When our daughters were small, they loved watching “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Our youngest daughter, Melissa, said Mr. Rogers was one of her favorite people on earth. In fact, when the program was over, she’d kiss the TV because she loved him so much. Mr. Rogers’ love and respect for children was evident to most everyone who watched the program.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is a powerful movie released in November and based on Fred Rogers’ relationship with a troubled journalist who was assigned to write a magazine article about Rogers. The journalist character in the movie is based on the real-life journalist Tom Junod. Junod reports he was initially skeptical about the assignment but came to experience the unconditional love shown to him by Fred Rogers. Writing in the December issue of The Atlantic, Junod makes this observation about his relationship with Fred Rogers:
“A long time ago, a man of resourceful and relentless kindness saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. He trusted me when I thought I was untrustworthy, and took an interest in me that went beyond my initial interest in him. … [The movie] seems like a culmination of the gifts that Fred Rogers gave me and all of us, gifts that fit the definition of grace because they feel, at least in my case, undeserved. I still don’t know what he saw in me, why he decided to trust me, or what, to this day, he wanted from me, if anything at all” (fmchr.ch/atlantic).
Mr. Rogers began every program the same way. He would put on his sneakers and change into a cardigan sweater while singing the show’s theme song, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is another way to think about the second part of the threefold mission of the Free Methodist Church: love God, love people, and make disciples.
Loving people compels us to lay down our preferences.
Each of us have preferences. We prefer different types of music, like particular foods, and enjoy very different forms of recreation. It’s a good thing that we don’t all agree. Wouldn’t life be boring if we all liked the same things?
Unfortunately, some people confuse preferences with foundational truth. Foundational truths are those bedrock pillars of our faith that must never change. For example, people confuse preferences with foundational truth when they strongly believe that music in a worship experience can only be one specific style and that all other forms of worship are not valid. The bottom line isn’t what we prefer but what is pleasing to God and what will draw people to consider a relationship with Jesus.
Jesus was so good at creating a welcoming environment for people. Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well (John 4) and engages her in a life-changing conversation. Jesus perfectly models truth and grace as He talks with her. Jesus never soft-pedals the truth but makes her feel so comfortable that she opens up to share the deep secrets of her life.
The response of this woman — transformed by meeting Jesus — is so powerful. She lives out what it means to tell others the good news about Jesus, “‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?’ They came out of the town and made their way toward him” (John 4:29–30).
Every local church needs to wrestle with this question of preferences. This is such a complex issue. Local church leaders need to ask: How do we both serve the people who are already a part of the church family and create a welcoming environment for those who are not yet here?
Our founders were committed to simplicity in dress and modesty so the poor would feel welcomed among us. In our culture, it’s hard to tell if someone is wealthy by the way they are dressed, but the principle is the same. We desire our churches to be welcoming places for people and to eliminate all the roadblocks that would prevent them from feeling at home.
One provocative question I believe is so helpful as we think about this issue is: Who gets served first? Of course, local churches should create environments where people can grow and mature who are already there, but church members must also think and pray about making sure their church is ready for company and willing to remove any roadblocks that prevent new people from being welcomed and feeling comfortable.
In my previous role as a superintendent for over 20 years, I’ve worked with pastors and local church leadership teams as they wrestled with these questions. In most cases, local churches want to be welcoming places, but the process of getting there can be painful. This requires a prayerful strategic effort on the part of pastors to cast a vision for this kind of a local church and leaders’ will to embrace the change that must take place.
Loving people demands a radical commitment to listen.
Really listening to people is a hard thing to do — especially to listen to people who may disagree with us. But the ability to talk graciously with someone who we may disagree with is a sign of spiritual maturity and sanctification. The closer we become to Jesus, the more we want to engage with people and listen to their stories and even the pain they’ve experienced.
Our society is so divided and so factionalized. It seems like it is no longer possible to disagree agreeably. When we only talk with people who agree with us politically and watch the same cable news programs we do, we miss the opportunity to hear other people’s perspective and live out a call to listen.
As Christ-followers we are called to stand in the gap and live out James’ admonition: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). This is so hard to do; isn’t it? Some of us are very good at talking but not very good at listening. As Dr. Phil McGraw said, “We need to be long on ears and short on mouth.”
While having lunch with a friend recently, we talked about the incredible impact of the life of Fred Rogers and the recent renewed interest in him. As we talked, we both admitted we didn’t really get Mr. Rogers at the time. His unpretentious ways of communicating and simple sets and puppets seemed odd to us adults. We completely missed his profound respect for children and the powerful message he proclaimed.
The radical commitment to listen is one of the places where I think we miss the point today. We can mistakenly believe that to listen to someone different from us compromises who we are. Nothing could be further from the truth. Listening communicates acceptance in ways that most of us do not fully understand.
Loving people motivates us to take the gospel down the street and around the world.
Before the Free Methodist Church was a decade old, we began planting churches in different parts of the country, and by our 20s, we were sending missionaries around the world. This motivation to share the good news of Jesus came from the biblical mandate in Acts 1:8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
An improper reading of this text leads to the faulty conclusion that once we have all the bases covered in Jerusalem we can go on next to Judea and so on. Rather, the scriptural admonition in Acts 1:8 is that these things should be happening at the same time and not one after the other.
Our worldwide missions movement now dwarfs the Free Methodist Church in the United States. The Free Methodist Church is now ministering in more than 80 nations around the world. This explosive growth outside the United States is something that should bring us pride as a ministry family.
But we also long for the day that kind of impact is being experienced here in the United States. We see the seeds of kingdom harvest on the horizon. We know this kind of rapid spread of the gospel is possible.
Loving people propels us to meet people’s needs and stand for justice and reconciliation.
Our ministry family traces its roots back to people who were profoundly committed to proclaiming the gospel and meeting the needs of people. This coupling of a personal and social holiness is in the DNA of who we are as Free Methodists.
Our amazing God is no respecter of persons. God deeply loves every person in the human family. There is nothing we can do to make God love us any more and nothing we can do to make God love us any less.
Justice and reconciliation are part of who are, but at times we’ve been silent when we should have spoken up. At times we should have been quiet and listened to the pain of people who’ve experienced racism and sexism in our ministry family.
It’s amazing to look around the Free Methodist Church today and see the needs that are being met in so many ways. We are living out this part of our DNA better than we ever have before.
Remember the words of the prophet Micah:
“He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8 NKJV)
The church that I pastored in Seattle developed a ministry to homeless women. We welcomed women into our church facility to sleep every night. This ministry became a vital part of who we were as a congregation. Because our family lived in a parsonage next door to the church, these women became our friends and neighbors.
While this ministry helped to meet the needs of homeless women in Seattle, the impact on our congregation and our family was profound. We realized that these women had so much to teach us. We learned about what it was like to be poor and homeless. The ministry was messy and full of complications, but, looking back, I think the most lasting change was in us.
We know many of the women in the shelter were fleeing domestic violence, and we suspect some of the others may have been battling their own drug and alcohol addictions, or were in the grips of mental illness. I asked our daughters looking back what that was like as young girls to be around that type of ministry, and one of my daughters recalled that she was never scared of the women; she was scared for them.
Our daughters were able to experience a gritty but real-life version of ministry. They have both grown to be women of God with huge compassionate hearts for the marginalized. We all trace that back to living next door to the shelter and frequent interactions with our homeless friends living next door.
Jesus defines what it means to meet people’s needs in the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 10:25–37). Jesus responds to a question from a teacher of the law that prompts Jesus to tell this powerful story. The text tells us that this religious leader asked Jesus this question to test him. He could not have imagined how Jesus would respond.
Jesus turns the tables and makes the religious people the ones who miss the point in this story, and the most compassionate and godlike response comes from the most outcast people group of Jesus’ day.
Loving people requires us to share the good news of Jesus.
We have a passion for people to come to know Jesus. We believe that a relationship with Jesus is the best decision a person can ever make. Social justice is in our DNA as a ministry family, but we also must know that was always coupled with strong proclamation of the gospel. One cannot be separated from the other. The Great Commission and the Greatest Commandment are the foundation of who we are.
The meeting of needs without sharing the message of Jesus is inadequate, and the proclamation of the gospel without the commitment to take a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name is irresponsible.
Jesus lays out this kingdom priority just before He returns to heaven, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19–20).
Both evangelism and discipleship are critical in following God’s mandate for us and are both a part of what it means to love people. The proclamation of the gospel and making disciples are inseparable. You really can’t have one without the other. Local churches should intentionally provide opportunities for people to be presented with the good news of new life in Christ and then offer an appropriate way for people to respond. God-honoring local churches will also provide clear avenues for people to grow in their faith and become deeply rooted in the body of Christ.
People all around us are desperately looking for persons and local churches to love them and help them discover what it means to find a life-giving relationship with Jesus.
Love God. Love People. Make Disciples. Won’t you be my neighbor?
Bishop Matt Whitehead oversees Free Methodist ministries in the Western United States and also in Africa. He was elected the lead bishop of the Free Methodist Church – USA at General Conference 2019. He previously served more than 20 years as the superintendent of the Pacific Northwest Conference after 17 years as a local church pastor.2