Where Worship Never Pauses

The New York Times/July 9, 2011

Kansas City, Missouri - The worship music, throbbing soft-rock appeals performed by live bands, has continued here without pause, day and night, since May 1999. Voices calling to Jesus or pleading with God to help tornado victims or make Congress ban abortion resound in an auditorium that is the physical and spiritual heart of the International House of Prayer, a Christian ministry rapidly blossoming into a movement.

Founded 12 years ago by Mike Bickle, a self-trained evangelical pastor, with a group of 20, the International House of Prayer, in a former strip mall, now draws tens of thousands of worshipers to its revival meetings. A wholly devoted cadre of 1,000 staff members, labeled missionaries, have given up careers to move here, living off donations and spending several hours a day in the prayer hall to revel in what they describe as direct communication with God. Another thousand students attend the adjacent Bible college, preparing to spread this fervent brand of Christianity.

The well-populated prayer room and the devout community growing up around it are at the epicenter of a little known but expanding national network: dozens of groups that are stressing perpetual prayer in a way seldom seen in modern America, said Marcus Yoars, the editor of Charisma, an evangelical magazine. Many of them were inspired by the operation here, though none have maintained such an elaborate 24-hour system of worship, seen around the world on a live webcast.

Mr. Bickle has won praise from many evangelicals, but he has also been criticized by some pastors for what they describe as unorthodox theology and a cultish atmosphere, charges that Mr. Bickle rejects. Some former students said they had been expelled for questioning the fascination with mystical healings, prophesies, angels and demons.

The ministry has also drawn fire for helping Gov. Rick Perry of Texas plan a day of prayer in Houston, which is scheduled for August and will be dominated by ardent opponents of abortion and gay rights. Mr. Bickle said he avoided direct involvement in partisan politics himself, but a member of his leadership group, Lou Engle, has a side group, The Call, that organized stadium revivals to promote California's Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage.

But many young followers here said they were drawn by their sense of visceral communion with God and had given little thought to such issues.

On a recent afternoon, perhaps 60 of the missionaries and students were spectators in the prayer room while a team of musicians and speakers at the front kept the chain of worship unbroken. Some in the crowd had their eyes closed and waved their arms toward heaven, some read the Bible and some just rested after hours of prayer, absorbing the repetitive musical rhythms while checking e-mail.

The International House of Prayer is "an important example" of the proliferating nondenominational charismatic churches, said Catherine C. Bowler, a religious historian at the Duke University Divinity School. From megachurches with tens of thousands of members to more intense and unusual ministries like Mr. Bickle's, these churches, which practice faith healing and speaking in tongues, make up one of the fastest-growing segments of American Christianity, attracting millions.

The staff and students here are required to spend at least 25 hours a week in the prayer room, and they also engage in weekly fasts of a day or more. The focused worship, Mr. Bickle says, affects real-world events by weakening the demons and strengthening the angels that swirl among us. Most important, he says, the incantations, multiplied worldwide, may help usher in the long-awaited final days: seven years of bloody battles and disasters that will end with the Second Coming, with true Christians spirited to eternal bliss and everyone else doomed to hellfire.

"The Second Coming will probably happen within the lifetime of people living today," Mr. Bickle said in an interview - the sort of prediction that leads some pastors to say he is overstepping and using apocalyptic predictions to seduce eager young believers. Mr. Bickle adamantly rejects such charges, as do followers like Mai Fink, a woman in her early 20s who was helping to run the church summer camp. She and her husband moved to Kansas City, she said, because "the prayer makes our hearts come alive."

Mr. Bickle, 55, still has the rugged look of the high school quarterback he once was and has an informal and jocular manner despite his obsession with the end times. Mr. Bickle found Christ, he said, at 15 at a summer camp, when he heard the quarterback Roger Staubach describe his relation with God.

Mr. Bickle has had a controversial 30-year career. As a pastor in Kansas City in the 1980s, he led a group of men claiming to be prophets; other pastors attacked them as false, and some of Mr. Bickle's colleagues were discredited by personal scandals.

His emphasis changed from prophecy to preparation for the end times. This year, the prayer house has a budget of $30 million, Mr. Bickle said, paid by private donors. His teachings are spread in books and videos and on God TV, and he has close ties with prayer groups abroad, including one in Israel that works to convert Jews to Christianity.

The church goes by the acronym IHOP in its teaching materials and Web site, and this year the International House of Pancakes filed a lawsuit charging trademark infringement. Mr. Bickle says that the duplication was not intentional and that he will fight to keep the name.

With a second former mall under renovation for the expanding college and a 125-acre plot in a neighboring suburb for future development, the church is in an "aggressive growth phase," Mr. Bickle said. His reach is suggested by the annual conference for young adults held at the end of December, in the Kansas City convention center. Last year, some 25,000 people, he said, came for the four-day meeting, a raucous mix of music, prayer and sermons.

But some pastors are troubled by teachings they say are stretching the Scripture.

Scott Pursley, an evangelical pastor in New Jersey whose daughter spent time at the church, said Mr. Bickle had gone over the line in suggesting that his group's prayers would hasten the return of Jesus and that his followers were part of an elite vanguard.

Mr. Bickle said that he was careful not to preach that his group's prayers would directly bring on the Second Coming, and that in calling his followers "forerunners," he did not mean they were elite.

Some former students have complained that the sensory overload and isolation had left them unable to think for themselves, and that some leaders had urged them to avoid contact with skeptical parents.

Stephanie Gerard, 27, said that she was asked to leave the Bible school two years ago after she started challenging her teachers' fascination with mystical "signs and wonders," and that after months of praying and fasting, "I sounded like a clone."

Mr. Bickle denied that there was a coercive atmosphere. "I always tell people to think for themselves and to remember that their families are their first loyalty, not the ministry," he said.

What critics call a loss of independent judgment is described by believers here as unrivaled pleasure.

Sarah Sun Kim, 32, came here for a three-month visit while she was a graduate student in politics at Harvard, working on nuclear weapons issues and North Korea. She has stayed for five years and is now vice president of the Bible college.

"I felt the emotions of God, that I could actually converse with him and he really loves me," she said. "Now I believe my prayers will bring more change than what diplomats can do with policies and arms control theories."

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