What is sensationalism? Is it something we should be concerned about as Christians? Was Jesus a sensationalist as some say?
Typically, sensationalism is the act by television or newspaper journalists presenting sensational events or occurrences, sometimes as they happen. If it’s “sensational,” then they reason it would make good news. It could be live TV coverage of a flood, hurricane, or other natural disaster, or a civil event (like a riot), but as is often the case, little regard is given to what is actually fact, because what is purported to be occurring that is so sensational that facts may not matter to them. The suffering or human toll is at the forefront. If you narrow it down, sensationalism (for TV, newspapers, and tabloids) is the ethical doctrine that feeling is the only criterion of good news. That sounds dangerous because when the focus is only on the sensational, there is less focus on the truth. Sensational occurrences make for good ratings, but it’s often done at the expense of truth. The truth can easily get lost in the sensational. Facts have sometimes gotten in the way of the spectacular, so in the strictest sense, sensationalism is focused on the event or occurrence more than the fact behind the sensation. Maybe that’s why there is so much fake news today….headlines matter more than truth, so truth is held captive by sensationalism. Why? It’s because truth is not as interesting as a natural catastrophe or someone powerful falling from grace. In other words, sensationalism can be tied to a certain subject matter, language, or style that’s designed to produce startling or thrilling impressions, and even to excite and please vulgar tastes, so as you can see, sensationalism can go too far.
Sensationalism Affects You
I believe sensationalism affects us all. You can see it in the newspapers, magazines, on the TV news, and in tabloids. Things that are sensational take more time up on the news than almost anything else because sensational events overshadow the ordinary, but sometimes more important things in the news. Sensationalism is preferred over the mundane, even if the stories are about people doing good things. If something good does happen in the news, it’s too boring for the advertisers to support, but if it’s a sensational story, it can quickly create an around the clock news reporting event. Sensational events sell more ads than mundane, everyday things, even if it’s critical to the audience. The news media isn’t always interested in the good things that happen, so they won’t report the news with your best interest in mind. That’s because they’re interested in ratings. Good ratings create more revenue.
When Jesus came to be born into the flesh, being born of a virgin, which was pretty sensational news to Mary and Joseph, but not to the Jewish religious leaders, because they closed their ears and eyes to Jesus’ purpose and mission. They feared the crowds would follow Him and not them, but Jesus was never interested in drawing big crowds. Jesus would sometimes go to be alone and pray, leaving behind those who were sick or lame (Mark 1:35-38), but Jesus knew exactly who to heal and when, so the only sign Jesus ever gave the religious leaders was the sign of Jonah; that He would be three days and three nights in the grave, and yet would live again. To be sure, Jesus as God never died…His physical body did, but Jesus never! That’s because God cannot die, but Jesus did do some very sensational things while on earth but for very good reasons. He raised the dead, made the lame to walk, restored the lepers, and made the blind to see, and the deaf to hear, but when the crowds got too large, He would leave the area because He knew many were only coming to see a “side-show” Man perform tricks. Jesus’ primary purpose was not to heal but to save, but that wasn’t that sensational to most. They wanted to focus on the miracles and not the Man. The people were amazed and glorified God (Matt 9:8; Mark 2:12; Luke 5:26), but that was not why Jesus did miracles. They were a sign that the long-prophesied Messiah, so “many of the people believed in him. They said, “When the Christ appears, will he do more signs than this man has done” (John 7:31), however Jesus was more interested in a miracle of the heart; the regeneration of human beings by the Spirit of God (Eph 2:1-5). The religious leaders should have rejoiced at the Christ’s appearance and the miraculous signs that were to accompany Him, but instead, “The Pharisees heard the crowd muttering these things about him, and the chief priests and Pharisees sent officers to arrest him” (John 7:23). How hard can a human heart get?!
I know of one Bible school that actually teaches people how to heal. The class is so popular, there is a waiting list. The students come to this class to learn how to perform miracles, particularly healing. They even say that with enough faith, it’s possible for someone to raise the dead. Of course God can and is still doing miracles today, but as for “healing lessons,” I couldn’t find even one in the Bible, nor were there “three easy steps” you could follow to raise the dead, but what’s missing in these classes and the syllabi? It is the fact that no human has ever miraculously healed anyone….ever! That’s because it is God alone Who does the healing. Of course, God works through people, not people acting as God through themselves. Either God decides to heal someone or He doesn’t. Most people don’t understand that God can and often does use suffering in His purposes for us. The point is, when God heals, He doesn’t splatter it across cable news networks, tabloids or post it on You Tube. When Jesus healed people, He often told them to go and tell no one (Matt 8:4). When the crowds got too large, what did Jesus do? Did He start having healing miracle services? No, but rather He would leave the area. The Jews once came to Jesus seeking for a sign, but Jesus rebuked them sharply, saying, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed” (Matt 16:4). There was His chance. He could have drawn thousands to Himself by displaying powerful miracles on the spot. He could have because He is God, but that would have drawn people for the wrong reason. They should be focused on repentance and faith, which is just what Jesus said the gospel is (Mark 1:14-15). That’s why it’s wrong for churches to seek crowds by announcing that they’ll be having “healing services” and that “Brother Bob” is will be laying his hands on anyone who is sick. But wait! What if it’s not God’s will to heal someone, like with Paul and Timothy? God intended Paul’s thorn in the flesh to keep him humble, so have these churches even considered God’s will in all this? When the crowds began to grow, Jesus would often do what it says in Scripture, “So he left them and departed” (Matt 16:4b), but at some churches, when the crowds grow, they’re only getting started.
I believe far too many people would rather see or hear about sensational miracles than they would the truth of God. Some already have, like the Bible school I told you about where students can be taught to heal and raise the dead like the apostles did, but they are not the apostles. In fact, they are not qualified to be one (Acts 1:21-22), and if you read the qualifications, none of us are old enough to be one. Luke the Evangelist wrote that “God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul” (Act 19:11). Notice it was God “doing extraordinary (may I say, even sensational) miracles” and not Paul. Miracles were not done by Paul but through Paul, or through “the hands of Paul.” I don’t believe Paul had to learn how to do miracles in some class he took, like, “Okay Paul, here’s how you have to hold your hands. Hold them out just like this and then….” No, Paul knew it was “God doing” the “extraordinary,” and not Him, and God was doing these things, not to be sensational, but to validate that God was working through Paul and the other apostles, and not through the Jewish religious leaders. Besides, Jesus became angry when people only sought after signs because they were coming to Him for the wrong reasons. They weren’t coming to Him because they were sinners in need of saving. Jesus angrily responded, “Will you never believe in me unless you see miraculous signs and wonders” (John 4:48)? I believe the answer to that question is no, because even the miracles witnessed by the religious Jews did nothing to change their heart. In fact, there hearts so hardened that after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the Jews sought to kill them both (John 12:9-11! How lost can you be!?
Here is some related reading for you: Does God Still Work Miracles Today? 
Resource – Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), Crossway Bibles. (2007). ESV: Study Bible : English standard version. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles. Used by permission. All rights reserved.