As I watched the trailer for Won’t You Be My Neighbor? starring Tom Hanks, my childhood flashed before my eyes. I recalled growing up in the 1980s sitting in front of the TV watching Fred Rogers in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. And I remember learning an important lesson of life: being neighborly.
As a child, I did not think that was a radical message. In fact, the message and how it was presented were downright pedestrian. As an adult, I now realize the radical nature of Fred Rogers’s teaching. His lessons on neighborliness articulate a theology for Christians living in a culture seemingly devoid of neighborliness and for churches struggling to survive in a world of declining religious participation.
“As an adult, I now realize the radical nature of Fred Rogers’s teaching.”
Many know that Rogers was a devout Christian and a Presbyterian minister, but few are aware that he was prohibited from talking about God on his television show. Even so, each day he walked into the studio and prayed, “Dear God, let some word that is heard be Yours.” With that prayer, Rogers enacted through public television a theology of his calling and his work. In his programs, he taught a theology of neighborliness. Without ever mentioning God or Jesus, he taught millions what it means to embody a theology of neighborliness.
A theology of neighborliness is what Jesus taught in the parable of “The Good Samaritan.” Jesus told this story because an expert in the Law of Moses asked, “Who is my neighbor?” The parable illustrates that a neighbor is anyone in need of God’s love, compassion and grace. Embodying these qualities of servanthood is true neighborliness, which has little to do with merely being friendly.
American churches have largely forgotten a theology of neighborliness. For much of the 20th century, American Christians have been taught that what goes on in the confines of their church on the corner constitutes the activity of God. In actuality, God dwells not only in the church building but out in the streets of the neighborhood. As that neighborhood changes, the church increasingly does not reflect those who now live in its neighborhood, an experience especially common among Euro-American churches.
Many church members today are bewildered, wondering why the sanctuary is not as full as it once was. There is a collective hand wringing over what to do about the decline in church attendance and affiliation. Jesus never once denounced a rabbi or priest for the synagogue or temple being only half full. But he did denounce those who neglected their neighbor.
Fred Rogers, in Christ-like neighborliness, introduced his young viewers to people from all walks of life, showing them who their neighbors were – including people who did not look like or act like them. He brought the neighborhood front and center into children’s lives.
As adults, we have forgotten about the neighbor and the neighborhood. We have forgotten that the embodiment of Jesus’ message is not about getting more people in the pews but going forth to live and minister in collaboration with God in the redemption of the world. Many Christians and churches who hang their hat on the Great Commission believe they are the missionaries who hold this responsibility. In reality, God is the missionary. We are invited to join the journey as partners with God.
As an adult, a pastor and a theologian, I realize that Mr. Rogers was not just talking to children, but to grown-ups as well, including those of us who are church leaders. Churches in the 21st century can learn much from Mr. Rogers. Now, more than ever, churches need to discover what God is up to in the neighborhood and then employ a theology of neighborliness that invites and welcomes all, serves all and works alongside their neighbors toward God’s justice for all.