Over the past few years, people have been waking up to abusive systems and speaking out. We see this in Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Mars Hill, Leah Remini’s Scientology series, and #ChurchToo. People are speaking out about the abuse they have experienced and witnessed; and these horrors are coming to light.
I grew up in one of those systems. For years after leaving, I was in denial that the church I grew up in either became, or always was, a cult. As time has passed, stories circled around to me. At first, I was baffled, confused, and tried to find ways to justify it. Growing up, I subconsciously detached myself from what was going on and tuned out a lot of the brainwashing, never really allowing myself to be all in – though I didn’t realize it. It’s been hard to honestly evaluate myself and the way the abuse of that place affected me. I can see the way the cult has destroyed others. Many I grew up with were deeply hurt and tried to find ways to numb themselves through alcohol or drugs. My friends often sheltered me from that part of their lives because I was deemed “too innocent.” As I come to terms and deconstruct my upbringing, my eyes have opened to a lot of the emotional and spiritual manipulation I experienced, and not just behind the scenes.
As this series continues, I am going to have others share their stories of what they saw, how they got sucked in, how they got out, and how they are doing now.
This is my story. I survived the Smithton Outpouring.
I grew up in your typical Evangelical Christian home. We attended church, watched Christian movies, said a prayer before every meal, and listened to Christian radio in the car.
When I was 5 years old, my family moved to the middle of Missouri through the military and found Smithton Community Church. At this time, things were pretty normal and I loved it! We had our Sunday services, Wednesday services, bonfires at the elder’s property, men’s float trips in the summer, New Year’s Eve talent show, etc. The pastor, Steve Gray, and his wife Kathy were the worship leaders. It was a small church of maybe 100 people. The church was truly our family.
After a few years, the church grew to about 150 people. We added a Tuesday night prayer service.
Around 1995, revival broke out in churches in Brownsville, Florida, and Toronto, Canada. This movement took the Charismatic Christian world by storm. The national media was reporting on a massive influx of people from around the world to Brownsville and Toronto. By 1998, Brownsville had seen more than 2 million visitors.
Around this same time, our church went through a big shake-up. As an 11-year-old, I didn’t quite understand what was going on. I still don’t. I’m hoping that exploring this story will give me a better understanding.
Some sort of huge fight happened between the pastor and his wife, the youth pastors, and other members of church leadership. All of them left and any ties were cut off.
My family had been really close friends with the youth pastors. They lived down the street, and their son Alex was a good friend of mine. We attempted to remain friends for a while until contact with them was abruptly cut off. I remember hearing discussions between my parents talking about how we could still be friends with people who leave our church – that’s normal. Then we couldn’t.
Alex and I used to play all the time. Once his family surprised our family by saying their washing machine was broken and they needed to do laundry, only to surprise us with Christmas gifts! This was the kind of history we had, and then all of a sudden, they were cut out of our lives.
I don’t know where the cut off came from. I just know, all of a sudden, we were no longer allowed to see our friends. Looking back, this was the start of a pattern that would occur for any who leave the Gray’s church.
Soon after this skirmish amongst the church staff, Steve left to check out the revival in Brownsville. We were led to believe that he was contemplating leaving the church and his wife. This led to an increase in prayer and prophetic moments during services. Looking back, it seems like there was some plan in motion for when he returned. I remember the service before he came back, a story was told about an occurrence at Brownsville.
We were told that during one of services, the worship team started a song, and everyone in the church kicked off their shoes and ran up to the front of the church, dancing and jumping. While Steve was gone, his nephew, Eric Nuzum, took over worship for him. I believe he was the one who relayed this story to us, saying “Hey, why don’t we do this same thing when he comes in,” and so we rehearsed this moment. Steve would come through the door, Eric would start this specific song, we would kick off our shoes, run up to the front and dance or jump. It felt like a welcome home gift at the time, but looking back, it was more of a “please don’t leave us” plea.
However, I feel like it was more than that. I think this was a manipulated moment.
This is the story that is told of the moment revival started in our church. Steve still talks about how he walked through the doors of the church in the middle of worship, and as he walked in the “lightning of God struck him and surged through the auditorium,” Eric started playing this song, and everyone rushed forward dancing and singing. It’s sold like it was this huge surprising, spontaneous moment. As an 11-year old, I remember that this is exactly what we rehearsed.
I don’t remember any special energy from that night. I do remember Steve getting up and saying, “I don’t know what happened here, but I want to come back tomorrow and find out.”
One of the biggest teachings from what was then Smithton Community Church in Smithton, MO, was this teaching called “the power of all.” Essentially, it was what it sounds like, everyone does everything and it’s more powerful. It was enacted at the church as everyone prays, everyone claps and raises their hands during worship, everyone gives in the offering, everyone shows up for church projects, and when the pastor says “I’m going to be here tomorrow,” everyone comes.
I get the power of the team and teamwork. But, when it is abused, the strengths and contributions of individuals are devalued. You become just a body, a block for what the leader is wanting to accomplish, a few extra bucks in the church’s fund or really, the pastor’s pay check. Growing up, I never felt I had any worth or anything more to contribute beyond just showing up.
So, the next day, my family and I showed up. We had church, I don’t really recall anything special about that day, and as young as I was, memory can be hazy. I just remember showing up that day, and the next, and the next. Before we knew it, we had our Tuesday night prayer, Wednesday service, and services Thursday through Saturday night, and our original two Sunday services.
So, maybe this is a point where I should pause and bring up the standard flow of a service. The service starts with worship, some fast-tempo songs that get the crowd jumping, clapping, etc. From there, the band moves on to slower songs where people raise their hands, go to their knees, or run up to the front to cry. Sometimes Steve would interrupt and have a mini-alter call if he didn’t like how this part of the service was going. After worship would be an offering sermon that could range from 15 minutes to an hour, before actually passing around the plate. This would be followed by another song and the actual sermon. After the sermon would be the alter call. At most churches, the alter call is for people to dedicate their life to Jesus, or to respond for special prayer to the sermon.
And with this flow, people started coming. People I’d never seen before. Eventually what was going on attracted the attention of the local newspapers and they did a write up about the revival. This brought even more people in. Eventually we moved services out of the sanctuary and into our gym. The next thing we knew, Charisma Magazine, Christianity Today, Tulsa World, San Francisco Chronicle, and even Newsweek came out to report on what was going on. People started coming from all over the U.S. We posted up U.S. and State maps at the back of the gym where people would stick pins to show which state or town/city they were from. Eventually this grew to people from other countries coming.
Steve and Kathy started receiving requests to be on TV shows. They were featured on a show called “It’s Supernatural” by Sid Roth, and on the Richard and Lindsey Roberts show for Oral Roberts Ministries. Around this time, they also started traveling the country to visit other churches to “bring revival.” For those that run in that circle, Steve even held services at Victory Christian Center and was a speaker at an Oral Roberts University chapel service once.
In 1999, Hosanna Integrity, one of the largest worship music companies, came out and recorded a live worship album, bringing along Darrell Evans and Lincoln Brewster.
By this point more that 250,000 people from all 50 states and several countries had visited. In my mind, this had to be real. Looking back, I’m sure the fact that “revival” was such a buzzterm at the time and Christendom was looking for the next big thing had something to do with it.
There was also the key aspect that this revival was different. When you look at history, most revivals focus on evangelism, outreach, “getting the lost saved,” conversions and changing the community. The Smithton Outpouring was different. It focused on Christians and Christianity. It was, or was supposed to be, a place where those who were tired and fed up with their spiritual life could be refreshed. It focused internally. It tried to bring that spark back. If you had been hurt by the church, this was the place for you. I think this key message was a big part of the success, revivals were a common thing, but this one was different.
And it brought the people. Visitors would line up in front of the building hours before a service, the gym would get so full of people that we would have to put people in the old sanctuary and use the Sunday school rooms in the basement. Eventually, we had to borrow another church’s building for overflow.
On the surface, everything seemed great. The people were coming, the energy was electric, the publicity was incredible. Even Christian celeb Pat Robertson showed up and attended a few services.
Internally, though, things were rough. One of the hardest things for me was the lack of a consistent, youth leader. Youth leaders provide a rock and confidant who encourages kids to grow and provides advice during those hard times. I was on a youth ministry team when I was in college and I saw how the kids looked up to and respected their youth pastors. I don’t know if I ever had the same youth pastor for more than a year or a few months, they were always rotating and being replaced, and it was never explained.
Another common phrase that was spouted by Steve and Kathy was, “there is no junior holy spirit.” So, teenagers were often treated as by-thoughts that needed to act, behave and be on the same level as adults, if not higher. There were actually many instances in services where the pastors would rip apart the youth like they were evil incarnate. When in reality, they were just desperate for the pastors’ approval and trying their best. They weren’t out drinking, doing drugs, and partying. They were in church five nights a week.
The standards were asinine, if we went to the back to chat with our friends before the proper amount of time after the alter call, we were “worldly,” or bad kids. Of course, I always tried to make sure I stayed up front as long as I could to avoid that. I had to make sure I looked good in Steve’s eyes.
At that time, the thought of gaining Steve’s approval was planted so subtly in my head. I remember my parents always letting the pastor/pastoral leadership know if we were going to be out of town and miss a service. If they spoke at a church we were visiting, they’d report back on what they did or said. And occasionally, they would be rebuked by Steve if they did or said something out of line when at another church.
The things you had to get approved, even in those early years, was insane. Even as teenagers, if we wanted to get together to pray, worship, etc. on our own; we had to get approval and have leadership oversight. I’ve since learned that this doesn’t apply just to kids. Even adults have this requirement.
I actually remember getting into trouble because some friends and I did exactly that. We met up and had what we thought was this great spiritual experience and wanted to share it, only to be berated for doing it. I was 14 at the time.
1999 was the final year in Smithton. At this point, so many people were visiting that the church needed a new place, not to mention how much of a nuisance the church was smack dab in the middle of a community of 532 people who lived there expecting a quiet sleepy town, only to have all these visitors coming in, with late nights and loud music at the church.
Initially, leadership was looking at a plot of land closer to the highway with more room to build a bigger building outside of town. Then out of nowhere, Steve and Kathy decided, I mean “God told them,” to move the church to Kansas City. Two and half hours away.
Of course, this pissed off a lot of the members of the church who had been there forever before the revival, and had established businesses, lives, families, etc. For months, the church members had been giving money to this building fund to have a new building and bigger land in their community, only to all of a sudden have the pastors decide the ministry needs to move half way across the state to the big city.
Steve said that this is what he felt God was telling him and anyone who felt God was telling them to come could. But if they stayed, he threatened, revival would die. 85 percent of the families made the move. Mine among them. Many of the older families stayed. Most of those who moved where those who had also moved to the area to be a part of the revival in the first place.
At the time, I didn’t really understand what was going on. I thought this was a real move that God told them to make. It also made sense for it be in a bigger city, closer to the airport, more hotels, etc. If God tells you to do something, you do it. And if God told people to stay in Smithton, it wasn’t a big deal. Sounds simple?
No. Of course not. It took a while for all the families that were coming to move from the Smithton area to the Kansas City area. Until a home church was found, or really, the property bought, various churches around the KC metro area hosted all of us and let Steve and Kathy minister Thursday through Saturday. Those still in the Smithton area would often drive to the city and back every night. For Sunday mornings, those in the city would go to the hosting churches service, and those still in Smithton would hold a service at the Smithton church. This “campaign” was called “Cover the City in Glory.”
My family didn’t officially move to the KC area until summer of 2000. Leading up that, I was still going to school in Sedalia, being fairly involved in school, while also heading up to Kansas City every weekend through the spring. Sometimes, some kids would stay the night at a friend’s house to ease up the constant driving back and forth. I believe it was also through this time that pressure and abuse from the church really started to take effect on my age group. What happens when repressed teenagers suddenly start getting some unsupervised time because the parents are too involved with the church and God is apparently the babysitter?
I wasn’t party to a lot of this because I was involved with school. During the spring, I had track meets pretty much every weekend. After my family migrated to the KC area, I became more involved with my new high school and grew more disconnected with my church friends, even though I still hung out with them. It wasn’t the same. Years later, I was told that my friends hid a lot from me because they thought I was too innocent. Honestly, the double life I lived between the church and my public school, work, etc. life was always rough for me. I was never completely in either group, and always felt like an outsider. Even to this day, I still struggle with not feeling like I fit in anywhere.
Eventually, Steve and Kathy bought a piece of land right off the highway in Kansas City, set up a tent and started construction on the new building. It took a good while for any semblance of a structure to be set up, and in the meantime, service as usual was done in a tent with heat or A/C being blasted into it, depending on the season.
Though the services were held in a tent in the bitter cold and cruel heat, people were still coming and visiting the church. You can’t deny the novelty of going to a tent revival service.
I believe it was during this time that the church decided to establish a media team to record services. This eventually led to live broadcasts. I can’t be sure, but the documentary “Go Inside the Smithton Outpouring,” may have been an inspiration for this. The documentary was produced by Warren Marcus and hosted by Sid Roth.
Other than the crazy weather, I don’t really have strong of memories there. It was in the middle of moving half way across the state, starting a new school and living in a new city on top of all the church changes. It was a season of new things.
There were a lot of delays before the church had a useable portion of a solid building, we eventually were able to start holding services in what would eventually become the foyer of the new church building.
Honestly, a lot of this time period was kind of a blur for me. I started a new high school and was pretty involved in everything from arts to athletics. This was actually a huge difference between my experience and my friends. It was frowned upon to have any life outside the church. Outside activities were basically the devil’s doorway. The goal was to isolate kids from extra-church influences.
Also, during this time of transition for the church, they changed their name to World Revival Church (WRC). They also started some massive expansions of their ministry. They started a World Revival School of Ministry. Once the new building was completely built they also started a private school for elementary and high school, I believe it was called World Revival Academy.
Now is a good time to address education and the church. Most of the people that were in the age range above me did not graduate high school. I don’t know if high school dropout is the right term, but from what I’m aware, they all got their GEDs.
Those who were part of the move and around my age group all ended up going to the Academy. To put this into perspective of what those kids went through, Monday through Friday they were in school at the church they went to, being taught by teachers who also went to the church. Then, Thursday through Saturday night and Sunday morning, they were in services at this same church. I don’t know what kind or quality of information they got at the school but I do know their college options are limited because they do not have state or federal accreditation.
Shortly after the move, I got one of my first jobs working at World of Fun, an amusement park in Kansas City. During the summers, I often had the night time/weekend shifts, which also further pulled me away from services. So, as others my age were getting further ingrained, I was starting to detach more and more between work and school.
While I can’t say that I feel like I missed out on a lot of stuff at church, I did at times feel left out of things my friends did as they grew closer. On the flip side, I do feel like I missed out on quite a bit of things my friends from school and work did as I was always busy at church in my “free time.” So, I grew up in a really weird in-between place.
Eventually, I left for college. I went to Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, a charismatic evangelic Christian school.
But, this story isn’t about my college, or even my Christian experience. It’s about WRC. Throughout my college experience, I would come home for breaks and show up to church and church events. Every single time I came home, even only a few months apart, the whole congregation would seem new and I would have no clue who anyone was. Hardly anyone who was there last time was still there. A lot of those new members were people who had come for the School of Ministry.
The School of Ministry was also a puzzle to me. I figured the whole point was to go to the school, get training, and then leave to go run a church or something. But, the people who graduated never left the church. I didn’t realize until much later that school was basically a bait and switch to trap new members. At the time, I figured the graduates were just scared to go out and try to make it.
Going away to college opened up my eyes to a lot of missing pieces at WRC. In college, I took part in a couple different churches, rotating through a few I called home. One of the big missing pieces was community involvement. Most of the churches in Tulsa, and even the school itself, were into giving back and helping out the community. While in Smithton, this was not a thing AT ALL. After the move to KC, there was a pastor who tried to help out with that, but after a short time, he was shut down. Another missing element at WRC was local and even international mission trips. Most other churches provide opportunities to go out and serve in the mission field for varying lengths of time, or even have mission departments to support this. WRC expects the world to come to them. Granted, there are maybe a few people that they support who have pledged allegiance to WRC.
After graduating from college, I felt the WRC portion of my life was over. Whatever I was supposed to get from there I got and that chapter was done. After struggling to find a career post-college, I went home to KC and made WRC my home church again. I thought the timing was right because as I was moving back, the church was starting up a TV show and looking for actors and crew members. This seemed perfect, I had my bachelor’s in film and this was the church I grew up in. However, they ended up pulling some local non-WRC volunteers from the community and church members who had no experience or training in the area.
This is actually a pattern in the church’s hiring process. At one point, they hired an administrative assistant who had to look up how to use Microsoft Word in a search engine, when there were church members trying to find work who had years of experience as administrative assistants.
Also, around the time I moved back, the church started having live broadcasts on Daystar TV, a Christian TV company. This spurred a lot of people to come visit the church again as this reached a niche market.
Sometimes, seeing the publicity this place got, and reconciling it with that damage that has been caused to members is really hard. But, you can see this with other religious organizations as well. Mars Hill was huge in the music realm, and it can be easy to wonder how the place that pumped out all this great stuff could be so toxic to people. The International House of Prayer even hid a micro-cult that ended in the death of a member. Just because a place has good publicity and a great reputation, doesn’t mean that there isn’t poison lurking underneath.
About a year into my time back home from college, it was time for me to move on. I had had no luck finding any real type of work beyond being a barista. So, I decided to join the Air Force. I left for basic in July 2009. My thoughts on WRC were still the same, I didn’t think anything negative.
The next few years of my Air Force career fit along the same patterns of my college years. Go to Kansas City on break, go to church, not have any clue who any of these new people are, have a nice time, go back home.
During one of my first visits home, I met my wife Kari. She was a School of Ministry student who immediately caught my attention. I was enamored with her, but I lived half a country away. Instead, we became fast friends. After about two years of friendship, we decided to take the leap and start dating. However, before we could begin a relationship, she said she had to talk to her care-pastor about it.
For background info, at some point Steve had set up care-pastors to look out for the members of the congregation. The church wasn’t really that big, but apparently, he was “too busy” to talk to members of his own congregation.
I immediately thought this was odd. As mid-to-late 20s adults, why do you need to ask permission to date someone? Apparently, this was actually common practice in the church.
We started dating right before I moved to Turkey for the military. A few months later, I asked her to marry me. There were a lot of reasons for the short dating relationship, but that’s another story. A few months after we got married, she came out to stay with me in Turkey. Originally, I was going to be gone for about a year, and then leave active duty. So, we would be apart for our first year of marriage. While she was visiting, I brought up the idea of her coming to live with me in Turkey, and re-enlisting so we could move to Germany next, instead of moving back to KC when my enlistment was done.
At first, Kari was excited about the idea, we started researching and exploring. Then all of a sudden, she flipped and started panicking about leaving WRC. She said she would never leave WRC unless Pastor Steve said it was ok to leave.
While she was visiting, my grandfather passed away on Christmas. We jumped on the quickest plane we could to be with family. While there, we set up a meeting to talk to Steve about our plan.
An odd thing had happened over the years. Growing up, I could go right up to Steve and chat with him. He and Kathy were frequent guests over at our house for dinner or birthday parties for my parents. Now, if I wanted to talk to Steve, he was sheltered away in a room by the stage. You had to talk to a security guard and tell the guard what you wanted to talk to Steve about. Then, you would have to wait to go in the room and talk to him. It was like a scene from the Godfather.
This was not the pastor I remembered.
Kari was terrified as she had never had one on one time with Steve like this. As we waited outside of his room to be let in for our meeting I remember telling her it was weird to be scared to talk to her own pastor.
During our meeting Steve said he would pray about it and get back to us.
Looking back, a reasonable response would be, “I think it’s important that you are together for your first year of marriage, if that’s a possibility.” Instead, he said he felt that we should stick with the original plan of being apart and me coming home at the end.
Since I was going to be returning, and our marriage was a proxy elopement, we decided to have a wedding ceremony at the church when I came back in December 2013. Planning the wedding ceremony at the church is when my view began to deteriorate and the first cracks in my worldview formed.
Usually, if someone gets married in the church that they go to, and give money to through tithes, it’s common practice that member doesn’t need to pay. Which makes sense as you are part of why the church exists financially in the first place. However, this was not the case in this situation.
When we brought this up to the church, they had just bought a new building a few miles down the road for the Academy and a Montessori school they were starting and as an event space. To be married by the church, it had to be at this building and we had to pay a fee. On top of that, the price of the venue did not include use of A/V equipment, a technical person to run that equipment, officiant, security, or cleaning of venue prior to and after the event. When I brought up that we weren’t able to afford this, they were willing to lower the cost, but only slightly.
Now, part of the reason this threw me was because one of Steve’s bragging points was how he and the church never went into debt for anything. Everything was always paid for in cash.
However, they took out a loan to purchase this new building, which was the complete opposite of what he always talked about and said they would do. And, the debt on the building was why we were being charged to have our ceremony.
Well, the ceremony came and went, and we got back into the usual church routine.
There were some things that stood out to me in the early days of marriage that never made sense to me. One of them was prayer, often times when I would pray out loud, Kari would be upset that I wasn’t praying right, and that since I grew up there, I should know how to pray right.
Another odd thing was how complicated it was volunteering for church. To do anything, I would have to wait anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple months before I could get involved, and they were actually cutting my time in half that others would have to wait before doing anything.
Also, Steve had to personally approve any and all volunteers and decide if it was ok for them to work in that specific area.
These ministries involved anything from working with kids, to cleaning bathrooms, to running a camera. It was normal at WRC for someone to have to go to the church for more than 3 months before they could do ANYTHING. Most churches that I had gone to outside of WRC, I could start helping out as soon as I decided I liked the church and wanted to keep going.
Even though these things made me say, “huh,” I quickly adapted to the culture and accepted it. Any questions one had for oddities always had an answer that dispelled your concern.
Kari was pretty ingrained to the church through the School of Ministry. Occasionally, she would go to meet ups for young married women in the church. I remember one time she came home crushed. During one of the discussions they were talking about resources that could help improve marriage. One of the women brought up her struggle with sex, and Kari suggested a book she had read and liked. Now, as I brought up earlier, no meet up could be held without church leadership approval. So, this group was being overseen and led by one of Kathy’s right-hand women.
After Kari suggested this book, she was chewed out by this woman. Apparently, you can’t recommend a book to anyone unless it has been read and approved by Kathy.
I was baffled. How can you honestly expect a single person to read every book on a subject? Also, why does the pastor’s wife have to approve books before you can recommend something that helped you? Yet, I again ignored this warning sign and went on.
There were all kinds of little warning signs here and there. I had a lot of frustrations with not connecting with any members. There was this atmosphere of competition over the dumbest things like an internal power grab for who knows what, everyone seemed to be garnering for Steve’s approval and elevation in the church. A couple times I had brought up hanging out with some guys, and what I was told was, “Yeah, we all really connect on the prayer floor.”
At WRC, everybody goes up for prayer, or is part of the prayer team. It’s part of the culture. If you don’t go up, you are looked down on. And the longer you stay down at the “prayer floor” the “holier” you are. The “holier” you are, the more popular you are.
So, by being told that’s how they connect, I was basically being told I wasn’t “holy” enough. There was a part of this that bothered me because I wanted to connect. However, I had nothing in common with them outside of the fact that we went to this same church.
Eventually, I did get more involved. I was asked to join Kari in the children’s ministry. This is where they placed all newly married people in what I assumed was inspiration for them to start having babies quickly. Probably so that they could have more people in the church.
I also was asked to be on the photography portion of the media team and take it over. As a military photojournalist, it made a lot of sense to put me there and they were finally letting me do something I had actual skills in.
The next big turning point, and it really affected Kari more than me, was a sermon from one of the leaders. They spoke about how Satan desires to “sift people” and it focused on the devil trying to get people to leave this church.
The reason that this stuck out as a WTF moment was because that same day, Kari’s best friend and her husband decided to leave the church to move closer to their family in Alabama. The person who gave this sermon was a close family friend of theirs who convinced them to move to KC from Alabama in the first place. So, this sermon was really a personal rant focusing on the fight he had with them about them leaving.
Now, during all this time being back in KC, I had been on a hardcore job search and had no luck. Granted my focus was only in the KC area, but it’s a big city and shouldn’t have been that hard. Then one day, one of the members gave a sermon on taking the limits off, and we felt it was the time to expand my search beyond KC. Soon after that, I got a job in Atlanta and a few months later, we left.
It’s taken a while, a lot of explaining and frustration from my incredibly patient wife to come to terms with the damage that WRC causes people. It took that final chapter to understand WRC for what it truly is. Since leaving, the stories have been pouring out, but only within the circles of those who have lived through it.
These are our stories. We survived World Revival Church.