So, if the primary thing Jesus wasn't trying to accomplish was taking the eternal punishment we deserve by dying on the cross and then rising to new life, then what was he trying to do? Here are some of Chalke and McLaren's thoughts:
Chalke and McLaren both are adamant that both conservative evangelical and liberal Christian thinking has gone awry in a response to centrality of the theory of penal substitutionary atonement within Christian circles since the days of Luther and Calvin.
On the one hand, conservative evangelicals have so marginalized the need for any kind of service as a means of propping up the idea of "faith by grace" that their "means" in real world terms, have no "ends". No "ends" except for the worship service itself, which has now taken the central role in the focus of these kinds of churches. Thus, as more energy is spent on how to make worship more "culturally relevant", Chalke, in particular, says that evangelical churches are "entertaining themselves to death", meaning that people are hungering for meaning and purpose, to make a REAL difference in the world, while, at best their only being invited to sit a seat/pew, enjoy the service, and perpetuate the church's ability to do more services either by helping make the worship service a reality or contributing money to make it a reality. Thus, churches like this, as they become more appealing in the commercial sense, tend to build bigger front doors to accommodate larger crowds clamoring to get into "the show", but also tend to lose scores of people out the back door who are disillusioned that there isn't something more.
On the other hand, both men pointed out that in order to make the kingdom a reality, one must not only be active in the service of the world, but also be intimate with the Creator. This idea, they say, is established by Jesus, who spends time with God both alone in prayer and in a corporate context as a means of re-fueling and re-focusing. By downplaying, or outright refuting, the idea that God can be known and that one can have a relationship with God is, particularly in McLaren's eyes, undercutting theologically liberal Christians, who do a lot of work to change the world but without the comfort and instruction of the Holy Spirit. Too often the end result is a person growing more angry and frustrated as things appear to not be changing. Or, in other words, this kind of theology offers no real hope for change, for the future, or for eternity.
Chalke, in particular, claims that the model the church in the west will need to follow will be the one established after the ministry of Jesus, who didn't go around preaching and then doing a few miracles to prove what he said to be true...
went around ministering to the real physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs of people, and then commented on those works. Thus, the church must lead not with it's style(s) of worship service and brilliant orators, but with serving real needs of people in the world, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Thus churches must be counseling centers, relief agencies, schools, hostels, and clinics where people can be engaged in real ministry that makes a difference in people's lives. In this model, then, worship, bible study, and fellowship ministry rallies and holds accountable people in the ministry they happen to be engaged in. It's an intriguing model, and one that Chalke has been pursuing in the church network, www.church.co.uk, he now leads.
(NOTE: THIS NEXT PARAGRAPH SHOULD BE PARTICULARLY INTERESTING TO MY GRANDMOTHER, BROTHER, AND UNCLE FRED but the rest of you can read it too) Chalke also believes that the window for these kinds of churches are opening in the west for four particular reasons. First, he thinks that the demands of the social welfare state are beginning to crush western governments. Chalke's observation in the UK is that after more than fifty years after government took over this kind of work from non-profit agencies (mostly the church), the lack of any spiritual underpinning in these program has created social ills that are spiraling downward with ever growing force and speed, resulting in the demands of service now outweighing the ability of governmental response. Thus, he sees a growing trend in the UK where politicians are now looking to any non-profit entity that can help them more effectively begin to address these social issues, and are even willing to fund through grants, those agencies that become particularly effective in doing so. His assessment is that the force of demand for solutions to these issues is becoming so great (particularly by people who have something to lose in event of a social revolution spilling over in crumbling neighborhoods that aren't that far away), that grants will be made so easy to get that if the church doesn't begin filling this gap, some other non-profit or for-profit agency will.
Second, the new generations of adults Chalke sees emerging now don't seem to entertain the idea of the division of the sacred and secular in the same way previous generations did. For example, while in Britain I remember being intrigued by the number of billboards and advertisements for "carbon emission neutral" businesses, which are companies who make donations to environmental preservation groups/companies as a means of offsetting the air pollution they generate. Thus, if your agency engages in a work that, for example, is primarily engaged in re-forestation in parts of the world where plant growth happens not only very quickly but also is thought to be important in maintaining environmental equilibrium, you can receive money from BP Oil, or British Airways, or any number of companies in Britain, who I'm sure are making donations to this work not only because its the right thing to do, but because it's smart business for a generation worried about the ecological future of the planet. No doubt, these programs are spurred on by UK tax credits, which amounts essentially in government outsourcing environmental justice work to non-profit agencies. This is a solution to what many perceive to be a grave problem that makes sense to people who do not separate the secular nature of business from the spiritual idea that we should take care of God's creation. While it can be argued that the generations raising up now are the most materialistic in history, it is also the most aware of the corporate consequences of unchecked consumerism. Churches that tap into this ethos, will be well served in the future.
Third, as the world becomes more globalized and digitally connected, in an age where people are overloaded with messages, it is becoming clear that this has not led to them finding greater meaning. People want to be part of a solution, and even more fundamentally, to the very essence of God. Just as encountering God, and not just words about God, has become a central focus in corporate worship and personal discipleship, so too is the need for being connected to God in our work, family, and fraternization. This is an outgrowth to the idea that God is not contained in a Sunday worship service, while the other 167 hours of the week we are on our own. Particularly as people are exposed to the animistic religions in the sub-equatorial of the world and the mystic religions of near and far east, the desire for a more comprehensive expression and theology continues to grow.
Fourth, if the church doesn't begin to re-define it's purpose in terms of connecting people with God to bring healing and wholeness to the world, it's impact will be further marginalized as people associate it with empty promises, in-house bickering, hypocrisy, and violence. Particularly in a world where groups or nations identified with with a particular religion (and thus defined in that context) become increasingly willing to pick up arms to destroy their enemies, the ability of religion to do anything more but divide people in this world gains more and more credibility in the streets. McLaren, in particular, as a resident and pastor-emeritus a congregation in suburban-Washington D.C., admits that this, in particular, is controversial among Christians in the United States. But now, as our government toys with idea of not only escalating the war in Iraq, but potentially expanding it into Iran, McLaren claims that military leaders at the Pentagon are calling religious leaders to begin to speak out against the use of any further violence as they prepare for the possibility of limited use of nuclear weapons within the next 12 to 18 months.
Thus, McLaren's assertion that if Jesus says, 'Love your enemies', the Christian church had better start speaking out on that behalf, if for the lesser reason to create discord and discussion in a democratic society and the greater reason of expressing a belief that these words were not just "spiritually symbolic for the individual". A message that has no real power to shape the world, in this world, is a meaningless, useless message. Whether or not we're ready to stand upon it as a part of this "Kingdom of Heaven" theology that is emerging is a challenge he gave to us in this discussion.
Ok.... one more post, concerning the consequence of these ideas to pastors of existing churches. Here's part 4.