Won’t You Be My Neighbor?: Youth Ministry Insights from Mister Rogers

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In the year 1968, Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers decided to forgo traditional ministry work to start a venture into the emerging world of television. He wanted to help address the age-old struggle for value and identity. By combining his studies from seminary, child developmental psychology, and media, Mister Rogers set out to create a neighborhood where kids could be reminded of God’s love for them and the value that they had not from their performance, but from the imago dei within them.

The recent documentary film Won’t You Be My Neighbor? brings the story of Fred Rogers’ career and ministry into focus for a new generation. Through the medium of television, Rogers helped a whole generation of kids deal with the darkness of the world while pointing them to the hope that there is in Jesus. He modeled a life where just as every kid mattered to Jesus, every kid mattered to him.

Through Rogers’ ministry, student ministers can learn how he modeled the value of the imago dei in every person, embracing struggle yet providing hope and intentionality.

The Ministry of Mister Rogers Modeled the Value of the Imago Dei in Every Person

“There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.” -Mister Rogers

Through Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the value of every person was clearly communicated. The theological idea of the imago dei is that each and every person is marked with the creative finger prints of the Creator. Rogers believed this and allowed his show to be a place where people of different races and with disabilities were presented with the value that God had given them.

Just as the kids in Mister Rogers’ audience struggled to find value in who God made them to be, our students also struggle with finding a true foundation for their value. For many, this value is determined by peers, culture, and performance. As student ministers, we need to remind students that God made them who they are and loves them with a love so great that He would not merely create them but would also pursue them with grace through the gospel.

The Ministry of Mister Rogers Modeled Embracing Struggle Yet Providing Hope

“People have said, ‘Don’t cry’ to other people for years and years, and all it has ever meant is, ‘I’m too uncomfortable when you show your feelings. Don’t cry.’ I’d rather have them say, ‘Go ahead and cry. I’m here to be with you.’” -Mister Rogers

Throughout his program, Mister Rogers was not afraid to address hard issues whether it be the assassination of Robert Kennedy, death, bullying, and divorce. He did not try to shield children from the darkness of the world. Yet when approaching the darkness, he opened the door for kids to express their feelings and open their eyes to hope. Rogers believed that kids had deep feelings and struggles that many adults at the time would rather suppress and ignore than to engage.

Our students live in a world of tears, emotions, and feelings. Many of these are bottled up and never expressed or processed. Just like in Rogers’ day, many adults continue to downplay the struggles and feelings of teenagers. As student ministers, are we making ourselves available as shoulders to cry on? Are we building a culture in the neighborhood of our student ministry where it is alright to cry, feel, and process? Students need a safe place to struggle and a constant, caring adult to point them to hope.

The Ministry of Mister Rogers Modeled Intentionality

“If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to people you may never dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.” -Mister Rogers

Though many didn’t understand it, there was a great intentionality behind every moment of programming in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Rogers knew the impact that communicating truth could have in the hearts and lives of the kids on the other side of the screen. He would make sure that every detail came together to communicate the message in a clear and compelling way because he realized the impact that he was having.

As student ministers, we must approach our own ministries with the same intentionality because we will never know the impact that we are having in the hearts and lives of those to whom we minister. Are we seeking to communicate in a way that is clear, intentional, and directed at the heart? We leave an impact on those we serve in everything that we do. Are we intentionally loving those students whom Jesus has called us to embrace as our neighbor?

As kids, Mister Rogers modeled to us the love and grace of Jesus. As student ministers, let us build a neighborhood in our student ministry where students see the beauty of who God made them to be, the importance of struggling with hard issues together, and the intentionality of loving and caring for everyone whom Jesus would call our neighbor.

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