It’s 5:44, and the Church is on Fire

Can we save the Church from decline?

Ken Sundet Jones / 6.17.21

In The Premonition, a new book about American public health officials in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Michael Lewis contends that decision-makers consistently disregarded indicators that warned of the situation being vastly more urgent than they imagined. He says that, in the face of exponential growth, their data was weeks out of date. The picture was never as rosy as they’d hoped. And their decisions were far behind the curve.

In describing officials’ inability to grasp the on-the-ground reality of the increasingly dire health crisis, Lewis cites one of my favorite books: Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire. In it, the author of A River Runs Through It traced the path of fifteen smokejumpers in 1949 who faced an exploding forest fire in Montana’s Mann Gulch above the Missouri River. By the end of the fire-fighting day, the steep slope had burned to its crest, and all but three of the crew lay dead.

Looking back four decades later, Maclean established a timeline for the tragedy that shows the smokejumpers consistently thought the fire situation was less extreme than it actually was. They believed they had more time to do their work and reach safety. At 5:30, for instance, the smokejumpers made decisions based on what the situation had been ten minutes earlier. The fire had crowned in the treetops and was moving faster than they could run uphill with heavy packs and hot smoke filling their lungs.

By 5:44 the crew foreman, Wag Dodge, saw that the fire had become inescapable and did what most would have regarded as a fool’s response. He knelt in the dry grass, struck a match, and lit the hillside in front of him — his only path of safety. With fire behind him and now in front of him as well, he yelled to his crew to step into the newly burnt grass.

Within the newly kindled escape fire Dodge was safe, but no one joined him. Two of his crewmates made it over the hog back ridge. The other twelve perished. Their watches had stopped at precisely 5:45 p.m., the moment when life was no longer possible. Today, white crosses mark the spots where their bodies were found. Maclean called those places “stations of the cross.”

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However aptly the Mann Gulch fire functions as an allegory for the pandemic (we’ll leave that assessment to future historians), it’s a workable parable for the North American church facing decline. For decades we’ve assumed we have more time to deal with the forces arrayed against the institutional church. The last thirty years have been spent operating as if it were 1955, with the culture and the church pulling in the same mutually-supporting direction. The ELCA, my denominational home, has released a projection that says that, if current trends hold, what was once a million-strong organization at its inception in 1988 will soon dwindle to just 67,000 members. The ultimate blow-up may not have hit, but 5:44 p.m. is at hand.

It forces us to wonder if an escape fire is a possibility. But needing to ask the question reveals something about our decline (and not just in my denomination). It shows how eagerly we’ve come to rely on our actions, plans, programs, and management to secure the church’s continuity. If we simply wonder what we ought to do, we remain mired in the illusion that the law can preserve us from danger and provide a comfortable future.

That approach has fueled the conflagration. It’s just more kindling and dry grass — a nicety or even handy or pretty in good times, I suppose, but exponentially more dangerous when the flames are lit. Where has our adoration of the demands of morality or justice or prosperity or growth-for-growth’s-sake gotten us? The critique sent to the seven churches in Revelation ought to feel familiar.

Those for whom Christ bled and died have often weakened the proclamation of the gospel to allow for comfort and ease, not to mention the self-serving game of church shopping. The demands to “straighten up and fly right” (or left, depending on the political bent of the demander) leave people who are already exhausted giving up. And the false perfection on display by moral and spiritual do-gooders leaves real sinners in despair.

But the gospel is created for the uncomfortable and diseased, for the bent who’ve veered away, and for those very sinners. It’s built for people racing up a 75° slope in knee-high grass with a wall of flame a hundred yards behind, knowing the safety of the ridgeline is unattainable. In short, it is for those who are dead in sin and can’t concoct the abundant life they’re so desperate for.

There is no action of our own that can save the day and the church from decline. Denominations are not synonymous with the gospel and are not a route to safety.

Wag Dodge couldn’t save his crew, but he could strike a match. In the same way, the church and its public proclaimers carry the spark to light an escape fire that does indeed make for a safe return home at the end of the day.

The escape fire is Jesus himself whom the world regards as equally as dangerous as the encroaching inferno. It’s utter foolishness. Yet he bids the heavy laden, those carrying useless pick axes and canteens and wearing far-from-flame-retardant clothes, to come to him so he can give them life. The theology of the cross calls us to discover the church among sinners, light in the face of darkness, and the resurrection in our death.

None of the smokejumpers who died on the slope of Mann Gulch stepped into Wag Dodge’s flames. It was ridiculous to think a tiny fire would be the antidote to greater fire, yet Christ’s death is the end of death. The fire of Pentecost is the preaching of the gospel in its truth and purity. It is Jesus: the way, the truth, and the life. It offers the sole escape.

The church, then, needs no saving. What needs preserving is the faith of those who strike the flint, that is, the proclamation itself. The Holy Spirit is well able to call people with matches in their hands to pull their crews in. In your desperate climb, look around for the sparks, for other sinners who know Christ. When you do, you’ll see that, while hope for the institution may be dwindling, the true church will nevertheless endure and grow.

Throughout the two thousand years of the church’s history, it has always been and ever will be 5:44 p.m. Time to drop the packs and run, walk, and crawl to the fire of life.

 

Ken Sundet Jones is a Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa.

 

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