Written by Anthony Celender

TROUBLED BACKGROUNDS

I am so blessed to be a part of what God is accomplishing through CityReach Network. We start new churches and CityReach Hope Homes to “reach the one” who is far from God and to help them become a passionate follower of Jesus Christ. I love how Pastor Brian Bolt (founder of CityReach Network/my pastor) says, “We plant churches because God loves people”. That has always been my heart since God called my wife Ashley and I into church planting in 2012.

Ashley and I both come from a troubled background and we were not your stereotypical Christians. In fact, neither of us had much of a background in church at all. I had been to church several times with my mother and grandmother growing up, but I never quite fit in and I certainly didn’t know Jesus. My wife had no church background at all and she harbored a deep resentment towards God for seemingly allowing her mother (who happened to be a heroin addict) to abuse her.

After years of living sinfully, a friend of mine invited me to CityReach Church Pittsburgh and told me about Pastor Brian Bolt’s testimony. I remember thinking, “Well, if God accepted him then maybe there was a chance for somebody like me as well.” I was really nervous though because I had been either ignored or looked down upon in almost every church I had ever visited. I will never forget that morning as my mother and I walked from the car to the entrance of the church. I was expecting glares and smirks, but I was warmly greeted and people were genuinely glad that I was there.

UNEXPECTED GRACE

I had always associated church with unworthiness but for the first time I was experiencing the genuine love of God. I remember that it hit me like a flood and I just began to weep and for the first time in my life I realized that Jesus was real and if there was even a remote chance that the things Pastor Brian preached about that day were real, then I needed them in my life. I made the decision to follow Jesus that day and my life instantly changed. I started attending regularly and God began to do incredible things in and through my life.

Eventually, I felt a burden for the city of New Kensington, Pennsylvania. I knew that it was a rough place filled with 19,000 people and many struggling in the same way I had been struggling for years. I realized that something had to be done and God gave me a supernatural love for New Kensington and the people that live there. If you have ever been there then you would know that this is something that could only come from God.

I knew deep down that if people could only experience Jesus the way that Ashley and I had, their lives could be transformed forever! So we set out to share the love of Jesus with anyone who would receive it.

“So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” – John 35-13:34 NLT

JUST AS THEY ARE

We were very focused on reaching the lost and we would be strategic about meeting at least one new person every day. We really enjoyed doing street ministry with our launch team and we led countless prostitutes and addicts to the Lord. It got to a point where the chief of police actually told me that we were taking away some of his best informants because they were leaving that lifestyle in favor of following Jesus.

It really is amazing how the revelation that “God actually loves me” changes things. Most people think that they have to get their lives all cleaned up before presenting themselves before God. However, we make sure they know that Jesus wants them just as they are. He doesn’t like some of the things that they are doing, but He still LOVES them!

“But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.” – Romans 5:8 NLT

CityReach Church New Kensington launched just over 3 years ago and we have already seen hundreds of lives forever changed. Our church is located on a street so bad even Pizza Hut won’t deliver to us, but every week Jesus delivers hope to Leishman Ave. We have seen several crack and dope houses shut down and children now being able to play in the street without fear of a shooting. People know CityReach as a place where they are accepted regardless of who they are or what they have done. It is a place of freedom, birthed by love.

“And do everything with love.” – 1 Corinthians 16:14 NLT

Regardless of what I do or where I do it, I make sure to continually refocus on the fact that I love God and I love people. As long as that is in alignment, nothing ever becomes a burden. It’s an honor to serve those that you love especially when it is God and the people that He loves. It’s not always easy to love difficult people and it is in those times you must remember you are doing this for Jesus. No matter how heavy the cross you bear may feel at times, it’s like a toothpick compared to the one He carried for us.

Pastor Anthony and Ashley Celender

Anthony Celender is the lead pastor of CityReach Church New Kensington. He was a former drug addict and drug dealer, but after being transformed by the power of Jesus and attending ministry school, Pastor Anthony Celender and his wife Ashley returned to the very streets where they used to sell drugs, this time to share something much more powerful and life-changing—the gospel.