I spent the weekend thinking about two men whose lives and ministries stayed out of step with our times.
I finally got around to watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor? It’s a documentary about Fred Rogers, the quirky children’s television star who created and starred in Mister Roger’s Neighborhood from 1968 to 2001. Behind his quirkiness, Fred Rogers held to fierce theological convictions: the importance of love, the dignity of every human being, and the value of children.
Whatever you think of Fred Rogers, there’s no question he was out of step with the times. His formula, according to his producer, was to “take all of the elements that make good television and do the exact opposite.” Joyce Millman, a television critic, observed: “Rogers has resisted merchandising, razzle-dazzle, fads (though he did break dance once on the show) and technological flash … reasoning that children’s basic needs don’t change with the decades.”
Mr. Rogers was easy to dismiss as long as he alive. Even as a child, I found him a little hard to take. He was never trendy, and he didn’t worry about it, and it’s this that gave him his power.
Around the same time, I read a tribute to Eugene Peterson, the pastor and author who died on October 22. Peterson wrote some of the best contemporary books on pastoral ministry. He spoke as if he emerged from a different era, shocked to discover that pastors had become religious merchants bent on numerical success. He perplexed everybody, sometimes taking stands we could applaud, and other times endorsing books and movements that left us shaking our heads.
Peterson had no interest in the things that fascinate pastors. He called us to abandon our modern preoccupations. “The vocation of pastor has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans. Any kind of continuity with pastors in times past is virtually nonexistent,” he commented. “I don’t love the rampant consumerism that treats God as a product to be marketed.” He called us to recover what we’ve lost. He was ignorant of the rock stars (like Bono of U2) that fascinate so many of us.
Peterson had two things in common with Rogers: a strong set of convictions, and a willingness to stay out of step with the times. And it gave them ballast: a sense of stability in a culture that will otherwise toss us around.
Every day we’re bombarded with messages: blog posts (with listicles), books, tweets, and courses. The message is the same: follow these steps to succeed. We place technique and results over character and conviction. Our greatest fear is to be found ineffective and out of step with what’s happening now.
But I’ve found some others — and there are many — who are more content reading a book from two hundred years ago than one written this year; who are more likely to be found singing a song from an out-of-print hymnal than the CCLI Top 100®. They hold strong convictions, many of which sideline them from being mainstream. They’re more concerned with recovering what’s lost than keeping up with what’s new.
Fred Rogers and Eugene Peterson offered something precisely because they were rooted in conviction even when it was unfashionable. Being out of step with the times isn’t a virtue by itself; the virtue comes from the value of the convictions, and a willingness to hold to them even when it’s unfashionable.
Those of us who keep up with the times will be forgotten with the times. But there’s a type of ministry that lasts, not from trying to keep up but by remaining rooted to what matters most.