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Spiritual warfare: Battling evil with perpetual prayer

By Mitchell Landsberg

Los Angeles Times

Published: Friday, Oct. 21 2011 3:42 p.m. MDT

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 these 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 there are thousands of round-the-clock prayer groups globally, most established in the last decade. IHOP began praying without a break 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, non-denominational 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 has 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 here 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.

(c)2011 the Los Angeles Times

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