Maranatha Bible and Missionary Conference History
A Step of Faith 1936-1940
Maranatha began with a vision and a need. Dr. Henry Savage, then pastor of First Baptist Church in Pontiac, Michigan, longed and prayed for a place where pastors and young people could come together for growth and encouragement. His love of youth and seeing their potential for Christian service drove him to look for a site where wholesome recreation and spiritual challenge could be combined in a unique and beautiful setting.
In 1935 Dr. Savage and his minister of youth and music, Mr. Howard Skinner, brought the youth group from their church to a camp on the east side of the state, near Brighton, Michigan. The site was not very satisfactory. Having previously visited what is now the Maranatha grounds on the west side of the state in Muskegon, Dr. Savage arranged to use what was then called the Lake Harbor Conference grounds for four-week camp with 500 boys in 1936. Karl Steele had impressed him with his chalk art ministry in meetings at their church, so he included Karl in this venture.
They returned the summer of 1937 and Dr. Savage signed a five-year lease with Mr. A. M. Johnson who had held the property during the Paul Rader years and the Lake Harbor Conference that followed. Later Dr. Savage raised $40,000 and with additional funds, including a loan from Sudan Interior Mission and a gift from Scripture Press Publishing, was able to purchase the grounds.
In 1938 Dr. Savage
scheduled programming for the entire summer and renamed the grounds Maranatha
Bible Conference. Later, the name was changed to Maranatha Bible and Missionary
Conference. Dr. Savage did not feel he
should leave his church to oversee the work at Maranatha and asked Howard
Skinner to assume the full-time responsibility as the summer manager of the
grounds. Howard and his wife, Ada, both
talented soloists and keyboard artists, managed the property and led the
ministry until their retirement in 197
4. For years Maranatha became synonymous with the music ministry of Howard
and Ada Skinner. In addition to Howard’s music ministry, an important
contribution was his work with young people.
Mr. Karl Steele remained an important part of the ministry providing chalk artistry several nights a week in the services. His God-given talent touched the lives of many people with his unique ability to simply present complicated biblical messages.
These gifted leaders were very resourceful in promoting Maranatha without the aid of today’s technology. Mr. and Mrs. Skinner and Mr. Steele traveled each spring to churches all over the Midwest area presenting a program titled, The Gospel in Music and Art. Dr. Savage joined them in the winter months to minister to military camps and hospitals.
People also were attracted to Maranatha through Maranatha’s classes in music, art, and journalism which were taught by gifted instructors.
Another area of ministry was that of hosting pastors for a pre-season Pastor’s Conference. Scripture Press, Sudan Interior Mission, and Maranatha underwrote these conferences allowing pastors to come free of charge.
God’s Faithfulness in Growth 1940-1960
Maranatha continued to grow under the leadership of Dr. Henry Savage and Mr. Howard Skinner. Dr. Savage very early on called two unique women into ministry at Maranatha. Dr. Amy Lee Stockton was an evangelist, Bible teacher, and counselor. She was known for her profound messages exalting the Lord Jesus and weekly bon fires where many dedications were made.
Amy’s associate, Rita Gould, was the conference hostess and director of the children’s ministry. Her dynamic teaching, especially in the form of music, planted biblical truths in young hearts that led to many decisions for Christ.
J. Stratton Shufelt, better known as “Strat,” was a weekly guest musician for many years. After he built his cottage here in the 1950s, he served he served in many areas on a volunteer basis. Then in the 1960’s he became Howard Skinner’s assistant, serving as director of activities and as a musician.
This was a time of significant nationally recognized speakers. Billy Graham was a featured speaker at Maranatha for six years from the mid-40’s to 1951. He first spoke at the channel-side vesper services. On July 14, 1956, he returned as the nationally known evangelist and spoke to a crowd of 8,000 people seated in the Tabernacle and on the surrounding lawn.
During this period several rental cottages and the first privately owned cottages on leased land were built. The original Lebanon Lodge known as the “Rec Hall” (Recreation Hall) was also built. Like today’s Lebanon Lodge the “Rec Hall” provided staff and large group housing, and a recreational center for teens.
In 1945 the children’s chapel was moved from the northeast corner of Hendricks and Lake Harbor Roads to its final location along the Channel in order to be more centrally located. The chapel, built around 1870, was originally used as a one room school house and was the oldest school in Norton Township (now Norton Shores).
Originally there were two portions of property that were used as a nine-hole golf course. Part of the course was east of Lake Harbor Road across from Maranatha. The other section was west of Lake Harbor Road and south of the ball field. To pay debts, the parcel on the east side was sold in 1952. Part of the remaining portion of the golf course west of Lake Harbor Road which became the Maradune Development, was sold in 1961 to pay Sudan Interior Mission’s loan to Maranatha.
God’s Faithful Members - 1960’s to early 1970’s
Up until this time Maranatha had a board of six members as well as an advisory board. Then in 1961 the board was expanded to include over twenty members. The opportunity to become shareholders was offered which eventually led to Maranatha becoming a membership organization. These changes resulted in financial stability, an increase in resident cottages and the establishing of an additional trailer park (the first park having been built in the 1950s).
Special program weeks including Gospel Films Ministries, Youth for Christ, World Vision and United World Mission were offered. The Saturday night musical concerts were the highlight of the week. They featured guest musicians and concluded with the chalk artistry of Karl Steele accompanied by the musical background of the Skinners.
Dr. Savage retired in 1963 as Director of Maranatha, and went to be with his Lord in December 1967. His great desire to have a new prayer tower was fulfilled when the Savage Memorial Prayer Tower was built in 1969.
Mr. Howard Skinner retired in 1973 and was called to his heavenly home in 1985. He was the son of a Methodist minister and a Methodist himself. Dr. Savage was an outstanding Baptist preacher and a great leader in his denomination. The two worked well together from the founding of Maranatha until Dr. Savage’s retirement in 1963. Maranatha has been inter-denominational from its beginning.
Faithfulness Through Change - 1974-2000
The next several years involved changes in leadership and expansion of facilities and ministries. Following the retirement of Howard Skinner, Mr. Tedd Bryson became the Executive Director of Maranatha, serving from 1974 through 1987. Tedd and Ruth Bryson were former residents of Maranatha. Tedd had previously served as the Director of Youth for Christ in New York City.
Tedd invited Strat Shufelt to assist him as conference host and musician. Strat also led the prayer tower services making these times very meaningful.
Additional musicians serving on Maranatha staff included Tim Zimmerman with the King’s Brass, Dr. Paul Satre, and Dick Anthony. After Dr. Savage’s son Bob retired from the mission field, he also assisted with the music ministry and in other areas as needed.
Significant ministries were expanded or added at this time. The Ladies Auxiliary had served Maranatha for many years in tangible projects such as cleaning and redecorating rental cottages. They later developed the Ladies Auxiliary Luncheon as an outreach ministry and a special fund-raising event. The Ladies’ Day retreats also began in this period. The women residents formed a missionary committee to uphold in prayer those who were missionaries from our own resident families.
1983 the Don Aldrich Memorial Golf Outing was initiated in memory of Don Aldrich. Don and his wife Sandra were residents here and he had made a tremendous impact on many of the Maranatha families, especially the teenagers. While still a young husband and father, he was called to his heavenly home. The generous proceeds from this annual outing have been used for projects needed by missionaries from the Maranatha family. Don’s wife, Sandy reinstituted the Fall Writers’ Conference.
Extensive building programs were completed during these years. In 1976 the Lodge was completed; in 1980 the Duneside Suites were constructed; and in 1986 the first phase of the Lakeside Condominiums was built.
As a result of these improvements, the emphasis of ministry shifted from serving large youth or church groups to couples and families. These newer accommodations allowed the Brysons to establish a tri-season retreat ministry at Maranatha, although summer remained the most significant season.
Ron Busch became executive director after Tedd’s retirement in 1987, and served until 2000. Ron had previously directed Winona Lake Bible Conference which made him well qualified to continue the strong program that Maranatha had developed. His musical talent enriched Maranatha’s tradition of quality music. He first brought in Dick Anthony who added other musicians and they became known the Maranatha Musicians. Later Robert Adams became the music director and introduced the Thursday afternoon music recitals which were a favorite of the guests.
Fall and spring senior citizen retreats and Home School Week in late August were initiated. Another ministry introduced was that of sports camps. A baseball camp led by former professional players and a volley ball camp were the first sports camps to be established.
The most significant building improvement during Ron’s leadership was the Family Life Center. Generous donations from long standing members allowed the Family Life Center to be built in 1999. The Family Life Center replaced the old conference center. It includes class rooms, a gymnasium, and lovely sweet shop as well as recreational facilities in the surrounding area.
Two new apartment buildings were also built with moneys from these same donors. The addition of these beautiful buildings spurred an increase in summer attendance and enabled Maranatha to further develop the use of the facilities year round.
Ron Busch’s leadership ended not long before he went to be with the Lord in 2004 at the age of 58.
God’s Faithfulness continues into the 21st Century
Scott Barger became the Executive Director of Maranatha in 2001. Scott had formerly been the director of the Salvation Army Camp in Echo Grove in eastern Michigan.
Under Scott’s leadership several special attractions which were targeted to the youth were implemented. The summer sports camp program was expanded as Maranatha established a partnership with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
In 2005, Terry Agal followed Scott Barger’s leadership and became the Conference Manager under a new administrative model incorporated by the board of directors. Terry had formerly been vice-president of Human Resources at Hart and Cooley Company and was already invested in Maranatha initially as a weekly summer guest and more recently as a condominium owner. His business background brought much to Maranatha.
In the summer of 2007, Tim Ostrander, former vice-president of operations and assistant to the president of Moody Bible Institute, joined Terry in a co-leadership arrangement. Tim assumed the position of President, and Terry’s title was changed to Director of Operations /Chief Operating Officer. Serving together, these two men have brought increased efficiency and stability to the ministry of Maranatha. Tim’s vast knowledge of Christian speakers and musicians and his platform skills has been invaluable for Maranatha’s program ministries.
With this new partnership, Terry was able to focus on maintaining and updating the existing facilities and grounds. Improvements were made to the Lodge, Duneside Apartments, and the Tabernacle. A lovely pedestrian plaza or town square was built connecting the buildings and offering a place for fellowship.
The old ball field, which had been used mostly for parking, was landscaped with a grass surface that would allow the field to continue to be used for parking when needed and also for a much improved area for sports. The creation of this new field resulted in the start of the football camp.
Maranatha acquired five additional cottages which were remodeled and given the names of countries where members of the Maranatha family have served or are currently serving as missionaries.
An exciting addition to the facilities was the building of the new Lebanon Lodge. This provides improved staff housing and a better teen center for the summer. It can also accommodate large groups for year-round retreats. Along with the other major improvements in the last few years, this was accomplished through financial and labor donations of Maranatha family and friends.
Maranatha has continued holding its own sponsored retreats such as the Christian Writers’ Conference and the Senior Retreats. Two of the largest regularly held retreats that are not Maranatha sponsored are the Open Hearts Ministry (formerly S.A.L.T.S) and two identical weeks of Joni and Friends Family Camp.
Maranatha has always had a strong emphasis on missions. As early as 1946 Maranatha fully supported over fifty missionaries along with giving to many missionary projects.
Through the years numbers of young people have been challenged and responded to the call to serve either in foreign missions or full-time Christian service. The giving to missions continues to increase. Only eternity will reveal the results of Maranatha’s strong and special focus on missions.
“Great Is Thy Faithfulness” Lamentations 3:23