KANSAS CITY, Mo. – “It’s kind of like a Christian Disneyland,” said Mia Shapiro, recalling what first impressed her about World Revival Church. “They are super Christians.”
Shapiro was one of more than a dozen former members who spoke to FOX4 Problem Solvers to sound an alarm about a church that they now believe is a cult.
“I want to speak out to not just help people that are there to get out, but to help people find healing and find out that you can have a better life,” Carrie Phelps said. “You don’t have to suffer like that anymore.”
For others, like Taylor Brown, just sounding a warning is not enough.
“I want them to be closed down,” she said. “I want them to be investigated. I want them to stop hurting people.”
World Revival Church, which has a congregation estimated at 400, operates out of a sprawling gated complex in Kansas City. The founder and lead pastor of this mostly family-run church is Steve Gray.
He started the charismatic church more than 20 years ago in Smithton, Missouri, before moving to Kansas City where the church expanded its outreach, opening a seminary and a K-12 school – Lee’s Summit Academy.
Although the church outwardly appears to be a family-friendly environment, former members say it’s dangerous for children.
“People are almost put on a pedestal for being abusive to their kids,” said Carrie Phelps, who is still haunted by her time working in the church nursery.
She said children as young as 2 years old had to stand on carpet squares when songs were sung during services (five times a week) and hold their hands in the air. If they didn’t comply, their parents were notified.
“Countless times, I would hear people physically abusing toddlers in the bathroom because they weren’t standing on their mats,” Phelps said. “Their parents get called and come down and beat them in the bathroom and send them back to class.”
That’s a claim the church denied, but Phelps isn’t the only who witnessed it. So did another former member.
“Throughout the night you would hear kids getting hit, at least some 20 times,” said Claire, who asked FOX4 to use only her first name.
Claire’s sister Molly was one of those kids who got in trouble for not following the church’s strict set of rules. Molly said her father was upset with her for not jumping up and down and waving her arms in the front of the sanctuary during the service.
“He pulled me into one of the rooms and grabbed a ruler and spanked me with that,” she said.
Although World Revival Church denied that abuse is tolerated, a church training manual provided to FOX4 by a former member touted the benefits of withholding food from any child who’s not behaving.
“How about a fast until we break all these rotten attitudes?” the manual stated.
Molly said in her house that fast, which allowed only vegetables and water, could last weeks. It was used as punishment for almost any behavior.
“Rolling my eyes, clenching my fists if I was angry,” Molly recalled. “Anything that showed any kind of emotion that wasn’t happy was punished.”
One young woman, who asked not to be identified, told FOX4 the church taught her to be so afraid to make anyone angry that when a teenage boy, who was also a church member, started sexually abusing her when she was 5 years old, she never said a word. The abuse continued until she was 10.
“The fear of the unknown of what would happen if I would tell somebody was bigger than the fear of the abuse,” she said. “I knew I could handle the abuse.”
She and other former members said people who complained about almost anything were punished.
“If you didn’t tow the line, you could get rejected by the group,” Shapiro said.
Gerald Spencer knows that all too well. He complained to church elders after Pastor Gray asked his young son, as well as other students in a Bible study class, to write down the names of their church friends they thought were going to hell.
“It was so distressing for him that he was crying,” Spencer said. “I said, Jonathan, that’s just wrong. The only person who can judge someone’s eternal future is God himself.”
Spencer said the consequences of his questioning the pastor were swift. Other members, Spencer and his wife Diane learned, were warned not to associate with them.
“The Spencers are wolves and as sheep you need to stay away from them.”
The Spencers left World Revival Church soon after, embarrassed they’d devoted 10 years of their lives to what they now are convinced is a cult.
“You know, you have supported it, and you’ve convinced yourself of so much,” Spencer said. “Now you look backwards and think, ‘How could I have fallen for this?’”
Former members told FOX4 you often don’t realize how indoctrinated you are becoming until it’s too late. Almost every free moment is spent at the church. Services can often last until 10 p.m.
When you’re not attending church, you’re expected to volunteer. Church members even mow the pastors’ lawns, buy their groceries and run their errands. They’re discouraged from associating with people who aren’t church members.
“You are kind of like in this bubble,” Shapiro said.
“I’m that cult person,” said Taylor Brown, who said she gave up friends and even family members after joining the church.
When members did break from the church, they said it was traumatic.
“I thought God was done with me completely, and there was no hope for me at all,” Miles Shapiro said.
Mia Shapiro, who is Miles’ sister, said she was so convinced the church was her sole path to heaven that she would probably still be there if not for what happened. She said an associate pastor, who is also a family member of Pastor Gray, started hitting on her.
“He just kept coming around my apartment with my roommate and I,” she said. “We were young single women.”
The associate pastor was more than 15 years her senior and married with children.
“He was like ‘I can’t stop thinking about you.’ I was just terrified,” she said.
But when she asked a church elder for help, she was blamed for the unwanted attention. She had a nervous breakdown and left the church.
It took her years to recover.
World Revival told FOX4 when the church first learned of concerns about the associate pastor, which they characterized as flirtation, church leaders met with him. They said he separated from the church and was removed from leadership responsibilities.
After moving away for several years and returning to the area, the man is a member of the church again.
FOX4 tried multiple times to interview Pastor Gray. He wouldn’t talk to us on camera.
She later learned that same associate pastor left his wife to marry her roommate. World Revival told FOX4 the pastor was removed from the church for six years, but is now a member again.
The church dismissed what happened to Mia Shapiro as nothing more than flirting.
FOX4 tried multiple times to interview Pastor Gray. He wouldn’t talk to us on camera.
But in an email, he claimed the complaints we’d received were perpetuated by a handful of disgruntled former members who had never filed formal complaints with the church or police. The pastor said private investigators hired by the church were unable to substantiate any of the complaints.
“The allegations raised against the church are false, misleading, not based in fact and stand in complete opposition to all the church is and how it operates,” according to a statement released by the church. Read the full statement below.
Many former members tell us it took them years to rebuild their self-esteem and their lives. Some who attended the church as children no longer speak with their parents.
“They used us to get what they wanted through the church,” Molly said.
Full statement from World Revival Church:
“The World Revival Church has been humbled and honored to serve as a spiritual home for thousands of attendees over the last 20 years. As with all churches, some members have left for various reasons and we pray for God’s continued covering over them.
The allegations raised against the church are false, misleading, not based in fact, and stand in complete opposition to all the church is and how it operates. The church has not received any formal complaints regarding these matters. We are not aware that the police have investigated any allegations of misconduct against the church or its leadership.
“Our decades of service to the community and our thousands of members are a testament to the priority we place on the safety, empowerment, and support of our congregation. As a church, we work to promote peace and healing through the love of Christ and sincerely wish for this for all our current and former members.”