- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A certain IHOP in Kansas City, Missouri, bills itself as a global establishment open 24 hours a day — but don’t expect to be served a stack of pancakes.

The International House of Prayer, however, won’t disappoint in providing food for the soul, said Mike Bickle, founder of the evangelical mission.

“Jesus emphasized prayer, preaching and good works,” Mr. Bickle said. “Together, they are the missionary model of the New Testament. A lot of mission groups skip the prayer part. We throw in prayer as well.”

The International House of Prayer — which includes a Bible school, a music academy and several mission programs — turns 15 years old Thursday, and its more than 2,000 members are planning a weekend celebration.

At the heart of this IHOP is the 24/7 “worship sanctuary,” a room where prayer through music has continued without a break since 1999.

“We’ve got this thing about never letting the music stop,” said Mr. Bickle. “It’s really kind of fun. Yes, we have hustled like crazy, particularly in the early years, but now if someone doesn’t make it, there’s still 10 others who are there.”

When he founded the mission in 1999, Mr. Bickle said, he learned from his two decades as a pastor that he had to keep prayer interesting to attract people, especially the young.

“I came to the conclusion that if we sang, mixed singing and prayer together, and if the music is liberating, then the prayer becomes interesting, not boring,” he said. “Enjoyable prayer. People will do it if we have cool music together with prayer, and the lyrics are prayer-oriented. It worked.”

That’s not to say the mission hasn’t faced its share of challenges.

Neighbors pushed back when the mission began planning a new location in 2002, and the International House of Pancakes sued the mission for trademark infringement about four years ago. The case was settled out of court, and the large groups of Christian tourists to the mission helped fill hotel rooms.

Several online sites have compared the mission to a cult, and the Southern Poverty Law Center mentioned the International House of Prayer twice in a paper on a Florida-based “Armageddon-ready military force” called Joel’s Army because a pastor named Lou Engle spent time serving with both missions.

Mr. Engle appeared in the 2013 documentary “God Loves Uganda,” which focused on the Ugandan government’s efforts to enact a law against homosexuality.

Mr. Bickle said Mr. Engle was with IHOP for several years and is considered well-liked.

“He went to Uganda and did a big prayer meeting, which happened to overlap” with a rally for the legislation, Mr. Bickle said.

“We have about 10 or 12 groups whose full-time occupation is to explain us,” Mr. Bickle said of critics. “They twist so many things around. [They say I know] when Jesus is returning, so we’re storing up food, storing up guns, we’re going to fight. It’s all this crazy stuff. I never answer them. I made it my policy to stay focused on what we’re doing.”

The mission continues to grow. It now has about 1,000 staff members and 1,000 interns, Mr. Bickle said.

Misty Edwards, one of the mission’s first interns, acknowledges that when she started in 1999, she didn’t know how long the job would last.

“I was definitely not sure if it was going to take off,” she said. “The idea of going outside of any spirituality, with live music going 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for years and years, that’s unheard of. That we could get that many people wanting to do that in and of itself was unreal to me.”

As an intern, Ms. Edwards was one of the first to oversee the prayer room’s night watch.

“There would literally be five of us in the room in those early days,” she said with a laugh. “And some of us were mediocre singers, but we just kept the music going. Our motto was the fire can’t go out.”

Today, bands fill the time by performing traditional worship songs and spontaneous original pieces.

“We’ll always sing around the Scriptures. We’ll take Psalm 23 and be singing the ‘Lord is my shepherd,’ and then start interpreting the text,” said Ms. Edwards, who sings and plays piano. “It’s not jazz music, but it’s similar. There’s a certain monotony to it at times, but you also never really know what’s going to happen.”

The prayer room operates on morning, midday, evening and overnight shifts, each of which is six hours.

Every mission member commits 25 hours a week to prayer room worship. Many stay on as full-time staff and serve 50 hours per week, dividing their time among the prayer room, assisting with functions such as marketing or legal work, and ministering to the outside community by feeding the poor, helping at shelters and other outreach.

Some members travel outside the city and even around the world to help start other missions, though each is separate and unaffiliated with the Kansas City IHOP.

“I don’t want a big international network. I don’t want to lead anything outside of this place,” Mr. Bickle said. “But we inspire them, give them resources, be friends with them. But they’re not under us.”

With 15 years under his belt and more requests for mission help from around the world, Mr. Bickle said, his work is moving in the right direction.

“It’s a movement that just keeps growing,” he said. “I think we hit a nerve we didn’t expect to hit.”

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