- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2001

KANSAS CITY, Mo. Mike Bickle is a man with an idea whose time may have finally come.

In 1999, he left his job as senior pastor of a 3,000-member church in Grandview, Mo., to set up an "International House of Prayer" where 12 teams of people pray around the clock for the world.

He's since attracted 150 people to relocate there to work on subsistence salaries. Dozens more are lining up to come, and 5,000 to 10,000 visitors are pouring in from around the world each year.

"The Lord has told us thousands are coming," he says. "But we don't want them to stay here. We want to train them and send them out."

He's thinking big 100,000 IHOP "missionaries" tied to 100 prayer centers around the world. There are already start-ups in Dallas; San Diego; Colorado Springs; Chicago; and Vancouver, British Columbia.

When the ministry planned a recent conference in downtown Kansas City for 1,500, more than 3,000 people registered, forcing organizers to relocate the venue to the much larger Bartle Hall. Many of the participants were young, single people looking for a more challenging Christianity. IHOP's Web site (www.ihopkc.com) offers 10-month internships to equip Gen Xers with "extravagant devotion to Jesus."

Some of them had already moved to Kansas City to join Mr. Bickle's experiment. Formerly a missionary in Poona, India, Leasa Young, 33, was captivated by the idea of praying for more than 4 billion of the world's non-Christians in a setting that emphasized massive doses of worship music and prayer.

Her supporters were not as amused. When she switched to IHOP, she lost all except $50 of their monthly donations.

"I really believe this is what [God] called me to for this season of my life," she says. "It's an adventure as to where the money will come from."

After paying all her bills in February, she had $3.43 left.

Ned Keitt, 27, of Fairfax, Va., says he only has 20 percent of the money he needs each month. He stays with a family to make ends meet.

Mr. Bickle, 45, founded the International House of Prayer on May 7, 1999, on a start-it-and-they-will-come model. During the previous 17 years, he had pastored Metro Christian Fellowship in Grandview, 20 miles south of Kansas City. But IHOP (which has no relation to the famous pancake restaurant chain with the same acronym) had been on his mind for nearly 20 years.

Drawing from the Old Testament model of a 24-hour-a-day temple set aside for the worship of God, Mr. Bickle tried to recreate a 21st-century version where there would be continuous prayer.

The actual site is an unimposing one-story building. The main prayer room is covered with green carpet and ringed with international flags. Three rows of desks ring the perimeter, allowing people to simply observe or take notes. Boxes of tissues are scattered about, as are several pillows on the floor.

Books lie on the desks, listing various nations and ways to pray for future Christian evangelistic efforts. One corner of the room is filled with children's drawings and a desk with art supplies for anyone so inspired to draw right then and there. A banner at the front of the room proclaims a verse from Leviticus 6:12: "The fire on the altar shall never go out."

A white board to one side lists prayer requests from around the world, ranging from persecution of Sudanese Christians to an Argentinian pastor whose 9-year-old son has drowned.

A large map is on another wall. On yet another is a painting of an agonized Jesus, underneath which is an altar with electric candles and a do-it-yourself Communion set. Pieces of bread and grape juice sit at the ready.

Of the 150 people on staff at IHOP, all raise financial support from friends and home churches so they can serve on one of the 12 prayer teams. The roughest shift, they report, is from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m.

They also help out with administrative tasks and spend at least 12 hours a week in some kind of ministry to the poor.

The secret of IHOP, Mr. Bickle says, is fascination with the "beauty" of God. He has numerous teachings on the topic and writes a magazine column on ways to enjoy the Almighty. His latest book, "The Pleasures of Loving God," exhorts the believer to actually see God as delighting in the personality and quirks of each individual.

Worship and prayer at IHOP is based on this concept. Pre-assigned verses from the biblical books of Revelation or the Song of Songs, which emphasizes God's love for the individual, are placed about the room.

The worship leaders usually a multipiece band including a guitarist, pianist and drummer, along with some vocalists, sit on a dais backed by gold, green and red draperies.

Facing them are congregants around the room who are sitting, standing, kneeling or prostrate, apparently lost in worship. Like a jazz composition, the singers seem to make up their own tunes or sing whatever prayers or Scriptures have come to mind.

In one session, "May this be the day, this be the hour Kansas City is changed by You," the drummer sings.

Then the group switches to a chant from one of the psalms. The sessions have a timeless quality to them.

Occasionally, Mr. Bickle leads the worship, especially during Saturday night "bridegroom prayer watch" sessions geared toward anticipating the Second Coming. Central to his ministry is what he terms a "simple lifestyle" that includes frequent days of fasting.

"I have lived in simplicity all my adult life and love it," he says, adding he gives away hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual income from his books and tapes. He and his wife live in a nearby duplex and he raises about $35,000 as an annual salary from friends and supporters. Those earnings, he says, are supplemented by his wife's earnings as a real estate agent.

"I want to live as minimally as possible," he says, "to give more away."

Unlike most of his fellow nondenominational charismatic pastors, Mr. Bickle has dipped into Catholic spirituality to fill his well. IHOP conference book tables include tomes on the mystics and the Song of Solomon published by Tan Books, a conservative Catholic publisher out of Rockford, Ill.; Teresa of Avila's "Way of Perfection," books by Jesuit priest Thomas Green on spiritual direction and works by Trappist priest Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen on desert spirituality and contemplative prayer.

"A lot of us Protestants are unaware of the deeper life writers in the Catholic Church," Mr. Bickle says. "We don't have fiery spirits. There's dogma in the Catholic Church I don't receive. But there are fiery spirits there I do receive."

One of his favorite authors is the Rev. Thomas Dubay, a Catholic priest who writes on prayer.

"I admire many people, but few inspire me," he said. "But I'm deeply inspired by his writings."

Not every visitor agrees or even likes his house of prayer concept, he says, but unusual, even radical means are needed to change the spiritual landscape of the planet.

"I am creating the paradigm, not the application," he says. "There are people who want to see someone raising the flag."

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