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Bob Ross, Happy Trees, and You

You probably don’t talk a lot about happy trees when you teach Sunday school, witness to a neighbor or hang out around the water cooler at work. Perhaps you don’t have a cool afro or even know how to paint. But, if you’re like me, you enjoy Bob Ross.

And, it’s not due to critically acclaimed art talent. Sure, he can paint better than most on any given day, but talent and technique have little to do with why we watch Bob Ross. We like him because he helps us 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 us to escape.

But in all of my years of watching my favorite TV 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 run 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 church circles, a portion of the membership 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.

There are certainly many Sunday mornings when the worship service feels a lot like a taping of the Joy of Painting. The leaders are 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, pastors and leaders start to feel like they’ve done a better job of gathering an audience than training up disciples.

What to do? Perhaps we can learn another lesson from our gentle artist.

When I first started watching Bob Ross, I would always get a little upset 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, teach and witness 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 goal that we can brag about to our friends at the next church meeting.

Pastor, teacher, Christian witness, 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.

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