On a Sunday evening in March 2013, after a late spring snowstorm, several hundred people braved the weather to reach an unassuming building nestled into a former strip mall in the small suburban community of Grandview, Missouri, 16 miles south of Kansas City. Their destination was the International House of Prayer. The prayer room—a nondescript auditorium ringed with small side rooms for prophesying and faith healing—receives daily visitors from all over the world who want to experience what IHOP’s founder, the controversial, and self-titled, “prophet” Mike Bickle, claims is a recreation of the biblical King David’s tabernacle. Bickle maintains he is helping Christians achieve a greater intimacy with Jesus through 24/7 music and prayer - a prerequisite, he says, for Jesus to return to earth, carry out God’s battle plan for the end-times, vanquish the Antichrist, and rule the world from his throne in Jerusalem.
On that snowy night, hundreds of followers in what is known as the charismatic Christian movement descended on Grandview for a “Transform World” prayer summit, a meeting that promised 70 consecutive hours of prayer to add new houses of prayer to the hundreds of IHOP imitators around the world. Growing the number of houses of prayer, the participants believed, will help “transform” communities, preparing them for a global revival.
Through IHOP and its associated church, Forerunner Christian Fellowship, Bickle claims to be cultivating an elite class of “forerunners,” or people who “represent God and his interests,” and who “prepare the people to respond rightly to Jesus by making known God's plans so the people can make sense of what will happen before it actually happens.” His vision of the end-times, which is central to his teaching, maintains that these “redeemed” people will be raptured just as Jesus begins his “royal procession” into Jerusalem. Bickle believes they will return to earth as “resurrected saints” who will “possess supernatural abilities.” When Jesus rules as “King over all dominions and spheres of society,” these resurrected saints will rule with him, “as kings and priests.”
Bickle is a major figure in what is known as charismatic Christianity, a sprawling movement with no clear organizational structure or hierarchy, led by magnetic and often authoritarian figures who proclaim themselves to be modern-day prophets and apostles. Driven by the passionate pronouncements of these "prophets," rather than by, say, a denominational creed, the movement derides mainstream evangelical churches as moribund and dull – and in so doing has forced them to adapt to its presence. Lest you think these movements are fringe, just look at Republican politics, which has increasingly embraced the charismatic movement and its leaders in its quest for the evangelical vote. Outside of politics--but still crucial to its ongoing and future entanglement with religion--movements like Bickle's entice the very young people evangelical leaders fret are slipping away from their faith. In one sense, IHOP, with its heterodox theology, inhabits a world of its own. But its draw to young people has led evangelical, and even mainline Protestant churches, as well as word of mouth and social media networks, to advertise its virtues to parents and teenagers who think they want to achieve more "intimacy" with God.
Part of the attraction is sheer excitement. Charismatic, or renewalist Christianity – and, by extension, IHOP’s theology – is made up of born-again adherents whose worship practices focus on supernatural occurrences, faith healing, miracles, prophecy, and revelation, many of which developed over the mid-to-late 20th century as part of a “Third Wave” of charismatic revival. The first wave was born of the early 20th century Pentecostal revival launched by the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles; later, a second wave of charismatic Christians who did not identify as Pentecostal were seen in growing nondenominational and even mainline churches. IHOP grew out of the strand late-20th century, or Third Wave charismatic Christianity that emphasized the role of modern-day prophets and apostles who claim to receive authoritative, extra-biblical revelations directly from God.
Prophesy and miracles may sound fringe, but Bickle’s acolytes extend to high places. Bickle and his IHOP co-founder, the evangelist and anti-abortion crusader Lou Engle, have captured the attention of politicians eager reach a religious base increasingly influenced by these movements. Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s 2011 prayer rally, The Response, held just before he announced his presidential bid, was bankrolled by the American Family Association, directed by IHOP staffer Luis Cataldo, and featured Bickle in a prominent role as a speaker. Misty Edwards, who leads musical worship at IHOP and is hugely popular in the Christian music world, also led musical interludes at The Response.
It wasn’t a one-off. Last year, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback—who once shared a Washington, DC apartment with Engle—welcomed IHOP’s annual One Thing conference, which takes place in Kansas City every December and draws tens of thousands of young people to “encounter Jesus, so that we might go forth to do His works and change the world, until the fame of Jesus fills the earth.”
And on the National Mall in 2008 Bickle shared a stage with one-time Republican presidential candidates Mike Huckabee. That day he preached that prayer and repentance, not politics, are the answer to America’s problems. Engle, too, has prayed with Republican members of Congress, including Reps. Michele Bachmann and Randy Forbes (co-chair of the 93-member bipartisan Congressional Prayer Caucus) and then-Sens. Brownback and Jim DeMint (now president of the Heritage Foundation), against passage of health care reform. IHOP was a “ministry partner,” along with the Family Research Council and the National Day of Prayer Task Force, for a 2012 “solemn assembly” for prayer and meeting with members of Congress.
Yet elected friends or not, Bickle’s 30-year career has been marked as much by his charismatic attraction to followers as by accusations of “aberrant” practices, false prophecies -- even heresy. Since his affiliation with a group called the Kansas City Prophets, a group of self-declared prophets which coalesced around Bickle’s church in the 1980s, a legion of critics—theologically conservative evangelicals themselves, including former IHOP followers and staff—say his theology and practices are a distortion of the Bible, and the spiritual demands placed on followers, including unquestioning obedience to Bickle’s ideas, are authoritarian and abusive.
Over the years, when his prophecies did not come to pass, disillusioned followers and pastors in the community have confronted Bickle. He has been asked, time and again, to reform his teachings and practices. Yet, somehow, rather than change, each time he emerges with followers and institutions intact, although he may alter, ever so slightly, certain claims or statements in the trove of writings on his website.
“He’s just Teflon,” said one former follower.