Reporting from Kansas City, Mo. -- It was just before 3 a.m. when Ruth and Shady Abadir walked through the double doors that lead into the thumping heart of the International House of Prayer.
Outside, the rolling suburbs of south Kansas City slumbered beneath a moonless sky, the roads empty except for the occasional deer. Inside, more than 100 people worshiped to the sound of an 11-member Christian rock band, fulfilling a commitment to keep prayer going 24 hours a day.
“We’ve just shifted our schedule to make it work,” said Ruth, raising her voice over the pulsating beat.
In 12 years, the music has never stopped at the International House of Prayer — a leader in a small but growing movement dedicated to perpetual prayer.
Young people have flocked here from as far away as Britain and South Korea, convinced that their prayers, joined in a never-ceasing stream, can push back evil forces that threaten to overwhelm society.
“It’s probably one of the fastest-growing movements within the broad evangelicalism,” said Brad Christerson, a professor of sociology at Biola University who studies charismatic Christianity. “They’re really engaging a new generation of young evangelicals.”
The idea draws from a movement that seeks influence over “Seven Mountains” of secular power, such as business, media and government — realms that the devil is thought to have infiltrated.
Those outside the movement call it Dominionism, from the biblical injunction that man should take dominion over the Earth.
IHOP, as the church is known, sees prayer as a form of “spiritual warfare,” battling demons who keep a constant hold on parts of society. Continuous prayer is a way of extending that struggle around the clock.
“What we do opens and shuts doors to angels and demons,” founding pastor Mike Bickle said recently.
IHOP gained attention in August when it was chosen to play a central role in the prayer meeting Texas Gov. Rick Perry held at Houston’s Reliant Stadium a week before he announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination for president. Such political connections have led to talk of the movement’s rising influence, although Bickle laughs at the idea that his church will ever have “dominion” over society.
“Like we’re going to take over Bill Gates,” he scoffed. “C’mon people, get a grip.”
Outside Kansas City and some evangelical circles, IHOP’s main claim to fame until recently was that it had been sued for trademark infringement by the International House of Pancakes, which eventually backed off.
In the city, IHOP has a higher profile. Its headquarters is in a converted shopping mall, with a former supermarket housing the prayer room and offices. The parking lot is always full, or nearly so. One recent night, near midnight, license plates represented 27 U.S. states and Mexico.
As the church expanded, it bought an apartment complex for its staff and students and another former shopping mall for its four-year bible college, IHOPU. More recently, it bought a 125-acre property once owned by President Harry S. Truman, with plans to build a $100-million center there to replace the church complex.
The heart of the enterprise is a large, windowless sanctuary inside the old supermarket, where robotic cameras — operated from an adjacent production trailer — are in constant motion, broadcasting the worship on the church website and on television channels around the world.
All IHOP staff members, interns and students are expected to spend about 25 hours a week here, organized in shifts. There is a special esprit de corps among those assigned to the 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. “night watch.”
To keep the music going, the church has 25 bands playing throughout the week in two-hour sets. Some are given over to devotional music, others to “intercession” — a call for God to intercede on behalf of some place or cause.
“Father,” a young Korean woman said during one of the prayers, “would you save souls in Seoul, Korea, tonight?”
Instantly, lead singer Misty Edwards, a waif-like woman with a powerful voice, picked up the theme. “We cry on behalf of the poor and the needy, we cry on behalf of these broken ones in Seoul, Korea,” she improvised. Her voice rising, Edwards poured it on: “May justice roll down like a mighty river, may justice roll down for the sake of the needy, for the sake of the poor.”
The 24-hour prayer movement claims roots that go back centuries. In the 20th century, it was a hallmark of the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles that launched the Pentecostal movement.
Bickle estimates that there are thousands of round-the-clock prayer groups globally, most established in the last decade. IHOP began praying without a break on Sept. 19, 1999.
At 56, Bickle is a gregarious man with sandy hair, a ready smile and a build that recalls his late father, Bobby Bickle, a Kansas City boxer of some renown. The younger Bickle played high school and college football, and came to his faith through a high school coach and a summer camp encounter with NFL Hall of Famer Roger Staubach.
Bickle rose to prominence in the 1980s and ‘90s as part of a controversial group known as the Kansas City Prophets. It was a fellow prophet, Bob Jones, who predicted that Bickle would eventually lead “a ministry of singers and musicians.”
The group was driven by a belief in modern-day prophecy and by the certainty, not uncommon in fundamentalist Christianity, that the Earth is perilously close to its fiery end in the apocalypse.
Bickle has built on that. “It is completely within view now,” he said. “If I was a betting man, I’d bet it would happen in the life of the 2-year-olds.”
Bickle’s involvement with the group led him to C. Peter Wagner, then a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena and the leading thinker of a movement he called the New Apostolic Reformation. It is Wagner who speaks of the Seven Mountains of influence.
The New Apostolic Reformation is not an organization so much as a loose movement of independent, nondenominational evangelists.
It is perhaps typical that, while Wagner considers Bickle to be part of this movement, Bickle demurs.
A key issue for IHOP is how it sees the end of the world. Although the church has many similarities with the Pentecostal movement, mainstream Pentecostals believe that the faithful will be called to heaven — “raptured” — before the Earth is plunged into its final days. IHOP holds that those who have been saved will remain on Earth through the time of troubles.
This belief animates and gives urgency to the church’s ministry. Bickle calls his followers “forerunners,” Christians so steeped in prayer and Scripture that they can prepare others for the end times.
The alliance with Perry raised some eyebrows, especially among watchdog groups that track the Christian right. To them, IHOP is a potentially dangerous, cult-like group determined to establish a theocracy in America.
Its theology says “that God intends that a certain kind of right-believing Christian should exercise dominion over every aspect of society,” said Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow with People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy organization.
“What if they succeed?” he added. “What would that mean for equality for gay people? What would that mean for the rights of women, and reproductive rights?”
Talking recently at IHOP, Bickle insisted that he had no political loyalties or designs. “I’ve been criticized many times for being apolitical and abdicating my responsibility in the realm of politics,” he said. “I’m not against being involved; it’s just not my interest.”
It is, perhaps, more an interest of Lou Engle, a senior leader at IHOP and a fiery figure in the battle against abortion and same-sex marriage. On Nov. 11, Engle plans to lead a prayer rally — “The Call” — in Detroit. One goal is to persuade Muslims to convert to Christianity.
Bickle can often be found in a chair in the prayer room at IHOP, poring over a well-marked Bible, listening to the music and joining others in worship.
Around him are the mostly young people who make up his flock, people like Brittany Natasha Hyre, 22, who came from Orlando, Fla.
“I thought it was crazy at first,” she said of the church and its never-ending prayer. But, “this is legit. This is really genuine.”
Before her, more than 100 people prayed, chatted, danced, texted, read and paced through the cavernous hall as the music played on.
“We are the beloved of God,” the band was singing. The music built, in power and volume, the lyrics repetitive, hypnotic. “I wash my robes in the blood of the lamb, because I want to be like him. I wash my robes in the blood of the lamb.”
It continued to build, reaching an almost ecstatic peak, and then … continued. After a time, the set was over. One by one, the band members stopped playing and left the stage.
The next group had begun.