Entreaties never stop at the International House of Prayer

The Kansas City Star/July 26, 2009

Music rocks the crowded prayer center, pulling many of the 200 young people to stand, their arms reaching to heaven as if they can't wait to get there.

"... For he is holy and he is worthy of all the glory and all our love ..." Everyone clutches a Bible, a laptop computer or one another. Ushers in yellow vests keep watch. Robotic cameras catch it all. The music builds to a crescendo.

A teenage girl steps to the microphone.

"Rise us up to be your army, Jesus!" she shouts above the din. "Come and fill the void of this generation!"

It's 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday.

But to borrow from a country song, it's prayer o'clock somewhere.

The digital signal from the International House of Prayer in south Kansas City makes its way via Washington, D.C., to Jerusalem, where it streams live on God TV for broadcast all over the world.

This ... never ... stops.

Two in the morning, 8 at night, dusk and dawn. Holidays and ice storms. Time doesn't matter because these young worshippers are more concerned with the "End Times." The signs are here. The Messiah is near.

So they've come here for the last 10 years, by the hundreds - thousands - for what perhaps is Kansas City's biggest religious phenomenon in a century.

They've come to an old renovated strip mall on Red Bridge Road.

To answer the call of a leader named Mike Bickle, who says a purpose of their worship is to hasten the Second Coming.

But 24/7/365?

Read Luke 18:7.

"Will not God bring about justice for his elect who cry to him day and night?"

Bickle says he's heard God's voice. And that he's been to heaven. Twice.

Inside the walls of his growing IHOP nation, the 53-year-old is revered as a great leader and something of a prophet.

Outside, Bickle and other IHOP officials acknowledge, they're seen by some as a cult.

Many of Bickle's messages can be read or heard on the IHOP Web site. In a recent post about a prophetic dream about war between Satan and Michael the archangel, Bickle wrote that he saw "large snakes, over 100 feet long and 50 feet thick, each having a huge head that looked like a dragon, and many of them were coming from the sky down to the earth."

His brand of Christianity relies heavily on the Book of Revelation and a sense of urgency that the Rapture is near.

When Jesus returns to make war against his enemies and marches into Jerusalem, Bickle preaches, "untold millions will die in the wake of his righteous, loving judgments."

Some of what is preached at IHOP is heard in other fundamentalist denominations. Israel is embraced for its role on the path to the End Times. Fasting is encouraged.

Other aspects seem well out of the mainstream.

IHOP has a "Children's Equipping Center," which, according to the Web site, seeks to mold a million children to lead the next generation, by empowering them "with DNA components that produce in them a holy passion."

Throw in the proportionally heavy infusion of young believers, things such as the "Fire in the Night" internship that meets from midnight to 6 a.m. and a "prenatal soaking room" for expectant mothers and the word "cult" occasionally can be heard in the neighborhood.

One owner of a nearby business, who did not want to be identified, said many people in the neighborhood worry that IHOP is a cult. "But they really don't know."

Bickle isn't offended. He understands it.

"I'm sure there is some negativity," Bickle said in a recent interview. "It's got a funny name, and we haven't done a good job of letting people know who we are."

But IHOP's fast-growing ranks in the Army of the Righteous are becoming more noticeable. A conference in December drew 20,000 young people to Bartle Hall, and now the ministry is planning a $150 million-plus world headquarters a few miles south in Grandview that would include a 5,000-seat conference center, a Bible college (IHOP University) and administration offices.

"I knew it would grow, but I didn't know this fast," Bickle said. "I thought it would take 30 or 40 years to get where it is today. "So many people joined, I didn't know who they all were. They came from everywhere."

What attracts these mostly 20-somethings to what Bickle calls the "missions base"? The place where students learn and then return to their hometowns and start prayer centers - 150 around the world so far, they say.

"The Lord told me to drop everything and come here," said Joseph Smucker, 21, who hails from Amish roots in Lancaster County, Pa.

Others say much the same thing, their words coming in more than 14 languages from South America, Africa, Europe and Asia.

Soledad Mena came from Ecuador six years ago. She had sisters who were Catholic nuns, and she regularly attended Mass, "but God started telling me this is not enough," she said.

Having heard of IHOP, she traveled here to check it out and never left.

"God told me I was home."

On a recent afternoon, Shaina O'Leary, 20, carried her belongings out to the sidewalk at the Herrnhut apartment complex, which is IHOP-owned and serves as a dormitory. Her internship over, O'Leary was headed home to Washington state and back to college in the fall.

Heather Richardson was giving O'Leary a hand.

The friends said their parents had deep concerns about IHOP and didn't want them to come.

"They just don't understand that this is where we feel closest to Jesus," said Richardson, who was on her third IHOP stay.

"It's not a cult," O'Leary chimed in. Then she smiled.

"They don't make us stay, and they don't make us drink the punch."

People want to know: What in God's name is going on in there?

So IHOP is a place of perpetual worship, with continuous two-hour sets of rock band praise music and prayer, which the Web site calls "heroically keeping the fire upon the altar."

"Get 24/7 access to the prayer room for as little as $10 a month," offers the Web site.

It also is a Bible school - IHOPU - at which students pay $1,500 a semester to earn two- and four-year certificates.

The Forerunner Ministry curriculum focuses on the End Times. The school is not accredited; meaning credits are not transferable to regular colleges. But Tim Dodd, who came to IHOP from Colorado and earned a four-year certificate, has no regrets.

"It's not about me. I was called by the Lord," said Dodd, who wants to start a car-detailing business here.

IHOPU also has a music academy and a media school at which students use the latest equipment to learn lighting, video production, graphics, scoring and audio effects.

Others come to IHOP for the internships, such as "The One Thing," a six-month program for singles ages 18 to 25. Tuition costs $4,900 and covers housing and meals. It is designed to "equip this generation in prayer, fasting and worship." Another internship, "Fire in the Night," is held from midnight to 6 a.m. and costs $1,940 for each of two three-month tracks.

Even people who are not officially part of IHOP drop by the prayer center. Where else are they going to pray at 4 a.m.?

The always-running broadcast schedule requires lots of media technicians, musicians, singers and, obviously, an audience of worshippers to fill the seats. Where do they come from? Students and interns. Everyone commits to six two-hour sets a week.

On a recent afternoon, busloads of children wearing matching T-shirts ran, laughed and dodged the older students on the sidewalk in front of the prayer center.

They were part of a summer camp put on by the "equipping center," which the Web site says is to "teach children His Spirit will be poured out on all flesh, and they are the ones who will prophesy, dream dreams and see visions."

Equip them "with DNA components that produce in them a holy passion?"

It's just a metaphor for supplying the building blocks of their faith, said Juno Hall, IHOP's media director.

When asked where the youngsters came from, IHOP board member Gary Cooper smiled and said, "Everywhere."

The center seeks to mold a million youngsters so they can lead the next generation.

Bickle has written extensively on fasting as a regular discipline of Christianity. Fasting two days a week comes just after daily prayer on the list of "forerunner" commitments on the Web site.

Earlier this year, Jackson County prosecutors charged a couple with second-degree murder after their 4-month-old son died of starvation. The couple, Nicholas and Rebecca Candler, maintained a blog that promoted their religious beliefs and their involvement in IHOP.

IHOP's first comment on the case came last week, when Cooper said: "The Candlers were never on staff at IHOP-KC, although they did attend the Introduction to IHOP-KC class." That was the only connection, he said.

And the IHOP Web site is clear that children should never fast.

IHOP has outgrown the old Terrace Lake Shopping Center in the 3500 block of Red Bridge Road. At the west end is Glad Heart Realty, which works closely with people moving here to attend IHOP. The broker/owner is Bickle's wife, Diane. According to the agency's Web site, all profits go to the IHOP ministry.

The group also occupies another strip center on Grandview Road as well as the former Kernodle Lake community, which now is called Shiloh Retreat and used for IHOP conferences. The 94-acre Shiloh site is blocked from public access. The music academy is in what once were Grandview School District administrative offices.

Most recently, IHOP has contracted to purchase the Grandview Plaza shopping center, which is just south of the site of the planned 125-acre development across U.S. 71 from Truman Corners.

Erin Bardon of BNB Design, a Lenexa-based architecture firm, said occupancy of the new Truman Prayer Center is scheduled for summer 2013. Later phases call for dorms, a hotel and office towers, said Bardon, who is not an IHOP member.

An extensive campaign is under way to raise money for the Grandview project just east of U.S. 71, Hall said. Large donors are expected to show up.

"We believe in a God that provides financing," said Hall.

Cooper is heading up the project for IHOP. He is 69, a former Houston lawyer. He came to an IHOP conference five years ago, stayed and became its chief financial officer.

Now on the IHOP board of directors, Cooper has been in contact with Wal-Mart about opening a store at the site along U.S. 71.

"Wal-Mart puts stores in towns smaller than what we're going to be," he said.

When Cooper came from Texas in 2004, IHOP had 350 students and interns. It now has 4,000.

"In 10 years, I could see 25,000," said Cooper, who added that 150 families are drawn here each year.

The move to Grandview land that once was part of the Truman farm is not an accident. A key tenet of IHOP's mission is its support of Israel. A video on the group's Web site says that what President Harry S. Truman did for Israel politically, Bickle and IHOP will do spiritually.

"Our primary role is to pray for and partner with Messianic Jews who are living in Israel," according to the group's literature, "a vital part of releasing the great end-time harvest among the nations."

Page 11 of the IHOPU catalog contains these words: "We are looking for a generation of radical young people who are willing to prepare their own hearts and lives that they may soon prepare others for the return of Jesus."

They found them.

There's no better place to check out the flock than at the Higher Grounds coffee shop next to the prayer center. That is where they gather to talk faith, share Bible study and exchange stories of how they got there.

Cargo shorts, T-shirts, ball caps and sandals. Backpacks, cell phones, laptops, water bottles and lattes. Just like typical college students.

Or not. They don't drink, smoke, smoke pot or engage in premarital sex. Any lapse is grounds for dismissal.

They do go to Westport. Nearly every Friday night. To evangelize and sometimes get cussed at.

Sarah Troyer, 23, seems typical. She came from Erie, Pa., shortly after graduating from high school. She had heard about IHOP from her brother.

"I loved this place before I got here," she said recently in the coffee shop.

So much so that after her "One Thing" internship was up, she didn't want to leave. She enrolled at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and welcomed the change of turf to a traditional classroom.

"I wanted someone to tell me I was crazy," she said.

Students obliged.

"Happens all the time," she said with a smile.

But Troyer's faith stands strong, and soon she will graduate with a degree in history and a minor in communications. She hopes to work in an embassy someday.

Troyer said she has heard the "cult" talk.

"My parents supported me coming here. They thought it was great and have come to visit. They helped me buy a house here."

She paused and looked away.

"Some parents didn't want their kids to come ... thought the place was weird, like Jonestown or something.

"It's nothing like that. I know this is where I'm supposed to be. I think maybe 0.5 percent of Christians are called to this. And God called me."

Her world, Troyer says, is the real world. She doesn't live in a vacuum. She knows all about child soldiers in Third World countries, modern slavery and human trafficking.

"That is why I pray."

Mike Bickle rushes into a studio for an interview. Shirttail out, coffee in hand, he jumps into a story that starts like a joke:

When he was 13, he told his father he wanted to join a church.

Fine, which one? Mike didn't know.

So Bobby Bickle offered his son this advice: "Well, if I were you, I'd become a Jew or a Catholic. Jews have all the money, and Catholics are the biggest."

Bobby Bickle was better at boxing than spiritual guidance. He was a Golden Gloves champion and fought in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. Later, he would take his son along for afternoon sessions in bars.

"I grew up in the Waldo Bar," Mike Bickle said. "There and the VFW hall. I got to know all those old guys in those places."

One of seven children, Mike Bickle eventually joined a Presbyterian church and became a youth pastor.

He dropped out of college to care for his brother Pat, who had severely injured his neck while playing football for Center High School.

Mike Bickle later pastored at charismatic churches. He planned on becoming a missionary until God told him (audibly, he says) to start a church that would change the practice of Christianity in one generation.

At that Kansas City Fellowship Church, Bickle railed against demons. His congregation spoke in tongues.

In the 1980s, Bickle became involved with the "Kansas City Prophets," a self-proclaimed group that stirred controversy with their claims of visions and mystical experiences. Internal feuding eventually broke up the group.

In 1999, Bickle left his church, by then known as Metro Vineyard Fellowship, and founded a new organization called Friends of the Bridegroom. It would become the umbrella ownership of IHOP properties.

"Kansas City needs to know that our first mission is the First Commandment: Love God with all your heart," he said in the recent interview.

"We don't see ourselves as being anything special. We see all the congregations in Kansas City as a symphony and we are one instrument. Not the key instrument or the biggest. We are one instrument, and we want to play it hard, and we want the Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians to play hard, too.

"Even though we don't know each other, we need each other."

People close to Bickle describe him as a motivator, an inspiring speaker, a visionary. Talk to a student long enough and they will invariably start a sentence with "Mike says ..."

Troyer, the intern from Pennsylvania, said Bickle has more integrity than anyone she's ever met.

"I'm blown away by how he fights for what's right according to the Bible," she said.

Because IHOP now includes more than 60 ministries and internships, Bickle has turned key responsibilities over to others, some of whom came from far away.

Hall, the media director, came from England, where he was a lawyer. Daniel S.C. Lim, a vice president of IHOPU, had served as a Baptist pastor in Malaysia.

Juan Swart, who is in charge of property acquisitions, was born in Zimbabwe. He moved his family here after his wife watched a Bickle video about intimacy.

Michael Haack, the lead camera operator, came from CBN, the Virginia-based network started by evangelist Pat Robertson. Scott Eibel, the vice president of global marketing and chief financial officer, came to IHOP after heading a medical products company owned by General Electric.

The organization recently audited its operations. Most of the auditing team was external, including Michael Miller, a former Raytown city administrator.

"They were having growing pains," said Miller, who was so impressed with the organization that he joined and now works for IHOP.

Bickle said IHOP is healthier than it's ever been.

"We have more money coming in than we are spending - by about a nickel," he said with a laugh.

According to its 2007 IRS Form 990 for tax-exempt organizations, IHOP reported $4,081,471 in revenue and $4,057,840 in expenses.

Opulence is not part of his message. Bickle and his wife live in a modest duplex on Calico Drive near IHOP. He drives a Toyota.

"Mike believes he has to live simply if he's going to attract young people," said Hall.

Bickle said IHOP is to a point where effort must be taken to not let the business interests overwhelm the religious mission.

"Historically, that's happened a lot, and that will be our biggest challenge," Bickle said, referring to other church movements.

"Already, at the 10-year mark, the rigors of keeping this going blurs why we are here.

"We need to remember that it's not the full room that's exciting ... it's lives being changed."

To some neighbors, it seems like IHOP is taking over. Out-of-state license plates are the norm on the streets. The demographics have changed enough that Our Lady of Peace Catholic School on Grandview Road closed in May.

John Barry has watched it happen. He lives in Terrace Lake Gardens and once headed the homeowners association. Over the years, he has seen house after house sold or rented to IHOP members.

"Probably 1 in 4 now," he said.

Neighbors have complained to Kansas City code enforcement officials that homes are being used as dorms.

Wilson Winn, a division manager with the City Planning and Development Department, said the department has investigated many complaints about IHOP.

"We have not found them to be in violation," Winn said. "They know the rules."

Cory Smith, Grandview's city administrator, said IHOP families have purchased more than 80 homes so far this year

"Oh, sure, we've heard a lot of, ‘Who are these people?' " he said. "But they are making an impact on Grandview, and I think we're lucky to get them."

Smith said he thinks IHOP can do for Grandview what the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, now called the Community of Christ, did for Independence.

"They fix up homes ... make repairs," Barry concedes. "They're always nice"

He just doesn't want them praying for him.

"They asked. I told them my church takes care of that."

About that time, a pickup pulling a large stock trailer roared up the street. It was a family from Minnesota. Husband, wife, two young boys.

They were moving here to be part of IHOP.

When the truck backed up the trailer to the house, neighbors - other IHOP families -helped the family unload. They all hugged.

Standing in his new yard, Steve Iliff said it was a big decision to pack up the family and move. But seeing the welcome they received, he had no doubts that he had done the right thing.

"There's so much prayer here ... good things are bound to happen."

A few blocks away in the prayer center, as always, arms reached to heaven.

Singers sang.

And the band played on.

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