What the Church can Learn from Bernie Sanders

This article first appeared in Mennonite World Review.

Two months ago at Sent, the Anabaptist church-planting conference, I spoke with some young church plant­ers about what brings millennials to church. “May­be we should be more like Bernie Sanders,” I joked.

“Why not?” one planter responded. “If the church offered free education, millennials would be all over that.”As the Sanders campaign meanders onward, many speculate how the 74-year-old attracted such a rabid millennial following. But the church should ask another question: Has Sanders said something to our young people that the church has failed to say?

As I scroll through my Facebook feed, as I listen to a Goshen College alum explain his tithing to Sanders’ campaign, as I talk with a recent Wheaton College graduate celebrating Sanders’ win in Indiana — the answer is a resounding yes.

I am not endorsing Sanders (though some of my peers do). I don’t want to uphold him as an ideal Anabaptist candidate (though some of my peers do). But as a pastor, I regularly ask: “What compels young people — that missing demographic — to come to church?”

In a drastic oversimplification, I’ll offer two reasons.

First, millennials care more about relationships than the logistics of Sunday morning.

One Goshen friend, who recently moved to Chicago with his wife, said to me, “We’d like to visit churches. We want to make friends. But we probably won’t go to church on Sunday morning.” They want church to round out their relationships. They’re not interested in personal salvation. They’re interested in communal salvation, which does not hinge on Sunday mornings. Sanders lives in the rhetoric of communal salvation. And that is attractive.

Second, millennials grew up with the legacy of “family values” and personal Christian ethics, which seem inadequate in the face of their reality: climate change, wealth disparity, racial segregation. The church’s failure to articulate a theology of minimum wage or a theology of active environmentalism has left millennials on their own to explain what working at a coffeeshop has to do with God’s call on their life.

The church could speak more of communal salvation and of kingdom building as radical economic and relational restructuring.

The bottom line? Sanders talks more about justice, environmentalism and wealth redistribution than the church does — even though all of those things align with the kingdom of God.

I explain the Sanders phenomenon by pointing to King Josiah. Millennials see our political structure crumbling, as the Israelites saw the monarchy crumbling under Josiah’s predecessors because the monarchs abandoned scriptural teaching. Josiah, in 2 Kings 22, rediscovers the Book of the Law, institutes political reform based on the Torah teachings of jubilee, provision for the alien and care for the widow and orphan. Millennials want us to rediscover a Torah-inspired social gospel. They don’t care whether it comes from church or the state. But the state speaks of it more than the church. In the ideology of millennials, if no King Josiah arises, we’ll skip directly to Zedekiah and the fall of the northern kingdom.

The church has sacrificed too much of its identity at the altar of personal salvation and institutional loyalty, at the cost of abandoning the social gospel and Acts 2 theology. Millennials still believe in the social gospel. They’re waiting for the church to believe in it again, too.

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