BRIDGEVILLE (KDKA) -- The pastors and the congregation say they are an ordinary Bible-believing, non-denominational Christian Church consistent with widely-held Protestant professions of faith.
But to some former members, the Lakeview Christian Life Church in Bridgeville is something far different.
Vicki Flynn: "It's a cult."
KDKA's Andy Sheehan: "Pure and simple?"
Vicki Flynn: "By definition, that's what it is."
Sheehan: "And it's destroyed your family?"
Vicki Flynn: "It has."
Vicki and Kevin Flynn are among roughly 200 former church members who have bonded together and begun posting on Internet forums.
They describe Lakeview Christian as a closed society run by charismatic leaders who preach that the end is near and order members to shun those who leave.
The ex-members say they are no longer allowed contact with people in the church, even their own families.
Kevin Flynn: "My daughters, their husbands, and my son."
Sheehan: "And you have no contact with them?"
Kevin Flynn: "I have no contact with them."
Recently, Vicki tried to visit her daughter and the grandchildren she's never seen.
"I wanted to see my grandbabies, she wouldn't open the door," said Vicki. "She called the police."
Kevin Flynn had been a minister and founded a satellite branch of Lakeview in Alabama, but they were stripped of their duties and ex-communicated, they say, for questioning the doctrines of Lakeview founder Pastor Norman James Sr., an evangelical preacher who, they say, called himself 'The Apostle.'
"We were taught that an apostle not only is a messenger, but he's someone that hears directly from the Lord, and then imparts what he hears to the people," said Vicki.
As God's spokesman, she says, James demanded strict obedience.
"You do what your Apostle tells you to do and you don't question that," Vicki says. "Just obey."
During the course of KDKA's Andy Sheehan's own investigation, he spoke to two dozen former members, including Marni Donnell, who grew up in the church and went to the church's school, a K-12 school with fewer than 100 children. There she committed her life to the church as a young girl, participating in rituals that she says were outside of the Christian mainstream.
Donnell: "At summer camp, they would pressure the kids into receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues."
Sheehan: "Speaking in tongues?"
She would study James' book and hear him preach that the end times were coming and that only his congregation, and those like it, would be the surviving remnant. The select few who will rule and reign with Jesus Christ after the apocalypse.
In a recording, James says, "We are the end time church. And all of the things that are granted by the Lord can be claimed by us."
In the recordings of sermons obtained by KDKA, James said God had abandoned all other Christian denominations.
In another recording, James says, "He is not in the Baptist Church. He's not in the Catholic Church. He's not in the Episcopal Church. He's not in the Presbyterian Church. He's not in the Methodist Church. They are not his own churches. They are daughters of the Great Harlot… the Great Harlot being the Roman Catholic Church. And there's going to come a time when the daughters of the Harlot go back home to be with mom."
Donnell: "They believe that they are God's special chosen group, and that the rest of Christianity has really gotten it wrong, and they're not going to get the same rewards someday that they are."
Sheehan: "And the end is near?"
Donnell says the school and the pastor dictated corporal punishment, how children would dress, what they could watch on television, and with whom they could associate.
They weren't allowed friendships outside the school, and she says, she never had an outside friend until she enrolled at Robert Morris University.
"That as my first taste of like the real world, and people outside of the fishbowl that I had grown up in," Donnell.
She decided to leave the church but became tortured with doubt.
"That was one of the things that I held onto, was that I believed that I was going to hell because I left. I believed that Pastor James Sr. did, in fact, speak for God. "
Norman James Sr. has retired and now the chief pastor is his son, Norman James Jr., who the former members say claims to be an apostle like his father.
James Jr. declined several requests for an on-camera interview with KDKA, and while he invited Andy Sheehan to attend a Sunday service, he would not allow KDKA's photographer to accompany him.
He did respond to a list of Andy Sheehan's questions in writing, where he denied claiming divine authority.
James Jr. wrote: "No, only God and God's Word are divine in their authority. We strive to follow and adhere to God's Word in our daily lives, and in our preaching and teaching, but do not claim inerrancy or divinity for ourselves."
On shunning, he wrote: "Shunning is not part of church doctrine... Always, our primary aim is to restore the offending member to harmonious fellowship with the rest of the church. In that instances differences can't be resolved, a separation of membership in the church unfortunately the inevitable result."
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Since she left the church, Donnell's parents, who are still members, have refused to have contact with her and now her children. There's only an occasional text or email imploring her to come back into the fold.
Sheehan: "What do they tell you?"
Donnell: "They tell me that, if, you know… we don't have anything in common."
Sheehan: "You're their daughter."
Donnell: "I know. Yeah."
Meanwhile, Kevin and Vicki Flynn say as former pastors they know the church orders members to shun people who leave because they ordered it themselves.
Sheehan: "Did you order people to shun other people?"
Vicki Flynn: "Yes, we did."
Sheehan: "You can't have any contact with your son, your daughter?"
Vicki Flynn: "Yes."
Sheehan: "That must be a hard thing to live with."
Vicki Flynn: It is. It's almost like we're reaping what we sowed. When we told others that they couldn't have contact with their family, now we're living that."
Vicki Flynn also asked to make a direct appeal to her son and two daughters.
"We love you more than they could ever love you and the light will always be on," she said.
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