Sensationalism is the use of the astonishing, the lurid, or the shocking in order to gin up interest or evoke a strong reaction. A sensationalist is someone who seeks to thrill, startle, or entertain through exaggerated language or showy style. Check-out stand tabloids rely heavily on the sensationalism of their headlines and cover photos to sell copies of their publications. Unfortunately, religious sensationalism also exists. Sensationalism in religious circles is the use of melodramatic, over-the-top theatrical methods in a religious service or overblown, incredible claims in religious literature. A religious sensationalist can be either one who manipulates others through such methods or a wide-eyed participant mesmerized by the thrill of it all.
When Jesus Christ was on the earth, He performed amazing miracles that dumbfounded people. One example is Jesus’ healing of a paralytic. The Gospel accounts relate that the people were “amazed” (Mark 2:12), “filled with fear” (Luke 5:26), and “moved to glorify God” (Matthew 9:8). It is no surprise that witnesses to the miracle were amazed at the astounding healing. They had never before seen such power. Jesus’ many sensational miracles had similar effects on their observers.
Yet Jesus was no sensationalist. He did not perform miracles in order to please euphoric crowds or stir up His own renown. In fact, He often went out to solitary places to pray, sometimes leaving many sick people behind (see Mark 1:35–38). He was not interested in thrilling people but in saving them. His concern was doing the will of God, not drawing gasps of amazement from people. Jesus’ manner of dealing with those who sought after sensationalism was to rebuke them: “As the crowds increased, Jesus said, ‘This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah’” (Luke 11:29).
Sensationalism is not too concerned with truth. The sensationalists of Jesus’ day wanted to see the miracles, but most of them were not moved to have faith in God. Though temporarily filled with awe at God’s mighty works, they were not convinced or converted. In John 6, great crowds followed Jesus in response to His many miracles. Even after He fed thousands with a few fish and barley loaves, they still asked for another miraculous sign (verse 30). But when He began teaching the hard truths of the gospel, they deserted Him: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66).
That is the nature of sensationalism. It must keep producing more spectacular events and inducing more emotional responses to keep the sensationalists interested. But true faith is not produced through sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). Miracles and emotional experiences do not create faith. God must call a person, opening his mind to truth (John 6:44). Too often, religious leaders believe that sensationalism will convert sinners, and they design their services to impress people and increase followers by sensational messages and methods, rather than relying on the Holy Spirit to give new life.