty, courage, vulnerability, and compassion.

More than anyone on television, Fred Rogers remembered what it was like to be a child and knew what it felt like to not be allowed to show your emotions.

But our children are always watching

They see what's going in our world and are trying to make sense of all of it. They too have emotions that are called to the frontlines when they see or experience injustice, violence, hypocrisy, or evil.

Mr. Rogers believed that a child’s feelings were just as important as those of adults. Children should never have to feel isolated or try to make sense of their emotions on their own. No one should.

He didn’t minimize or attempt to suppress emotions either. He wanted to understand them and, more importantly, learn how to manage them, not make excuses. “What do you do with the mad that you feel?” He sang.

"When you feel so mad you could bite?

When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong...

And nothing you do seems very right?

What do you do? Do you punch a bag?

Do you pound some clay or some dough?

Do you round up friends for a game of tag?

Or see how fast you go?

These were the questions he was willing to ask because, as he continued...

It's great to be able to stop When you've planned a thing that's wrong, And be able to do something else instead And think this song:

I can stop when I want to Can stop when I wish I can stop, stop, stop any time. And what a good feeling to feel like this And know that the feeling is really mine. Know that there's something deep inside That helps us become what we can.

Who was responsible for his choices? Who was in control of his actions? He was, and if his feelings were mentionable, they might become manageable. That was the message he wanted children to learn and techniques he found it important to adopt.

Using puppets, a world of make-believe, and direct conversations, Mr. Rogers was willing to talk about the feelings we are sometimes too afraid to share.

He didn’t get it right all the time, but he was willing to ask the right questions, have the tough conversations, and admit when he was wrong. In doing so, he helped children “navigate the difficult modulations of life” and proved that, even though we may look and sound different on the outside, what we feel on the inside can sometimes be very similar.

Fred Rogers consistently reminded us that we’re all neighbors. Sometimes we need to hear other peoples’ stories and listen to our neighbors to understand that their hurt can and should become our heartbreak.

3. I’m Listening

Mr. Rogers might be one of the greatest communicators in history, and yet, his style wouldn't typically be talked about in the average TED Talk on communicating with authority.

Mr. Rogers shared amazing words of wisdom and spoke up with boldness when he saw something happening in our neighborhoods that troubled him, but he also knew when to stop and just listen.

Make no mistake! His silence was never complacent. His stillness was never apathetic. Silence was his way of serving his neighbors especially when people just needed to be heard.

In a time when children’s television was speeding up, Mr. Rogers knew how to slow things down. He was never rushed. He talked slowly, chose his words carefully, and asked direct questions. There was strength and power to his gentleness and humility, and on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, even though there was slow space, there was never wasted space.

Sometimes, Mr. Rogers wouldn’t say anything at all. His silence, however, invited others to speak. The man knew how to listen. And when he listened, he made children (and adults) feel valued, respected, and understood. Shouldn’t that be the goal in every conversation and community?

4. Children are Precious Just the Way They Are

Since the show ended in 2001, a fair amount of criticism has been thrown at Mr. Rogers for reinforcing the idea that children are “special.” Many believe that this was the kind of thinking that contributed to the entitlement and narcissism found in many of today’s youth.

And yet, there is a difference between knowing your inherent worth as a child of God and thinking you are somehow better than others.

He wasn’t saying that some children were better than others by singing that they were special . Rather, he was speaking to those children who needed someone to remind them of their worth because they had been made to feel that they weren’t valued, beautiful, or even seen.

Our worth isn’t based on things we’ve done, how we look, or how talented we are. “It’s you I like,” he sang, “every part of you. Your skin, your eyes, your feelings. Whether old or new.”

To him, children (and adults) had value simply for being alive, and at the end of every show, he reinforced this idea by singing, “it’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive, it’s such a happy feeling you’re growing inside.”

Without saying it outright, Mr. Rogers affirmed that we are all “fearfully and wonderfully made” and precious in the eyes of God. “Love is at the root of everything,” he said, “all learning. All parenting. All relationships. Love or the lack of it. And what we see or hear on the screen is part of who we become.”

Fred made sure that every child felt this way in his presence, whether face-to-face or from the other side of the television screen.

5. Fame is a Four-Letter Word

Mr. Rogers might be one of the most beloved figures in television history, but he had something to say about the word “fame.” To Fred Rogers, fame was just a four-letter word. It’s what you do with it that counts. He might say the same thing about the way we use our words and how we choose to live our lives as well.

Mr. Rogers may have been a television host, but he never put on a show. I think most would agree that he’d probably be doing and saying the same things even if he weren’t famous. He didn’t need a platform to show kindness. He just needed an opportunity, and thankfully, the world provided plenty of those.

Ironically, it's because he took advantage of the opportunities he was given and was bold in living what he believed that he was given a platform to speak.

His mother had taught him from a young age to always look for the helpers in life. In our worst moments, if we look hard enough, we will always find those quiet few who are out there helping to heal and restore others. Those are the ones he had learned to model his life after.

As an ordained minister, Fred Rogers chose to go where he knew he would have the greatest impact: television. He preached without ever using the word “God” and ministered to children around the world from the other side of a television screen.

His theology was simple. He loved others, loved himself, and loved children with all the passion of their creator.

Towards the end of the twentieth century, Fred challenged the world by saying, “let’s take the gauntlet and make goodness attractive in this next millennium.” Well the world is listening, Mr. Rogers, and though it has walked away from the things that made your mission and ministry so effective, it's starting to remember the lessons you taught us, and we can only hope it applies them in the days to come.

Mr. Rogers taught us to start with love, be kind, be honest, listen more, and make the most of the opportunities we’ve been given.

Sometimes the most effective ministers aren’t the ones preaching from a pulpit, just as the real heroes of our world aren’t always the ones wearing capes. Sometimes they wear sweaters, sing songs, and have honest conversations. They're out there loving their neighbors, meeting people where they are at, and look into the eyes of those who are hurting. Our world is a much better and brighter place because of them.

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