Global visionaries or cult of personality?

Charismatic and controversial leader draws thousands of young worshippers to Kansas City to prepare for the Rapture

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 6, 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, Mo., 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 past 10 years, by 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.

Bickle isn't offended.

"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."

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, Mo., that would include a 5,000-seat conference center, a Bible college and administration offices.

Flocking to university

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."

At IHOP University, 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.

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.

Objective: Mold a million

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.

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 month, 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.

'Radical young people'

"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.

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 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.

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 ..."

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.

The business end

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.

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."

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