This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Following Jesus?

Ben Wideman is the Campus Pastor for 3rd Way Collective, a ministry of University Mennonite Church at Penn State. He blogs regularly for 

At a recent campus event, I overheard one of my student leaders talking about 3rd Way Collective. They were explaining what we did on campus and some of our hopes for the future. At some point the conversation shifted to our religious identity on campus.

“3rd Way Collective isn’t really focused on Jesus”, said this officer, then seeing the perplexed look on my face said, “Ben, I know you think that EVERYTHING our organization does is about Jesus, but what I mean is we’re not one of those fundamentalist Christian groups who shove Jesus down your throat.”

On the one hand this student was exactly right. We’re not creating an organization that is going to “shove Jesus down someone’s throat.” In fact, it’s possible for someone to attend one of our events and not even realize that we are foundationally driven by a Christian perspective. We focus more energy on action rather than doctrine or belief. We don’t focus much energy in creating worship spaces or experiences (there are already 40 other Christian groups on campus who offer Christian worship spaces on campus) and we don’t publicly evangelize unless you consider active demonstrations of a Christ-centered call to peace and justice to be evangelizing.

What we do focus on is attempting to create more spaces where students will come face to face with a Jesus who reached out to those on the margins, who ate and drank with all people (not just the proper ones) while sharing a message of hope, peace, and healing. We’re seeking to offer a space in which people are encouraged to love God and love your neighbor. I want this Jesus to be more widely known, and I want our call to peace and social justice to have Jesus at its core.

I’m realizing that we’ve reached a moment in time where many people who care about working for peace are fearful of owning the “Christian” or “Jesus” label. It wasn’t too long ago when a friend lamented to me that the Mennonite Church has done a good job raising its children to care about peace and justice, but has done a terrible job raising people up to have interest in the church.

Given our current national context this isn’t terribly surprising. Christians are often misrepresented as being aggressively pro-military, anti-environment, nationalistic, racist or homophobic. Mainstream media often portrays Christians as high-strung, crazy people. Many of these labels miss the full picture of what constitutes authentic Christianity in our world today. However, it is easy to quickly think of national Christian leaders who embody many of these unfortunate characteristics.

I don’t blame my student leader for wanting to step away from Jesus; at least from the followers of Jesus who focus only on sin and salvation, and not on practically living out a call to faith-based peace and justice. But I also believe that removing Jesus from our conversations and inspiration eliminates the opportunity to challenge or reform a broken Christian identity.

I want Jesus to be at the center of all that I do as a campus pastor because I believe that following Christ’s example can be transformative. I believe reorienting ourselves to the stories and traditions that we find in the Gospel accounts has the power to create a movement that is pro-peace and nonviolence, actively working to heal creation, embrace our global family, and be inclusive of all people regardless of race, gender, sexual identity or economic status.

How did we lose that, and how can we return to a time when we can all be proud to embrace the life and example of Jesus in all that we do? I’m hoping that I can spend some time in the future asking Penn State’s 3rd Way Collective students this very question.

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