3 Lessons the Church Can Learn from Trump and Sanders

There’s no question that this has been one of America’s most bizarre political seasons. And despite the feeling that it’s already dragged on too long, it’s really only begun. We still have months left to go.

Who would have dreamed that both major parties would have candidates creating so much interest and drama? Both Trump and Sanders have pulled in record crowds and stunning primary and caucus victories. And despite the obvious differences in their policies, these two disruptive candidates have some important things in common.

Both of these candidates have rallied disenchanted voters, creating mini ideological revolutions. And whether you agree with one or neither of these candidates, there’s a lot that the church can learn from the cultural shift that has empowered both of their platforms.

1. Both candidates are critical of institutions

Both Trump and Sanders represent establishment outsiders. It makes sense that Trump would be considered an interloper. But when you consider the fact that since 1981 Bernie Sanders has served as mayor of Burlington, VT (1981–1989) and has served in the House of Representatives (1990–2006) and the U.S. Senate (2006–present), it’s interesting that they would both be branded as political outsiders.

The reason that they’re both considered politically countercultural is because they’re both so critical of the political process and the institutions that keep politics running.

This resonates with citizens from every generation who have grown tired and wary of institutions like the government and Wall Street, and are angry at the corruption that seems to be poisoning the system. For Millennials and many Gen Xers, the church is seen as another institution that can no longer be trusted.

What can the church learn?

Is the church an institution that’s out to dominate and control people? No. But that’s not really the right question to ask. The more important question is: “What can we be doing to change the perception that the church is a power-hungry institution?”

If you are a Christ follower, you follow an outsider, too. Jesus’ outspoken criticism of the religious system led to his crucifixion. The church needs to be seen as an outsider movement and not as a building, an institution, or a Washington lobbyist group.

Individual members of the church need to demonstrate care, love, and concern for the everyday people—even the ones who don’t agree with us philosophically or ideologically.

The ultimate question of every church should be: “What could we be doing that would make our most ardent critics thankful we exist?”

2. Both candidates are dissatisfied with the status quo

One of the biggest boosts to both Trump and Sanders has come from people who are tired of the way things have always been done. Many people on both sides of the aisle don’t see support for these two candidates simply as agreement with their policies, but as strong stances against politics as usual.

In as early as January 2016, 20 percent of Sanders’ supporters vowed to support Trump if their candidate were to drop out of the race. That’s how strongly they see this as a vote against a broken system. I’ve had many discussions with Trump supporters who hope to see this election season as an opportunity for a reset on the whole political process.

What can the church learn?

If you don’t think the church has a problem with the status quo, try switching a church’s pews with chairs and see what happens. The truth is that we tend to fall into ruts and call them traditions.

The term Semper Reformanda came out of the Reformed movement and means “always reforming.” It communicates the fact that the church is always in need of being reformed according to the word of God. Throughout time the church has had to pivot and make shifts to align itself with the gospel in an ever-changing world.

In order to to serve the world’s needs, we need to be more open to input and transformation—and willing to take more risks.

3. Both candidates are motivating people with fear

Whether you like it or not, Trump and Sanders both use fear-based rhetoric to create support for their platform. For Sanders, it’s fear from the corruption within, and for Trump, it’s fear of the invaders from without.

The problem with using fear to motivate people is that it makes real dialogue incredibly difficult. The more that people are driven by panic, the less they’re able to listen well. It’s a conversation that has put everyone at a high-alert and in continual fight-or-flight mode.

What can the church learn?

Most of the felt needs of people are fear-based:

  • Fear of rejection
  • Fear of losing your sense of security
  • Fear of danger
  • Fear of moral collapse
  • Fear of death

It’s incredibly easy to use those fears to stimulate devotion and encourage behavior. But we need to understand that you can only use fear to inspire behavior until a person finds something else that better drowns out that anxiety.

The church should remember that “perfect love drives out fear.” (1 Jn 4:18) And the church has the opportunity to offer hope instead. The hope the church offers enables people to look to the future with clear expectation and joy, instead of seeing through shadowy cataracts of fear.

The church needs to be a student of culture

Even though the church doesn’t always need to participate in everything inspiring or motivating the culture, there is so much the church can learn by becoming a student of it. By understanding what driving and influencing society, we can better learn how serve and bless it.

If you’re interested in learning more about the culture, check out our free ebook, How to Engage Millennials!

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