New 606 contributor Ben Wideman is the campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State.
Discipleship is a word that gets tossed around a lot in campus ministry. It is at the core of many different organizations on our campus… we even have a campus ministry that was founded at Penn State and now present on more than a dozen campuses across the country called DiscipleMakers. Most of these organizations see discipleship as a sending call to embody a literal biblical call to make non-believers or non-practicing Christians into disciples of Christ (based on the Matthew 28 passage often referred to as the Great Commission).
At the core of my responsibility to the students at Penn State is a radical kind of relational discipleship that looks somewhat different than how my campus ministry colleagues and peers might understand the word. Much of this difference has to do with a posture adjustment in how I move in the world. The traditional understanding of discipleship is that Christians are sent out into a broken and fallen world to save the lost by turning them into disciples. Unfortunately, Christian history is filled with stories of people doing this poorly – perhaps with aggressive (sometimes militant) force, coercion, or manipulation of the people they engage. It is packaged with a black-and-white certainty about who is right and wrong. It also requires determining that Christians are the category of “in”, and everyone else is “out”. This insider mentality also comes with some unfortunate insider traits of being against LGBTQ+ inclusion, indifferent on environmental or racial justice, and intolerant of other faith traditions.
Rather than seeing our campus as a problematic fallen and broken space in need of conversion, I see an opportunity to present a different kind of Jesus follower. My role is to flip the script of what a Christian minister can be. My ministry has to be radically inclusive, welcoming and affirming students regardless of their gender or sexual identity, regardless of their faith tradition (or lack-thereof), and offering them a space to belong even if they have more questions than answers. I was fortunate to have mentors and professors who challenged me to see Christ’s example as a way that was radically inclusive of the outsider, and to challenge the notion that it was the church’s responsibility to be the gatekeeper of that inclusive love. It is with their voices in my head that I move in my work and context.
Recently someone asked me how many students I’ve converted to Christianity during my first five years of work with 3rd Way Collective. I paused for a minute, realizing that my focus has not been on creating new Christians. Quickly my mind went not to those who have converted but to the many people for whom we have helped redeem their faith tradition. Dozens of students came to mind who had been on the verge of giving up their faith because they thought the only way to be a Christian was a fundamentalist one, focused on who gets in to heaven and who will be sent to hell. They were close to rejecting their faith because they had seen church leaders reject their peers who were gay, Muslim, atheist, too liberal, divorced, or any of the other reasons that Christians have condemned the world.
I thought about Gary Cattell, a long-time street preacher, referred to on campus as the “Willard Preacher” for the building he stands in front of day after day. His message is one of condemnation and repentance, urging students to turn from their evil ways, and to reject the trappings of college parties, homosexuality, women’s rights, and substance abuse. Gary is a complicated character, because he has some grains of truth in his ramblings. It is true, after all, that Penn State’s party culture and substance abuse can be highly problematic. But with his scattershot street preaching approach he’s missing the point. He forgets that each person who walks by him is a beloved child of God, in need of love and support in their life regardless of the decisions that they have made. He forgets that being radical in our context is not preaching condemnation, but rather humbly sharing a Gospel message that is more wildly inclusive and welcoming than our minds can even comprehend. There is certainly a need to be reflective on how college students spend their time, but I think this happens best when we take the time to get to know each other and enter into meaningful dialog about our experience.
Rather than preaching, my vision for radical discipleship with college students is two-fold.
The first is to show up and speak up for students who feel marginalized or rejected. Right now on our campus that means getting to know students from underrepresented groups having to do with ethnicity, economic background, gender or sexual identity, or religious identity. We also see an increasing need to be providing spaces for those who feel like their political ideology is underrepresented. Being present with these groups is often met at first with skepticism. After all, Christians are often the ones who are leading the charge in condemning these various groups if they do not conform to a traditional Christian mold. Yet something incredibly transformative occurs when students realize we are not there to change or convert, but to speak up to use some of our privilege to empower and work for meaningful change in our context. These are the sacred spaces where students begin to see how they can thrive instead of simply surviving, and to be part of shaping a better future.
The second part is to create spaces for people to simply be and belong. In our early moments I assumed that 3rd Way Collective was present to preach about a faith-based peace and justice alternative. I realized very quickly that the most helpful way to do this was to create connecting points where anyone was welcome to be present and belong. Our regular events shifted from lecture-based times to unstructured meals around a table at a local restaurant or pub, family dinner table, or student living room. These spaces of belonging do not require students to share a set of beliefs or perspectives; however, they do strive to be accommodating first and foremost to those who are marginalized. In this way we radically shift the historic discipleship narrative from one in which people must first conform in order to connect to one in which people can connect first and decide which aspects of the tradition or community to embrace or reject in their own time.
We still have a lot of work to do. I don’t always know how to reach out to those who continue to feel marginalized, nor do I always fully understand how my own privileged identity (straight, white, middle-class, Christian, male, etc) places its own barriers of belonging. An increasing number of students from politically conservative perspectives are also feeling marginalized, and I’m not sure exactly what to do with that given that they often come from many of those same privileges that I do (cisgender, white, middle-class, Christian, etc). I am also acutely aware that I still hold fear about speaking up and speaking out. I can remember specific times when I did not have the courage to speak up in a public space for a person who was clearly being treated poorly. I decided that it wasn’t my space or time, forgetting that this is precisely how injustice continues on – when people remain silent.
I know for certain that my vision is not perfect, but I think I would rather focus on standing up for those who feel marginalized, and creating spaces for people to belong, than continuing a campus ministry tradition of building spaces for the insiders and rejecting those who already feel like outsiders. It is my hope that our example with 3rd Way Collective can continue to challenge other faith groups to transform how they see their call to discipleship within our student body.