You probably don’t talk a lot about happy clouds when you preach. Perhaps you don’t have an afro. You may not even know how to paint. But if you pastor a small or medium sized church in the rural south, there’s a good chance that you feel a lot like Bob Ross.
Bob Ross is my favorite painter. Honestly, Bob Ross is pretty much the only painter that I know other than my friend who does body work at the car dealership up the road from me. I realize that such a confession says a lot about my artistic and intellectual shortcomings. I can live with that.
I’m sure that the higher ups in the art world can’t stand Bob Ross. The guys who mix yellow paint with human hair, throw it on a canvass and sell it for $6,500 probably aren’t big fans of Ross’ happy clouds. But talent and technique have nothing to do with why I like Bob Ross. I like him because he helps me relax.
Everyone in the media is screaming about something. Whenever a controversy erupts, the media reports on it and then invites 12 panelists on to yell at each other about it. Bob Ross is a break from that. On his show, The Joy of Painting, he whispers just enough to not be creepy while he paints a happy little tree next to a happy little cloud. And if that tree looks lonely, he paints a friend for the tree. Trees with friends are a much needed relief from arguing over politics and the culture war. Bob Ross helps me to escape.
But in all of my years of watching my favorite painter, I think that I’ve been missing the point. Ross didn’t just want to paint pictures. He wanted to teach other people how to paint pictures. That’s why he sold his own paint brushes and started off every show by telling us what colors he would be using that day. Never once have I ran out to the craft store to grab some painting supplies and set them up just in time to follow Ross’ lead. I just like to listen to him.
In the rural south, a significant portion of the church population is a lot like Bob Ross’ audience. They like what they hear. They show up to escape from the noise of the outside world. They even like their pastor. They just don’t have a lot of interest in applying what they hear to their life. If I may carry the comparison further, they don’t care about learning how to paint. They pay you to paint for them. They just want to watch.
Pastor, there will be Sunday mornings in your church when the worship service feels a lot like a taping of the Joy of Painting. You’re doing a good thing, people are listening, people love it, but they aren’t planning on living out what they hear. They’re just there for the show. They’re there to escape. To relax. As a result, you’ll start to feel like you’ve done a better job of gathering an audience than training up disciples.
Don’t get discouraged.
Instead, learn another lesson from my favorite painter.
When I first started watching Bob Ross, I would always get a little mad with about five minutes left in each episode. The picture would look done. There it is: a cabin on a snowy hill with some trees off in the distance. The end. Cue Big Bird and the rest of the Sesame Street gang.
But that’s when Ross would paint a big, brown line right down the middle of his painting. As I saw it, the picture was ruined. In reality, it was just starting to come together. The tree that made no sense to me was the one thing that made the painting come to life. Bob knew what he was doing.
As much as we would like for hundreds of people to respond in faith and obedience each time that we preach the gospel, we must remember that those results aren’t up to us. Directing people’s attention to Jesus, even if they don’t seem to be responding in the way that we would like, is infinitely more important that achieving some ministry goal that we can brag about to our friends at the next conference.
Pastor, remember that creating a perfect masterpiece is not our job. We aren’t Bob Ross in this scenario; God is the artist. We are the cameramen.
Regardless of how the audience responds, just keep on filming.