“Bob Ross” Preachers

Do you know who Bob Ross was? Does it help if I say “Happy little trees”?  He had a painting show on PBS for many years until his untimely death at the age of 52. I saw a news report about a place where you can go to have a “Bob Ross Experience” and it made me think about our approaches to preaching.
I have been making public speeches since I was in elementary school — I have the “Declamation” winning pins to prove it! It must be genetic. When I spoke as a young pastor at the 150th anniversary of my home church in 1985, I sat down afterward next to a retired judge who had taught an adult Sunday School class in this big church for decades. He leaned over and said, “You remind me of your grandfather when you speak.”
I never heard my grandpa make a speech; he died when I was a freshman in high school. I took that as a high compliment. My undergraduate degree is in Speech Communications. I competed in speech events in high school. I have thought a lot about public speaking and about the difference between a speech and a sermon.
Perhaps like me, you have heard numerous people preach on your computer screen or phone over the last year. It has reminded me that I think there are three ways to approach scripture in a sermon, all of which have their place. One is as if it is a specimen that has to be examined only by experts who will then tell those who are not experts about this. If a preacher says a word in Hebrew or Greek or tells you what the Hebrew or Greek means, they are doing this. A second is to use the research that has been done in the pastor’s study to tell the story in a compelling way. “And then Paul wrote to Corinth where he knew the church was in disarray. . .” A third way is to preach the life-saving, life-changing, convicting truth of the passage in a way that changes the listener’s hearts. Sometimes we do this by simply reminding them that they are beloved children of God. Most preachers get to this third level only occasionally.
Now here is where Bob Ross comes in. The person reporting the story went through the “Bob Ross Experience” where people watch a show and, with the help of artists in the room, complete a painting in the 30 minutes of the show. One of those who run the experience said that it is not so much about helping you to see that you can be a painter. It is to help you see that you can do anything. It makes painting accessible in a way that they hope — as did Mr. Ross — will change people’s lives even if only in a very small way.
If we make this analogy with preaching from the world of art, perhaps it would be like this. Some preachers are like a professor teaching a graduate class in art history. They make scripture seem lofty and set apart, only to be understood by trained professionals. That is certainly a part of the truth about scripture. They let us in on a secret or two each time they preach. Others are like docents in a museum, pointing to the beauty or challenge of a work of art and inviting us to see those qualities as well. Then there are those preachers — or maybe all preachers on occasion — who, like Bob Ross, help us to experience the awe or the humor or the flash of insight that the artist has conveyed in such a way that our lives are changed, if only a little bit.

Perhaps you preach or sing or teach a Bible study or encourage others to join you in tending directly to the least, the last, the lost, and the lonely. I hope that every once in a while we can all be like Bob Ross, helping our friends to see the simple truth that the good news in our lives calls us to bring hope in the name of Jesus.

Rev. Susan (Sue) Krummel
Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Chicago