The Relevance Of Mr. Rogers

There are sure to be countless tributes to Fred Rogers in this first week after his death. Remembering his life and career, devoted to nurturing children, will rightly bring volumes of praise, provide a prime subject of dinner table conversation, and might even cause a few of us to reflect on how our own parenting stacks up. I’ve been considering this very question over the weekend. One of Mr. Rogers’ greatest gifts to the countless children who spent time with him each day was his incredible attentiveness and relaxed pace. He always seemed completely engaged with me, like he cared deeply about how I felt, and was interested in what I thought. He didn’t seem busy, like he had anywhere more important to run off to. I’ve been asking myself if I give this to my kids. Often, I can feel like an attentive parent simply because I am there in the same room with them. Yet, I can be distracted and disconnected, reading the latest Onion newspaper while my kids play in the same room. There physically, but somewhere else emotionally or mentally.

Mr. Rogers excelled at many other things. He exposed children to the arts—great musicians, paintings and dance. He taught us to honor and respect the work of craftsmen as we visited their workshops. Today, most of us would applaud this. But I wonder…would we further encourage our kids to respect and honor the work of mailmen, bakers, and other folks who work in “non-professional” or blue-collar jobs? He seemed to think that these were perfectly respectable jobs; are we this charitable toward vocations that are not high-tech or professional.

There are so many other places to read about the significance of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood—why it was unique and special. You can read those elsewhere. Rather than focus on these (very significant) elements of his importance, I want to ask a question that may be unique to our little community here at Relevant. It is remarkable to note how little Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood changed over its 35 year history. Most of us were not even alive when he began. When you compare those early years to the latter, the only significant change you notice is that Mr. Rogers shifts from a father figure to a grandfather figure. Everything else stays the same. So the question presents itself: how could he remain relevant to his audience with no accommodation to cultural change?

When we think about the notion of relevance, most of us would bristle a little bit if it were linked too closely to trendiness. That is a dirty word to us. Yet, to an extent, we have to acknowledge that some relationship exists. We say that certain praise choruses are no longer very relevant. Why? Because they just sound a little too 80s-ish, they’ve been played way too much, they aren’t quite edgy enough. Some of us embrace the use of multimedia in church because we believe it to be relevant—it connects with some people today who wouldn’t come to a more traditional church service. And on and on.

All well and good. I’m not lamenting these things at all. But thinking of Mr. Rogers has gotten me wondering. I believe that he remained relevant to his audience despite the fact that his show remained virtually unchanged for 35 years. So how did he do it, and how might this translate to whatever we happen to be doing in our spheres of influence, among our friends and community, in our churches?

Could it be that Mr. Rogers had a clear, unwavering understanding of what was and is truly relevant to his audience? The children who watched his show—many of us—never tired of our daily visits with him. Why? Well, for me, it ultimately came down to my knowing that he wanted to be there with me. He let me know that I was okay, that I was accepted, that he had time for me. And he wouldn’t let me forget it, telling me every day just in case I had forgotten. I was fortunate enough to have very attentive parents, so I can only imagine how much more vital, desperate even, this need was for the millions of children with parents who could not or would not provide this for them.

There is nothing evil about newer children’s programmings that utilize large colorful dinosaur costumes, computer-generated animation, and frantic activity to keep children entertained. But these programs would do well to take a lesson from Fred Rogers’ playbook: None of this flash will compensate for a lack of attentiveness and genuine love expressed to children. Nobody has a basic human need for nonstop graphic wizardry, but we all have the need for that human touch. And whenever all of the window dressing distracts from (or worse, tries to conceal a lack of) genuine love for the audience of children, they fail. They miss the mark of what is truly relevant. We may live in a cynical, media-saturated age, but this truth is timeless.

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This is a primary lesson for me as strive to be the best father I can be. And as we rack our brains to think of effective ways to connect with our culture, we would be wise to keep the first thing the first thing. Whatever innovations and novel uses of technology and up-to-the-minute music and use of the arts and cool websites and great magazines—whatever we might devise to bring Jesus to our culture—we would be wise to remember that all of it is meaningless if we forget the most fundamental thing: People are desperate to feel loved and accepted. They are dying to have someone in their lives who will listen as well as talk to them. And they want to be certain that you will be there for them tomorrow. No doubt about it.

Mr. Rogers taught us a lot of wonderful things. For me, his most important lesson was this: that true relevance has nothing to do with being hip to cultural trends and everything to do with cultivating genuine, selfless love. If this is present and abundant in our lives and ministries, they will thrive despite many of other variables. If it is lacking, all of the cultural relevance we can muster will come to nothing.

[Steven Slaughter lives near the lakefront on Chicago’s northside with his wife and three small children. While he is not busy in his role as foreman of Slaughterhouse Design, he enjoys painting, reading, organic gardening, his church’s worship team and other leadership roles, and writing for RELEVANT magazine.]

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