Sanders says it

May 23, 2016 by

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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.”

Hillary Watson


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.

Hillary Watson pastors at Lombard Mennonite Church in suburban Chicago. She blogs at

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  • Charlie Tinsley

    A decent study of Sanders’ legislative history shows us that he is not the candidate he appears. He, too, has dumped waste in poor neighborhoods and contributed to war.
    I do believe in the social gospel as a UMC member and my studies at EMS have only deepened that love for me. But I wonder if Jesus calls for personal charity or governmentally forces charity. It would seem that personal chairity is his message and that should be the avenue we pursue. Otherwise (in my opinion) we are legislating our Christian principles on others in the hopes that a corrupt and broken worldly government will care for its people.

    • David Jost

      I think there are isolated examples of him dumping waste on the poor and contributing to war. Certainly neither has been the spirit or letter of his work in the legislative branch and as an advocate for decades.

      More importantly, I’m concerned about the message of personal charity. Certainly I think we’re called to personal charity in a fallen world, and it’s a major priority for me. However, I’m concerned with the language of government forcing charity. Taxes are not theft. They are better understood as payment for services rendered as part of a social contract. Wal Mart makes its money because of roads, publicly educated workers, regulation of products that makes them safe and trustworthy, clean water, safe neighborhoods, and endless other public goods that I’m forgetting. The idea that Wal Mart should be able to not pay its share (which could be defined in many ways, but any sensible method would demand more than it pays now) and force its workers to live off of yet more public resources (food stamps, etc.) is a travesty.

      Now, if your point is that political advocacy is NOT the point of the Christian movement and teaching, then I’m with you (a point I’ve also appreciated from Aaron Yoder, among others, on Mennoworld). However, making a society that doesn’t rob the poor and leave them bereft of dignity and the basis for live is profoundly anti-Christian, and something that we should be concerned about both as secular citizens and as Christians who don’t want to be complicit in enabling the rich to corrupt themselves and society by plundering all the fruits of labor.

      Advocating for sane social and economic policies that don’t allow the ultra-rich to hoard everything is not our primary mission as Christians, but I think it’s valid and that it’s important, in addition to charity, if we are to claim to not be people who enable evil.

      David Jost

      • Charlie Tinsley


        I agree with the majority of what you are saying here. My continued point of contention is around taxes. I think that the government is far too corrupt to be trusted to do justly by its people and the way they spend tax money seems to be evidence enough. However, I also recognize that my view of a society that relies solely on personal charity is far too idealist until the Kingdom is fully actualized.

  • Charlie Kraybill

    Bernie! Bernie! Bernie! He will save us!

    • Wilbur H Entz

      Actually, the proper rendering of this verse is: “For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king; he will save us.” Isaiah 33:22 kjv. It is the basis on which our 3-branch (judicial, legislative & executive) system of government was formed.

  • Rainer Moeller

    “Millennials want us to rediscover a Torah-inspired social gospel.”
    Certainly, it’s the fashion of the day. But i’m quite hopeful that Millenials will grow up, will drop the Torah, the “social gospel” and the “communal salvation” and will return to a traditional Anabaptist lifestyle

  • Brian Arbuckle

    Hillary has found the Messiah!!

  • Berry Friesen

    Like millennials, I’ve noticed how much the state speaks of themes and aspirations rooted in Scripture. Ironic, isn’t it, how millennials are attracted to scriptural themes when voiced by politicians, but not when voiced by the church? I guess it’s all a matter of which texts one uses.

    War is an example. In the empire’s propaganda, war is a last resort to protect the oppressed and restore justice. These are purposes we recognize from Scripture. Of course, the empire first deploys terrorism to cause the oppression and the injustice, but it would be bad taste to be too picky about those details, right?

    You mention the social gospel. How do millennials imagine food security, access to health care, economic opportunity and restorative justice will infuse our communities? Do we call the police more often? Give more authority to the FBI and the NSA? Will the U.S. state set justice in motion if the right politicians are in charge? Someone such as Barack Obama, perhaps?

    Josiah’s admirers also had high hopes, of course, especially after he recovered the moral discourse of the law of Moses. But Josiah’s reforms were only window dressing for a society rotted hollow by wedding their worship of YHWH with their trust in the state. That was the root of their problem. It was only in exile that the Jews found their way again as a stateless people committed to being a witness to the anti-imperial ways of YHWH.

    So please tell me I’ve misunderstood you, Rev. Watson, and that millennials living in this death-dealing empire, corrupted by endless war, Wall Street, Hollywood and corporate ownership of the media doesn’t really want the church to act more like the state. Please tell me millennials only want the church to reflect more of the communal vision of Bernie Sanders, not more of the state’s salvation.

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