How Rich Luker (’81) has used his heart and his treasure seek God’s purpose throughout his life.
Rich Luker was back on the Concordia University Ann Arbor campus, wrestling with some heavy questions. The path he had followed to becoming a nationally renowned sports marketing expert had been long and winding. And now he had been asked to be the keynote speaker at the 2001 graduation ceremonies. But what would he say that the graduates would remember?
With multiple degrees himself, and many years spent as a professor, he had been to many such ceremonies. But “I never got anything out of it,” he says. Now, he was the one being asked to say something meaningful. He wanted to make sure, one way or another, that everyone remembers at least part of his address.
So he came up with this idea …
Time in the wilderness
Coming out of high school in 1971, it was not at all a forgone conclusion that Luker would succeed in college—let alone go on to earn a Ph.D. and become a professor. He just wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do with his life. CUAA was the obvious choice of schools. His mother was the first librarian at the school, so he had grown up around the place. In fact, he and his brother had once played where the chapel now stands. So he enrolled, got an associate degree, but then took some time to figure things out.
“That was probably the most important two years of my life spiritually,” Luker recalls. “It was just an unbelievably incredible experience. Then I took six years off from school trying to figure out what I was supposed to do with my life.”
That’s a story in itself. It wasn’t answers he was looking for, but questions.
“I told myself I wouldn’t go back until I have questions that I want answers to. So I became a janitor. And an apartment painter. And while I was working in those two jobs—which were hellacious; it was a good experience—I listened to this southern gospel radio station in Ypsilanti. It sustained me through that summer, so I went and volunteered there. Little did I know that it had just been purchased by a group of really wild thinkers, and we started the first contemporary Christian radio station in America.”
Before long, he found himself hosting the morning drive show, during which he opened up the phone lines and opened his heart to the callers.
“I was very real,” he recalls. “I would talk about the questions I had about life, and the things I got stuck on. And the phones would light up. I’d talk to people and they’d say, ‘You know, I thought I was the only one who felt this way!’ We’d laugh, we’d cry, and it was just like we were all having coffee over the kitchen table, all while talking about why our relationship with God was so important.”
When parents started asking him to help them help their kids, he knew he had found the questions he had been searching for.
“I realized I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says. “I knew I had faith in God, but I didn’t know how to help anybody’s kids. So I went back to school at Concordia.”
Finding God’s path
He finished his bachelor’s degree in psychology at CUAA in 1981. On the strength of a senior research project on social maturation, he was accepted into the graduate program at the University of Michigan, earning his master’s degree and PhD studying psychology and communication. For his doctoral dissertation he developed what he describes as “the first theory of social maturation that included the role of media.”
That led to a teaching position at Temple University, where he ended up working with a team of graduate students to help CBS Sports understand how they could lose half a billion dollars in one year on their Major League Baseball deal. What they discovered, he says, is that virtually no research had been done on sports marketing in America.
“I realized it was actually a very tough research question,” he says. “And the people who work in sports aren’t good at doing tough research. They do sports!”
Six years later, he had developed a program that caught the attention of ESPN. In 1994, it was launched as the ESPN Sports Poll. It was the industry’s first major sports marketing research effort, and it’s still going strong today.
Other social development research projects helped him understand that Americans, by and large, have been losing a sense of community and common identity. His findings have been featured in national publications such as The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, USA Today, and Advertising Age. He has also appeared on multiple national networks as an expert on social trends in America, consulting and conducting research for major national brands such as Coca-Cola, VISA, McDonald’s, General Motors, and others. In the sports world, he has worked with the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and the NCAA, to name only a few.
Service and seeking
Yet for all his success, he still sometimes found himself grappling with the tough questions of life. When he was asked to speak at CUAA’s 2001 commencement, he knew he wanted to make it memorable, while also imparting something significant. So he came up with the idea to give each of the 60-plus graduating students a crisp new $10 bill—along with a Bible passage, a challenge, and a promise.
The Bible passage is Matthew 6:19-21, in which Jesus urges His followers:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (ESV)
“The whole of the premise of the address was, ‘Where’s your heart? How do you know where your heart is?’” Luker explains. “You know where your heart is by knowing how you spend your time. And by watching how you spend your time, you know what you really treasure. And you can stop lying to yourself and say you treasure one thing when your time says you treasure something else.”
That’s when he had them open the envelopes under their chairs. He challenged them to think about what’s most important to them, and to use the $10 however they’d like: to spend it on something meaningful; to keep it for reflection while they figure out life; or, if it all seemed silly, to buy some beer and pizza.
If they wanted help figuring it all out, he told them to hang onto the attached business card and to call him any time. Because that’s where Luker’s heart is, in using his hard-earned knowledge, experience, and wisdom to help others discover God’s treasures.
And that was pretty much that—until he got the idea 20 years later to reach out and find out what people had done with their $10 bill. The goal now is to find and interview people about what’s happened to them since the commencement and turn the content into a podcast.
“I also want to find out, ‘If you were to speak to those who are about to go into school and/or those who are about to graduate, what would you say to them? What would your message be?’”
As for himself, Luker says he lives these days primarily by two Bible verses. The first is 1 Peter 3:15, which reads: “always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” The second is Matthew 5:16: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (ESV)
“When I read that verse, I read it as “let your light shine in such a way that they may see your good works,’” he explains. “So that in looking at you they say, ‘Oh, my goodness, there is a God!’
“That right there is the heart of my passion, my treasure. That is truly what I live for, the glory of God.”
Not bad for a kid from Ann Arbor who still, in many ways, continues to search for God’s purpose in his life.
If you are a part of the CUAA Class of 2001 and would like to talk to Rich about what you did with your $10, he encourages you to contact him at email@example.com.
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