Mission exploration in an unlikely place

When you think of places that are ripe for the harvest and logical locations to begin mission exploration, you probably start thinking big cities and highly populated suburban areas, right? It seems like a natural place to start. I mean, there are lots of people in those areas to connect to God’s Word and a seemingly endless potential of opportunities to do so . . .

But what about a place like the U.P. (the Upper Peninsula of Michigan)? It’s a huge area of land—larger than a lot of states, in fact. But yet the total population is less than 300,000. And even the largest city—Marquette—is only a little over 20,000.

It might seem illogical to do mission exploration in such a sparsely populated part of the country—a land where wild animals and trees far outnumber people! But yet the people who do live here are equally loved by God and just as desperately in need of salvation as people in the big cities. And in many ways, it’s actually easier to establish yourself and connect with people in towns of 3,000-5,000, as opposed even to suburbs of, say, 30,000-50,000.

This past October, I had the privilege of leading Pastors Ben Enstad and Wayne Uhlhorn on a little tour of several of the “larger” towns in the U.P. (and I use that word “larger” very loosely)—and in doing so, they, too, agreed that the U.P. certainly is a mission field worth exploring. We already have small congregations in a number of the larger towns—so in those places, we already have the benefit of some established connections. But the problem is that it’s also been hard to gain any sort of traction in those communities—because, due to financial limitations, the majority of those established congregations have to share one pastor between two or even three parishes.

Two examples: Iron River and Marquette. Iron River—the hometown of recent Olympic gold-medalist snowboarder, Nick Baumgartner—is a town of about 3,000 people, with a good percentage of those being unchurched. But yet the congregation that we currently have there barely has a presence, because the pastor lives 45 minutes away and is asked to spend his time also tending to two other parishes. Likewise, Marquette—which again is by far the largest “metropolitan” area in the U.P.—has a small, but long-established WELS congregation in the area, dating back to the mid 1800s. But yet the existing congregation is 10 miles east of town where hardly anyone lives; and furthermore, the pastor is pulled further in the opposite direction by the fact that he also serves another congregation 45 minutes southeast of his rural Marquette congregation.

So like I say, there’s certainly potential to be tapped. But a lack of financial resources, and therefore a lack of sufficient pastoral presence, has really been a hindrance to doing any sort of major outreach in recent years.

And this is where WELS Home Missions can come in and offer a much needed hand. Working together in collaboration with our already established congregations in Iron River and/or Marquette, Home Missions has the ability to provide financial resources that currently aren’t available to those congregations; and those extra financial resources could enable them to call an additional pastor. Such a pastor could focus his attention where that attention is needed, directing his efforts primarily toward outreach and really getting into the community. And with the blessing of our gracious Lord, I believe such work would bear much fruit—even in a place that otherwise seems rather unlikely.

I’m very thankful for the opportunity I had to show Ben and Wayne the U.P., and I’m happy that they, too, saw the potential. It’s not where your mind might immediately jump to when you think about our Synod’s goal of 100 new missions and mission enhancements in the next 10 years. But God’s not limited to only being successful in big cities! And neither are those who live in small towns and remote areas any less worthy of hearing the precious, saving truth of the gospel!

Written by Stephen Lehmann, pastor at Mount Olive Lutheran Church in Iron Mountain, Mich.

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