By Allison Hurtado
The town of New Buffalo, Michigan, grows from 2000 people year-round to 11,000 during the summer months. For the past 27 years pastor Jeff Dryden has led Sawyer Highlands Church, in another small town just 10 miles away. He saw an opportunity to start an outdoor service in New Buffalo during the summer to reach vacationers from nearby Chicago and Indianapolis. The unique dynamics of the town and gorgeous parks worked for the new Lakeview service, which began in 2008, until the city shut it down. A hot dog stand owner allowed the service to continue on his outdoor patio, and soon they were averaging 70 to 100 attendees.
“Converge had asked us to start praying about planting a church or starting a site by June 2015,” Dryden said. “So we started praying in 2010. We were looking all over the place, then all of a sudden people asked us, ‘Hey, would you do the Lakeview service year round?,’ so my wife and I began to think maybe this is what we’ve been praying about.”
There were two problems: Dryden didn’t live in New Buffalo, and in a small town, location matters more than distance. The Lakeview service outgrew the hot dog stand’s patio. Now what?
“If you’re going to start something in a small town, you need to be in town to do it,” Dryden said. “We moved. Even though it was only 10 miles, it changed everything by doing that.”
It also changed where his kids went to school. Sawyer and New Buffalo are rivals. A Michigan law allowed his two high schoolers to stay at their current school, but after a youth group trip, his son Elisha told him, “I think God wants me to switch schools.” It was a powerful turning point for the family. His son had to tell his basketball coach he was going to play for the rival.
Already fully committed to the community, Dryden approached the high school to take care of the space problem. The initial agreement would have been fine, but there was pushback from the board to make it temporary. Dryden was told he could have the school for three months and could renew again in three months. He thought the deal was off.
“How do you launch a site with only six months [guaranteed]? Nine at the most? But we went ahead and signed anyway, and that year my kids joined the school, and the board’s attitude changed,” he said. “They never enforced the three-month rule. We just left the location May 31, 2015.”
Thirty people from Sawyer Highlands formed the launch team and within a few short months attendance was reaching 80 to 100 people. Dryden found himself in discussions about finding a permanent home for this service, which, while still part of Sawyer Highlands, was named Converge Community Church. They started their search for a building and settled on an unusual place: an abandoned car dealership with peeling purple paint. Dryden knew it was the one.
In the center of New Buffalo, it had become an eyesore off the main highway. Although it sat empty for over a decade, a different church had tried to purchase it at the same time the economy took a downturn and the project lost financing. The building’s last owner painted it with an Arizona motif. Dryden calls it hideous.
“It was an embarrassment to the city. It needed a huge overhaul and that is why it sat so long. It scared people away,” Dryden said. “The Lord saved it just for us. We knew it had issues and needed a lot of work, but God renovated it just like he renovates us.”
A total of $470,000 was raised, making the building purchase and renovations debt free. Members and regular attenders from Converge and Sawyer helped renovate. It was completed “Habitat for Humanity” style. Everyone chipped in with different projects over the course of a year to make the “purple building” habitable. In total, more than 6000 hours were donated to turn the building into a functioning church.
A grand opening was held June 14 to celebrate the work of both congregations and the community.
“It was a huge celebration and both congregations came together. It was a blast,” Dryden said. “We did membership testimonies with people from Sawyer and Converge Church. They talked about what it was like to be part of the project. Everyone sensed the Lord in it. We already knew God did this.”
Dryden says the building is appreciated by the churched and the unchurched. Many came out just to see the renovations and wound up having spiritual conversations. Dryden has faith the community will continue to come out and support the new church. In fact, vacationers are already staying long weekends to help at services. Despite the town’s population flux, many are choosing to stay, and church attendance is growing, not dropping.
The two small towns in Michigan now each have their own church buildings. Dryden insists it’s the same church, both locations. He preaches in Sawyer first then goes to New Buffalo. Even if the schedule seems a little hectic, he says it’s important for the congregations to stay connected.
“On the Converge Community Church logo we have a cross, and the way it’s designed, it converges at the center,” he said. “We are all people from different backgrounds, and we all converge at the cross. We are all the same.”