Society & Politics

Leadership Lessons from the Public Life of Jesus - Lesson 1


Preston Manning, Senior Fellow

This article is the first in a series by Preston Manning on leadership lessons from the public life of Jesus. A member of the Canadian House of Commons from 1993 to 2001, founder of two new political parties—the Reform Party of Canada and the Canadian Reform Conservative Allianceand the Leader of the Official Opposition from 1997 to 2000, Preston works with the MI on the development and communication of faith-informed approaches to political leadership and public policy.

Incarnational Communication

To incarnate—to embody in flesh; to put into a body, especially a human form.

Providential Positioning Again

Providential positioning refers to movements by God’s spirit whereby human beings (unbelievers as well as believers) are placed or moved into particular positions and situations to accomplish some aspect of God’s work in the world. In earlier articles we have examined such movements at work in the lives of Moses, David, Joseph, Daniel, Esther, Ezra, and Nehemiah as well as in the lives of an Egyptian Pharaoh and the kings of the Medes and Persians. It was in reference to such providential positioning that Mordecai posed the haunting question to Queen Esther, “Who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?”[1]

In the entire record of God’s dealings with humankind, however, there is no more dramatic and consequential instance of providential positioning than the positioning of Jesus of Nazareth in a particular human family and community within an obscure province of the Roman Empire.

The physician Luke begins his Gospel by describing the work of Jesus’ “advance man,” John the Baptist. He does so by positioning the time of their public ministry politically:

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah ….”[2]

Jesus himself, speaking in the synagogue of his home town of Nazareth, describes his positioning as fulfilling the ancient prophecy of Isaiah:

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”[3]

On several other occasions, Jesus implies that even his decisions to refrain from certain activities involved providential timing and positioning. “My time has not yet come,” he tells his mother when she asks him to intervene miraculously at the wedding in Cana.[4] “My time is not yet here,” he tells his brothers when they want him to publicly display himself at a feast.[5]

The Apostle John, who seemed to be especially aware that the events and circumstances of Jesus’ life were providentially ordered, tells us that Jesus was acutely conscience of God’s timing and positioning just prior to his arrest, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension: “It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. … that he had come from God and was returning to God ….”[6]

With respect to all the events and acts of Jesus’ life one might ask why then? why there? why in that way? We can speculate, but only God himself knows the definitive answers to these types of questions. What is clear from the teaching of Scripture is that there was providential purpose in Jesus being placed at a particular place and time in the history of the world to say and do the things he did, just as I believe there is providential purpose in the placement of you and me in the particular places and times in which we find ourselves. The challenge for us is to discern that purpose and to live and act in the light of it, just as Jesus did.


How do you make the existence and nature of a being as lofty, mysterious, and spiritual as God real and understandable to human beings? God’s answer to that question, according to the New Testament writers, is through “incarnation”—by embodying deity in flesh, by incorporating deity into a body, especially a human man, Jesus of Nazareth.

The Apostle John describes it this way:  “In the beginning was the Word … the Word was God … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. … the one and only … who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”[7] Similarly, the Apostle Paul:  “ when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman….”[8]

It is at this point that I am in danger of losing the interest and attention of my political friends and others of you who simply cannot bring yourselves to believe in the deity of Jesus. He was a good man, you say. He may have been a great teacher. He didn’t deserve the cruel fate that he suffered. But he was not divine, you say, and those who believe so are deceived.

But rather than part company over the deity of Jesus, let me try to persuade you to linger a little longer in his company. Because if you are a political person with any interest at all in learning how to be effective in public life, particularly in communicating substantive and complex ideas and propositions to ordinary people, there is much to be learned from Jesus of Nazareth and the concept, if not the reality, of “incarnation.”

To “incarnate” means to embody in flesh, to put into a body, especially a human form. In Jesus’ case, this included not only his physical birth, which Christians consider miraculous, but also his un-miraculous upbringing in a humble family; his apprenticeship, likely at age twelve, into a trade; his many years (up to eighteen) toiling in a carpenter’s shop interacting with farmers, fishermen, merchants, and the like; until at age thirty he begins to speak and teach in public as an itinerant rabbi, a public ministry which will last only three short years.

The time ratios here are important and worth noting. Up to six years in the community, the carpenter’s shop, the market place—interacting with the types of people who will one day constitute the bulk of his pubic audiences, hearing about their troubles and hopes, listening to their stories and conversation, absorbing their vocabulary and reference points —for every one year of teaching and communicating in the public arena. Six to one is the ratio of private preparation to public communication.

Incarnational Communications

When Jesus finally stepped into the public arena, he was an “incarnational communicator” and surely one of the most effective public communicators this world has ever seen—someone from whom any public communicator can learn a great deal. He embodied, became the personification of, the truths he sought to communicate. He was fully immersed in the community of human beings he had come to influence. And his choice of words, phrases, and illustrations put “flesh” upon, made intrinsically human and tangible, spiritual truths and realities, so that his audiences could better grasp and accept—virtually see, feel, touch, and embrace—what he was talking about. All this in contrast to the non-incarnational communicator who employs his own preferred vocabulary rather than that of his hearers and who is impersonal, distant, and remote from the audience.

In the case of Jesus, the incarnational communicator, note first of all the lofty and seemingly other-worldly ideas and truths which it was the purpose of his public ministry to communicate: ideas and truths about the nature and will of God, a spiritual kingdom, the role of law, heaven and hell, judgement and justice, the power and meaning of faith, the spiritual roots of pain and suffering, the meaning of truth, … the list goes on and on, concepts and truths of a high level of abstraction, seemingly intangible and for the most part beyond the ability of ordinary folk to feel, grasp, and embrace.

But then note how he puts “flesh” on these concepts and truths to make the seemingly intangible real and tangible. He does so by expressing these truths in words, phrases, and analogies drawn from where? Not primarily from the experience and vocabulary of the religious academy of his day or the “other realm” from which he comes but directly from the circumstances and vocabularies of those he is communicating with and among whom he has worked and conversed for eighteen years. Words, phrases, and analogies such as salt of the earth, birds of the air, lilies of the field, sawdust in the eye, narrow and broad gates, houses built on sand or rock, new and old wineskins, children in the marketplace, fruitful and barren fig trees …. The list goes on and on, words and phrases often woven into stories and parables designed both to enlighten and to provoke questions—stories and parables again drawn largely from his own knowledge and experience of the lives and circumstances of his hearers.[9]

Also note the nature of the venues where he met and encountered people: yes, sometime in the synagogue and formal places of learning, but more often on a hill beside a lake, in a small boat pushed off from the shore, in a disciple’s house, at a party with tax collectors and prostitutes, in the marketplace, at a wedding feast, at religious feasts, in a garden, on the road, at a well, and in dozens of other places where he was accessible to sick people, poor people, inquirers, sceptics, critics, lawyers, scribes, priests, soldiers, tax collectors, women, and children.

This is “incarnational communication” with three distinctive characteristics.

  1. The communicator literally embodies and personifies the truths to be communicated.
  2. The communicator has so immersed himself or herself in the community that he or she is an integral part of it, not distant from it.
  3. The communication is expressed as much as possible within the conceptual frameworks and in the vocabulary not of the communicator but of the community to be influenced. It is today what the communications consultants would call “receiver-oriented” communication.

Source-Oriented versus Receiver-Oriented Communications

There is an old and simple model, originating with electronic engineers, of “how communication works” that I have found most helpful in framing my own communications efforts on both political and religious subjects. It conceptualizes communications as originating with a source who wishes to generate a response from a receiver through the transmission of information (messages) via a medium. The communication occurs in a context that significantly influences it and is complicated by the existence of noise—competing information and messages.

The communication is further complicated by the fact that the messages from the source and the responses from the receiver both pass through the respective “communication grids” of each—defining aspects of their respective cultures, conceptual frameworks, thought patterns, and vocabularies which shape the formation and reception of the messages and the feedback. When the source’s grid is significantly different than the receiver’s grid, we encounter all the challenges of cross-cultural communication as when oil companies communicate with aboriginals, scientists communicate with politicians, or believers communicate with non-believers.

“Source-oriented communicators” express their ideas in the way those ideas came to them (the source), in the words and phrases of the source’s vocabulary and conceptual framework, and in venues and through media with which the source is most familiar and comfortable. Such communicators often live and operate at considerable psychological, social, and physical distance from the rank and file of the public. They put much of the onus of understanding what is being communicated on the audience rather than themselves assuming the burden of making the communication understandable.

Scientists and academics, preachers and professors, and persons in positions of authority such as corporate executives and high-level civil servants tend to be source-oriented communicators. Moses and the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day were for the most part source-oriented communicators—indeed this is generally the communication style of the Pentateuch. While this communication style certainly has its place and is highly effective in peer-to-peer communications, it is generally far less effective in communicating with the general public.

If you are a “receiver-oriented communicator” you will also have definite communications objectives and messages you as the source want to convey in order to generate a desired audience response. But you do not start planning your communications from the source-oriented perspective of “what do I want to say?”; rather you start with “who are these people I am communicating with?” What are they like—their hopes, their fears, their attitudes, their backgrounds? What do they know or not know about me and my subject? What is their vocabulary? What are their venue and media preferences? What competing information and messages are they receiving? What will be the physical circumstances and psychological climate when and where I will be communicating with them? Having asked and answered these questions about the intended receivers of your communication—much easier to do accurately if you have lived and worked among them—you now proceed to framing your communications and messages with the needs and character of your audience (the receivers) uppermost in your mind.[10]

Genuine democratic discourse[11] requires that politicians and political communicators be more receiver-oriented than source-oriented. And I would argue that as Christians desirous of effectively communicating to others the spiritual truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ we also need to be much more receiver-oriented—personally embodying the gospel’s central characteristic of self-sacrificial love, fully immersing ourselves among those we seek to serve, and framing our messages in the terms and words which they would use if they understood our message and were communicating it to someone else.

The psalmist (and political leader) David was a receiver-oriented communicator, as were, on occasion, some of the Old Testament prophets. But Jesus of Nazareth was the master of this style of communication. By embodying the truths he sought to communicate, by practising the self-sacrificial love that he preached, he gained an authority in spiritual matters that exceeded that of the scribes and Pharisees. By speaking and teaching in terms and words that the common people[12] used and could understand, people were willing to listen to him, flocked to hear him, and were “amazed” at what they saw and heard. The Sermon on the Mount was effective because the sermonizer was not some distant moralizer but a communicator incarnate and embedded in the lives and culture of those whom he addressed in words and phrases drawn from their own experience. As even his bitterest opponents acknowledged, “No one ever spoke the way this man does.”[13]

Implications for Us

As previously mentioned, if we believe in the providential placement of ourselves as human beings in particular places and times in order to participate in achieving God’s purposes in the world, the first challenge is for us is to discern those purposes and to live and act in the light of them, just as Jesus did.

But if those purposes require us to communicate in the public sphere, the second challenge is to become incarnational communicators, with Jesus again serving as the great example.[14] So if you are someone in a position to communicate spiritual or political truths and messages to individuals or public audiences:

  • To what extent do you yourself embody and personify the truths and messages to be communicated?
  • To what extent have you immersed yourself in the lives and community of those you seek to influence?
  • To what extent have you framed your communications within the conceptual frameworks and vocabulary of those with whom you are communicating?
  • How much time and effort have you devoted in preparation to become an effective incarnational communicator?

Imagine if we required anyone wanting to enter the public arena as an elected official to spend six years of incarnational preparation—learning the troubles, hopes, habits, stories, and vocabulary of his or her constituents—for every year of intended public service?

Imagine if we required anyone wanting to enter the Christian ministry to spend six years immersing themselves not just in theological textbooks and Scripture study, important as these are, but in direct and daily interaction with the troubles, hopes, habits, stories, and vocabulary of their future parishioners, for every one year of intended public ministry.

Imagine if we sincerely wished to communicate in the manner that the spirit of God communicated through Jesus of Nazareth, might not the results be more like those achieved by him—ordinary, busy, and distracted human beings transformed and moved into new relationships with God and each other by a unique and authentic style of communication?

[1] Esther 4:14

[2] Luke 3:1-2

[3] Luke 4:16-21

[4] John 2:4 (ESV)

[5] John 7:6

[6] John 13:1-3

[7] John 1:1-14

[8] Galatians 4:4-5

[9]“Jesus spoke many things to them in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.” (Matthew 13:34 and Mark 4:34)  When his disciples asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” he replied that it was both to enlighten and to obscure. (Matt 13:10-13)

[10] Note that this form of communication is not simply “finding out what people want to hear” and then communicating that to them—a communication style to which unprincipled politicians are particularly prone. The receiver-oriented communicator has definite communications objectives and distinctive messages, some of which the audience may definitely not want to hear but should. The difference between the source-oriented and receiver-oriented communicator is that the former has the audience rather than him or her self much more in mind at every stage of the preparation and delivery of the communication.

[11] In my own experience with public communications, first as a management consultant and then as a candidate for public office and politician, I first began to use a receiver-oriented communications planning framework in meeting the challenges of cross-cultural communications on behalf of energy companies with aboriginal people. I then began to use this same communications planning framework in preparing my speeches to public audiences as a candidate for public office and as a political leader, including addresses in the Canadian House of Commons.

[12] “The common people heard him gladly.” Mark 12:37 (KJV)

[13] John 7:46

[14] Some will argue that the existence of modern communication technology—in particular radio, television, the internet, and social media—has so radically changed public communication that the example of Jesus, whose primary method of communication was in direct personal contact with his audiences, is no longer relevant. This is not the place to address this concern fully, but I would suggest that one of the major effects (and problems) with modern communication technology is that while it greatly broadens the ability of the source to reach multitudes of receivers, at the same time it tends to depersonalize the relationship and to increase rather than decrease the “distance” between source and receiver. Consequently, modern communicators using modern technology should still be more believable and effective if they embody the truths they are attempting to communicate, have fully immersed themselves in their receivers’ world, and employ to the maximum extent possible the conceptual frameworks and vocabulary of their audiences—the distinguishing characteristics of Jesus’ incarnational communication.

Source: Marketplace Institute

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