Many readers will be aware that the state of Michigan is made up of two peninsulas, the Lower and Upper, because the state is almost surrounded by the Great Lakes of North America. In fact Michigan is called the “Great Lakes State” since it has coastal or shoreline borders on four of the five Great Lakes. The Straits of Mackinac joining lakes Michigan and Huron separate the two portions of the state and hence the expression “upper and lower Michigan.” So, it may sound strange, but some people speak of living in “the upper part of lower Michigan.” This area has been our home for almost ten years and is the focus of this article. Northern Michigan is really defined by where you live in the state, but for this occasion we will consider any area north of the city of Midland to be Northern Michigan.
The Past Decline
A quick look at a map of the state shows Detroit in the southern part of the state. The population center is therefore in the lower part of the state, primarily due to the auto industry. This fact has had a tremendous, though sad, impact on the history of assembly testimony in the north. There are now but a handful of assemblies in this region which at one time had many. In years gone by, there was a lot of employment in the north in the resource industry: lumbering and mining for copper and iron in particular. But as those resources and industries dwindled, the population looked south toward a booming automotive industry for employment. Consequently, with the labor force migrating south, the assemblies also saw a decline in the number of local believers; the result was that many local testimonies disappeared. Unfortunately, the lower part of Michigan has also seen a downturn in the automobile industry, a decline of 28% in vehicle production from 1973 to 2001. This, of course, has also affected the northern region where there are scattered parts suppliers for the industry. Consequently the north is not as attractive a place to look for good employment as is the south.
The Present Design
If any one thing has sought to fill the gap for employment in the north, it is tourism. With the favorable setting of the Great Lakes and the accompanying forested areas inland, northern Michigan has become a playground for many. There are attractions for all seasons in this region, whether it’s the water in the summer, the snow in the winter, the hunting and colors in the fall, or fishing in the spring. We’ve got it all! But this also makes for extremes in the population. Some live on incomes from the support industry for tourism and the wealthy live here part-time according to the seasons; large numbers of welfare recipients coexist with others living in “middle income” homes with more stable families. Yet, the “Great Outdoors” spirit pervades and few seem to have time for thoughts about eternity.
As in much of the United States, a large portion of the people has been ill-affected by a religious background. In particular, many have had some sort of evangelical experience; this has left them thinking they are safe, even though they are living only for the present. Or, with others it is the “been there, done that” response due to an experience that was supposed to be salvation but which had no lasting impact. Therefore many have given up on any form of the gospel ever since. Add to all that the humanistic mind-set in education and society as a whole and it has made gospel work in the north largely unfruitful. Work undertaken by various brethren during the last two decades in tents, school rooms, special events booths, and other rented facilities has generally reaped little response. God has graciously awakened and saved a few along the way, but new work has not developed. There are, of course, still many smaller cities and towns that have not had direct local efforts made in them and thus there is room for work to be done. But at this time it would seem that the greatest need and potential lies in the existing assemblies.
The Prospect Defined
Northern Michigan needs young men and women who are prepared to move to the areas of these testimonies. I am becoming more and more persuaded that in this present day the future of the smaller assemblies in various places will depend on “move-ins.” Apart from gospel work among the growing Spanish-speaking population in various locations, it appears that believers living shoulder-to-shoulder with local people are the best means of reaching lost and needy souls. Our society here and across the U.S. has been so sickened with false religion that people need to see reality in day-to-day living. The confidence required for non-believers to respond to general mass invitations seems to be gone. Except for relationships being established in everyday living, how will it be regained?
Unquestionably, the employment opportunities are not what the large metropolitan areas offer. However there are still medical facilities, schools, and various smaller stable industries throughout the northern regions of this state that could provide good jobs like those in other places. Potentially, a young couple might find themselves in an assembly with only a few others and possibly no other young couples to share with. It could mean a sense of isolation, with the next closest assembly being as far as three to five hours away. Steady commitment of time and energy will be required for these assemblies to survive and, ideally, thrive. With the preservation and renewal of existing assemblies, gospel work in the various areas that surround them could then grow. Yes, the north is open to new outreach work but there is an immediate need to “strengthen the things that remain.”