In Mark 1:21-28, we find Jesus teaching in a Capernaum synagogue (which is a Jewish house of gathering, similar to what a church would become). Jesus’ teaching didn’t seem to generate much controversy—at first anyway. This implies that Jesus was recognized as a teacher—a rabbi—and that it was an ordinary expression of his accepted social role. But this is where the normality ceases. The content and manner of Jesus’ message aroused a magnificent response. “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). Jesus’ style and substance transformed him into . . . Well, let’s say something of a superstar.
Jesus was no shrinking violet. The response to his preaching suggests that Jesus was a charismatic powerhouse. We don’t have a YouTube video of what Jesus said that day, but that doesn’t stop us from knowing the effect of it all. Apparently, the manner and content of Jesus’ speaking set him apart from the usual, staid speech by other scribes and rabbis. Did Jesus gesture and dramatize his teaching as a way of captivating people? Did he leverage an attention-getting stage presence to garner attention? We can confidently answer “yes” to these inquiries given peoples’ responses.
The synagogue audience perceived Jesus’ teaching as authoritative, not merely an emotion-less, matter-of-fact repeat of what everyone had heard before. This implies that Jesus connected with people in a definitive manner. Rather than simply quoting the sayings of this or that traditional rabbi, Jesus came across as a singular source of authority that even the demons recognized. Jesus’ ministry reminds us how a powerful speaker knows how to convey power and authenticity through a combination of words, gestures, emotion and passion (not unlike some of today’s super-pastors). Then as now, a speaker’s stage presence can be the deciding factor in driving home a message.
We live in an age of dramatic presentations and famous speakers. We’ve also cultivated the art and science of communication and charisma. Jesus was apparently a master at all of this, so much so that he rose above any and all others of his day. What does this mean for us as we swim in a sea of information? The Christian church finds itself in ongoing divisive controversy about the style and substance of preaching. On the one hand, certain churches seem to accept a monotonous monotone from their leaders. On the other hand, the fastest-growing and most vibrant expressions of Christian ministry derive from high-energy speakers who arouse and successfully channel peoples’ interest and enthusiasm.
Jesus was not a soft-spoken or boring speaker. His presence was what we lately call “gravitas,” a sense of drawing people in like when gravity acts as an irresistible force. Both the style and substance of Jesus’ message aroused action from his followers and critics. In our age of glamour there are those who are all style and no substance, but that wasn’t Jesus. Indeed, Jesus exemplified what can happen when creative style and sincere substance meet. What do you get from this combo? POWER! Yes, a one-two punch that captivates you, stimulates your interest, and prepares you for action. No preacher need ever apologize for this approach.
What’s your role in this and what can you do for your church to help get the message out? Support Renew through St. John’s “We can DO it!” campaign. As we renovate the fellowship hall we’ll be creating a more productive space. We have a message to give, it’s just that we need to better adapt ourselves to today’s worship and outreach styles. Are you willing to teach a class, share a poem, or just speak up? I hope so. Some people are naturals at this while others find other ways to share their time, talent, and treasure. That’s O.K. No matter how you help, just help in some way as we receive and share God’s love and truth.
–Reverend Larry Hoxey