I was discouraged and defeated. I had moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania, to help launch a gospel-centered church, but I had no idea what a spiritually stony place Scranton would prove to be.
There was a cultural malaise that enveloped the region. It had once been the epicenter of the old Northeastern coal belt, but its boom days were long ago over. In fact, you could argue that the American dream had died in 1950 in Scranton. People in this rusting mountain city felt like they had been failed: the schools had failed them, politicians had failed them, corporations had failed them and so had the church.
The city had been built on top of the deep coal mines where everyone worked, and when the mines were abandoned, not only did everyone lose their job, but everyone’s property was at risk. Quite often the earth would open up and a parking lot or a backyard or someone’s house would disappear into the great, bottomless void that was once the mines.
The precarious physical state of the city defined its psychology. People in Scranton no longer believed that anything good could happen there, and they also didn’t believe that anyone cared. As a student in Philadelphia, long before our move, I heard regular jokes about Scranton, like, “You know who ran for mayor of Scranton? No one…and he won!”
DIFFICULTY AND IMMATURITY
I was 27 years old, full of energy and expectation, in one of the toughest places in the United States to plant a church. When we moved, I had no idea what I would face, but it didn’t take long for the reality to set in.
We were a little struggling group of believers, trying to be a light in a city that was hurt, depressed and cynical. The families we sought to serve struggled relationally and financially. There was one period of time when the unemployment figure in Scranton was 17 percent!
Sure, there were good things that happened. We were able to form a little community of love and provide a safe haven for people who had been hurt by the church. We started a Christian school as an alternative to the broken city schools. But ministry in Scranton was burdensome, and I was unseasoned, proud and immature.
I was an honors graduate from seminary. I had won a variety of student awards, and I left seminary thinking I was ready to take on the unbelieving world. But as a young and inexperienced pastor, I wasn’t ready for ministry, and my immaturity was quickly exposed. On occasion, I look back at my early sermons in Scranton, and whenever I do, I want to send a letter of apology to all the poor people who had to sit through them. I once preached a sermon on pride, and I thought it was the best sermon ever preached on the topic (an assessment that ironically lacked humility!).