Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Open-Air Preacher: Command Presence

Command Presence Defined

Something stressed to me as I went through the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Training Academy, and something I would later stress as a training officer to newly assigned patrol deputies, was the necessity of command presence.

A man with command presence is a man who carries himself with a certain demeanor or bearing that renders attributes such as physical size or strength of secondary importance.

A man with command presence is a man who has the ability to take control of a situation and lead others forward, sometimes in contradiction to their fears and apprehensions.

A man with command presence is a man who has the ability to exert control over people, whether over an individual or a crowd, often times without the people realizing they are under control.

A man with command presence is a man whose carriage, dress, tone, and deportment warrants, even demands, respect.

A man with command presence is a man who speaks with authority, either his own authority or an alien authority entrusted to him.

Jesus Christ embodied, possessed, and exercised perfect command presence.

A Brief Exposition

"And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath [Jesus] entered the synagogue and was teaching. And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes" (Mark 1:21-22)

Shortly after John the Baptist was arrested, Jesus began his earthly ministry with His first public sermon--a call to repent and believe the gospel (Mark 1:15). He followed this by calling several of His disciples to follow Him, promising to make them "fishers of men" (Mark 1:16-20). Jesus then entered the synagogue of Capernaum and began teaching the people present. The immediate reaction of the people was astonishment.

The Greek word translated as "astonished" is a word Mark uses several times in his gospel. The word carries a great deal of weight and emotion. The people in the synagogue reacted to Jesus' teaching as people hearing such teaching for the very first time. They expressed--whether audibly, visibly, or both--utter amazement and breath-taking awe at hearing pure truth for the first time in their lives.

One of the reasons the people were so astonished at Jesus' teaching is that it was utterly distinct from the teaching to which they had grown so accustomed--the teaching of the scribes. The scribes were regurgitators. Without passion, conviction, or authority the scribes simply regurgitated what they heard and read from the pharisees and other rabbis. Jesus not only taught the people unvarnished, undiluted, infallible truth, but He also taught with an authority the pharisee, rabbi, or scribe did not and never would possess.

Puritan theologian John Gill wrote:
"And they were astonished at his doctrine,.... The nature and importance of it, it being what they had not been used to hear; only at best the doctrine of the law, and sometimes only the traditions of the elders, or an allegorical and traditional sense of the Scriptures, and things very trifling and unedifying: and also they were amazed at the manner of his preaching, which was with so much gracefulness, gravity, and majesty, and was attended with so much evidence and power."
Yes; the people were rightly amazed at the perfect content of Jesus' teaching. However, they were also astonished at the manner in which he taught. He spoke authoritatively. Jesus possessed a perfect balance of gracefulness and gravitas, majesty and meekness. Jesus, the God-Man, possessed command presence.

Command Presence in the Open-Air

So often after reading the above passage my mind immediately turns to open-air preaching and the place of command presence in that public, evangelistic context. Granted, no one has the authority of Jesus Christ. But every man of God who preaches in the open-air should authoritatively do so, with an authority derived from the truth of God's Word and the power of the heralded gospel. In doing so, the open-air preacher should possess a biblical strength of character and manly demeanor.

The open-air preacher should have a command presence that, because of his spiritual and personal maturity, allows him to modulate and modify both his vocality and his authoritative presence according to the need of the moment. Any man who cannot control his voice or temperament while preaching is not a man who should herald the gospel in the open-air.

A man who has only one volume setting for his voice (loud to the point of distortion), lacks the command presence to serve Christ as an open-air preacher. The loudest man isn't necessarily the best man. The man who needs to yell at the top of his lungs while he is preaching is a man who lacks confidence in the instrument God has given him. He confuses volume with authority. If volume was the primary trait of command presence, then anyone with a megaphone could be deemed to possess command presence. Command presence can be exercised to great effect with a whisper by the man who possesses it.

An open-air preacher's voice should be strong, powerful, and controlled, whether or not he possesses great volume. The tone of his voice should be serious, but not downcast. His tone should be that of an orator, not a carny. His tone should be that of a man making an important announcement, not that of a huckster trying to sell his wares. His tone should be bright, but not comical. The open-air preacher is not putting on a show. He is calling sinners to repent and believe the gospel. He is not an entertainer. He's a herald. He is a communicator. He is not a clown.

Furthermore, a man who is so gentile in his speech, a man who is by nature soft-spoken, a man who lacks natural volume, authoritative tone, and commanding delivery will not likely be a good open-air preacher. If he cannot compel people to take notice, stop, and engage, and then control a crowd of varying size, he lacks the command presence to ascend an open-air box or stool. A soft-spoken man of God (and I know many) can be an excellent teacher, discipler, and even pastor, but such a man will not fare well heralding the gospel on the streets.

The open-air preacher must have the ability to authoritatively speak truth, with the ever-present ability to assess the state of his hearers, while knowing when and to what extent he should move along the demeanor spectrum between sternness and tenderness. He must possess the qualities of a field general and classroom teacher. He must possess the command presence of a marine, police officer, or firefighter and the bedside manner of a compassionate physician.

To put it succinctly, the open-air preacher must pursue conformity to the image of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29).

Command Presence Isn't Everything

Command presence is a critically important, must-have quality of the open-air preacher, but it isn't everything. A man can have command presence, yet have nothing to say. There are many open-air preachers who fit this bill--men who can command a crowd and authoritatively speak, yet their messages are powerless, impotent. The reason: they speak a smattering of truth seasoned to inedibility with the dung of heresy (i.e. pelagianism, open-theism, works-righteousness, sinless perfectionism, etc.). The men who come to mind speak not the truth in love. They speak lies, claiming to be the innocent recipients of persecution, when they are simply receiving their just desserts for publicly displaying a combination of sinful narcissism and a hatred for their neighbors.

No; command presence isn't everything. The marine exerts command presence built upon the authority of the Corps. The police officer exerts command presence built upon the authority of the agency he represents. Without the foundational authority upon which they stand, the marine's and the street cop's command presence would be limited to their ability to command and control by only the strength of their personality.

Regardless of how authoritatively the open-air preacher carries himself and speaks, if his command presence is not based and built upon the foundational truth of God's Word--the Bible--then his command presence is but a facade, a shell, a cover, a poor excuse for the real thing. He's like the man who impersonates the marine or the police officer. He's a fraud, and a disgrace to the one he tries to impersonate.

Command presence: every open-air preacher must possess it. Even a cursory of the history of open-air preaching reveals men who possessed it and exercised it in Christ-honoring ways. And reading the four gospels provides the one who both possessed and exercised it perfectly--Jesus Christ the Lord.

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