Ministry Resources

Near-death Experience Ignites Life-giving Calling

Author: Bethany Dzielski

Fifteen years ago, Justin Maslanka was an alcoholic and a cocaine user.

Today, Justin is the lead pastor at CityReach Church Cleveland and a regional leader for CityReach Network. His life was turned upside down by the Holy Spirit after a near-death experience awakened him to the power of God.

Justin grew up in Pittsburgh. He started using alcohol and drugs before he was even in high school. By the time he graduated, Justin’s life was out of control. “I drank every day, used cocaine, and gambled. A number of different vices griped my life.” Over the course of 18 months in Justin’s early 20s, he had six near-death experiences, all related to his drug and alcohol-influenced lifestyle.

Everything changed

On Easter of 2002, in the early morning hours, Justin was driving under the influence and wrecked his car going 90 miles per hour. He wrecked into multiple vehicles and fled the scene, running from the police. Hours later, Justin turned himself in.

The next day, Justin told his mother what had happened. Justin’s mother, who had been praying for him, told him, “Justin, Jesus saved you!” Justin didn’t believe her. “Don’t you know the things I’ve done, the person that I am? I don’t believe it!” he said.

Again, Justin’s mom said, with the most conviction Justin had ever heard, “Justin, Jesus saved you!” In that moment, it hit Justin like a ton of bricks. He flashed back to the accident, to all the times he almost lost his life over the past months. “I was just blown away at how real God was. I knew that he had a plan, and I knew I had to get right with him,” he says.

Justin got on his knees. He told God, “God, I don’t know how I’m going to serve you. I don’t know what you’re going to do with me, but if you deliver me I will serve you for the rest of my life.” The Holy Spirit spoke to him saying, “Go upstairs. I’ll show you what to do.” Justin went upstairs and threw away every evil thing that he owned, and even returned a TV that he had stolen.

Justin gave up everything to follow Jesus. Miraculously, in that moment, God delivered Justin from all the addictions in his life. From that day on, Justin never again drank, smoked cigarettes, or used cocaine. “Everything was dealt with by God’s love and power.”

From the day he got saved, Justin starting telling everyone about Jesus.

“I had such a passion for the gospel that I couldn’t be contained,” he says. “It was normal for me to lead a person to Christ every day.”

Justin’s mother was attending Allison Park Church, and Justin began to attend with her. He spent time serving and training in the ministry. Then, when Brian Bolt, now the president of CityReach Network, prepared to plant his first church in Pittsburgh, Justin joined him as his associate pastor. Justin was also the first director of the very first CityReach Hope Home, in Pittsburgh. He got married to his wife, Suzie, and she served as the worship leader for the church.

Justin served with Brian for six years. “It was amazing. We started at a storefront in Lawrenceville. What was incredible was the power of God,” he says. “Brian and I didn’t have a lot of experience or expertise to bring to the table at the beginning, but we both had seen a lot of miracles, and we had faith that if we stepped out God would show up.”

During those first years, there was really a drive to see God’s power manifested in broken people. “We saw incredible things. A man got healed from hepatitis C. People got delivered from addictions and bondages,” he says. “Many prostitutes gave their lives to Jesus, which convinced us to open the first women’s Hope Home. There was always a sense that you didn’t know what God was going to do next.”

Not just a weekend getaway

When Justin turned 30, God called him to do a 40-day fast. Justin, waited and listened, but God didn’t speak anything profound. He was disappointed. The only thing he felt God saying to him was to take his wife away for their anniversary.

The couple began looking for places to go, but everywhere they looked closed down or someone had booked the hotel for an event. A day before they were supposed to leave, Suzie said, “How about Cleveland?” As a hard-core Steelers fan, Justin’s response was “Cleveland? What good can come from there?”

But, the couple ended up going to Cleveland for their anniversary. While they were there, God strongly laid it on their hearts that they were supposed to move to Cleveland and plant a church. “It was a divine set up. He told us to reach the hurting people in the heart of Cleveland. We were blown away. We weren’t ready or expecting God to say that,” Justin says.

Planting and multiplying

In 2012, Justin and Suzie moved to Cleveland. They didn’t know anyone and had no connections. “Today, CityReach has great resources and a process for church planting. We didn’t have anything like that then.” Brian and CityReach had planted several churches before helping to launch Justin and Suzie in Cleveland, but it was all still new.

What helped the launch of the church was that the couple planted a Hope Home in Cleveland. “Starting something from scratch was pretty daunting early on. But, starting the Hope Home was really critical for us. It got us moving in ministry.”

Quickly, Justin went from being the pastor of a young church to helping to plant additional CityReach churches in Ohio. CityReach Church Cleveland launched on the west side in 2013, and a second campus launched on the east side in 2014. Justin also helped to launch seven other CityReach churches in the region, and now serves as a regional leader over these churches.

“The process of helping to launch other churches is like being on a roller coaster. It’s exciting because you’re helping with something that is beyond yourself. It’s fun. It’s incredible, but there are dips and turns that are unexpected,” Justin explains. “The key is to stay close to Christ and abide in him.”

Today, CityReach Cleveland has approximately 150 attenders with an additional seven churches and three Hope Homes throughout the state of Ohio.

A foundation for multiplication

Brian Bolt had a vision for planting many churches from the very beginning. “It didn’t seem very real to us then, though,” Justin says. “It took us three or four years to plant one church. But then, Pastor Jeff Leake [president of Reach Northeast] just kept fueling that vision over and over again.”

“Once I became a Christian, I grew up in an environment where I didn’t know you could do anything but multiply. From the time I was a new believer I was in meetings about planting churches. It was just part of the culture,” Justin explains.

Justin believes there was a grace from God that existed to build the foundation for CityReach Network in its calling to plant churches. “Those first years were really building the foundation for what was to come.” Planting five churches in five years lead the way to plant 10 in one day, and most recently 23 in one day.

“Now we have a grid. We have ways to plan. There’s a vast amount of churches being planted in short order, but it all started with the foundation, those first few church plants, and a dream that God would do something bigger,” Justin says.

CityReach Church Cleveland pastor shares his incredible story Written by Bethany Dzielski

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