Ministry Resources

From the Jail Cell to the Pulpit

Author: Bethany Dzielski

If you met the well-spoken and clean-cut Jon Shaffer you wouldn’t be surprised that he’s a church planter and pastor of two churches—CityReach Church Braddock and CityReach Church Swissvale.

But, you may be surprised to discover that before Jon’s life was transformed by Jesus he was a drug dealer who spent much of his young adult years in and out of prison.

A rough start

Jon spent most of his childhood in North Braddock, Pennsylvania. His mother had three children, each with a different father. Her husband, Jon’s stepfather, was an abusive crack addict. At the age of 16, Jon got involved in gangs, firearms, and drugs. At 17, Jon began living on his own when his mother and siblings moved to Somerset County, PA. Eight days before his 18th birthday, Jon was shot in a drug deal gone bad.


Only 10 months after his family moved, Jon got busted and went to jail on felony drug charges. Then, in an effort to escape trouble and get his life on track, Jon moved to Somerset with his family. But, he soon discovered that in Somerset he could sell his drugs for twice as much.

“I kept getting into all kinds of trouble. I was in and out of jail,” he says. Jon spent his 21st birthday in the Somerset County Jail for his second DUI. “I knew that if I lived to be that age of 21, it would be because I was locked up.”

“I was laying on my bunk. I said, ‘God. if you are real you have to do something.’ I began to shake. I felt God on me and was born again in that jail cell.” When Jon got out of jail, he was on intensive parole and his girlfriend was five months pregnant.He started going to church, but no one took an interest in discipling him.

Jon had an opportunity to go to Lancaster, Pa. for junior college. While in Lancaster, he started smoking marijuana and quickly became a worse drug addict then he’d ever been.

Barely alive to really living

On New Year’s Day of 2003, Jon woke up, lying on a radiator. “I heard people in the next room talking about what they were going to do with my body. They thought I was dead,” he says. That was a wake up call for Jon. He got a decent job and started going back to church in a small, rural church in Somerset.

The young pastor, Pastor John Jackson, took an interested in Jon. “He had the most innovative outreach plan ever—he loved me. He invited me to dinner, encouraged me,” Jon says. At the time, Jon was awaiting trial for his third DUI. He fully expected to receive the 23-month maximum jail time. But, Jon was using his time before the trial to start to turn his life around. Pastor John even allowed Jon to work with the youth.

A unique call to ministry

When Jon went to jail again, he had three different people, inmates not Christians, who told him that he was supposed to be a pastor. Jon’s sentence was lessened to only 30 days in jail and 70 days of house arrest. While he was on house arrest, God baptized him in the Holy Spirit.

After doing his time, Jon reconnected with Pastor John. “He started saying crazy stuff over me, like ‘God has a call on your life.’” Pastor John took Jon to visit Valley Forge Christian College. Jon felt that he was supposed to attend. It was there that Jon met and married his wife, Christine.

During his junior year of college Jon had a vision. God revealed to Jon that He was calling Jon back to Braddock, PA. So, once they graduated, Jon and Christine planned to move to the Pittsburgh area in an apartment that Jon’s brother owned. However, when they arrived the apartment had no pipes, no door knob and was full of mold. Jon’s job plans fell through as well. The couple started thinking, “How did we miss God?”

The right connection

Jon had briefly met Pastor Brian Bolt, president of CityReach Network, during a class at Valley Forge. Jon’s close friend knew Brian and gave him Jon’s number and he gave Jon a call. The two men met up at a church planting boot camp in Pittsburgh. At the time, Brian had yet to plant any other churches other than his own, but he knew that God was calling him to plant more churches.

Launched into ministry

Jon came on staff with Brian at Pittsburgh City Outreach (now CityReach Church Pittsburgh) and helped with the church and Hope Home. Then, on January 31, 2010, the couple opened a Hope Home in Braddock. This was also the date when the local hospital officially closed its doors, delivering another blow to the once thriving steel town.

Then on September 26, 2010, they launched the “first” CityReach church (CityReach Pittsburgh was still Pittsburgh City Outreach at that time), CityReach Church Braddock in an old Elks Club building. Today, CityReach Church Braddock offers a nontraditional service on Friday nights. They have a time of teaching and prayer, then volunteers serve 35 to 60 people a meal each week. “The people there are either volunteers or unchurched and unsaved. It’s a community,” Jon says.

In September of 2014, Jon also launched CityReach Church Swissvale. A Lutheran minister sold them the old church building for one dollar. The church services in Swissvale are more typical church service on Sunday mornings. “The people in Swissvale give back and serve at the Braddock church,” Jon says. “We want to reach the progressive, post-modern and affluent as well, but God keeps sending us those who are struggling with addictions or coming out of destructive lifestyles.”

“I’m believing God for more souls and more laborers. I want to see more people come to know Jesus,” Jon says.

Posted on DECEMBER 3, 2015Categories Church Planting Stories Pastor Jon Shaffer shares his story Written by Bethany Dzielski

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