“Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.” – Desmond Tutu, former Archbishop of Cape Town and Chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
“Loyalty to a ministry involves humbly challenging it when needed.” – Mike Bickle, founder and director of The International House of Prayer
I was on staff at The International House of Prayer in Kansas City from 2003 to 2011. During my time there I lead prayer teams, sang on worship teams, lead Bible studies, managed the bookstore, organized events, and of course prayed for hours every day. Like most people, the thing that drew me to IHOP was the prayer room itself: a place where Jesus is exalted in prayer and worship constantly, day and night, 24/7. It was like a greenhouse for spiritual growth. I wouldn’t trade my time at IHOP for anything — which is why it pains me to write this post.
About six years ago, after I had been on staff at IHOP for about 7 years, one of the senior leaders called me into a private meeting to address a theological issue that had raised some concerns amongst the leadership. The issue concerned a rumor that I had said something about being “functionally amillennial”. I explained that the rumor must have misconstrued my meaning, because what I had actually said (in response to an amillennialist friend outside of IHOP on my personal blog) was that I agreed with amillennialists on the subject of inaugurated eschatology, that the kingdom is both “already” and “not yet” — something which IHOP officially affirms.
Nevertheless, the leader said that in order for him to “call off the watch dogs” I needed to delete that comment from my blog and submit to a six-month period of probation. He mentioned someone who had recently left IHOP for another ministry as an example and said, “I don’t want what happened to him to happen to you.” He also told me that, contrary to the popular notion of what it means to be a “good Berean,” what the Berean’s actually did was accept Paul’s teaching by faith and then look to Scripture to find confirmation for what they already believed (cf. Acts 17:11-12). This puzzled me for two reasons: first, because he seemed to be addressing me as someone who hadn’t been at IHOP for seven years and who hadn’t already agreed with Mike Bickle’s teachings, and, second, because of the apparent disconnect between what he was saying and Mike’s public encouragement to test everything.
I submitted to the period of probation, which included attending an IHOPU class on the book of Revelation. In one of those classes, during a discussion period, I said something about how John “alludes” to some OT passage at one point. After class the teacher pulled me aside and instructed me to never use the word “alludes” again, because scholars who use that word supposedly use it because they don’t believe in the truth of biblical prophecy. I disagreed and said that an allusion was simply an indirect quotation. At this point he got somewhat heated, said “Do you know who I am?!”, and began listing his credentials. I then responded heatedly (which I’m not proud of) and said that his credentials didn’t really matter with respect to the meaning of the word in question — although I had a hard time communicating clearly at that point because I felt like I was on trial, which caused me to shut down to some extent.
I told this story and expressed my concerns to Mike Bickle via email last January, after Kendall Beachey published his infamous follow-up to the Rolling Stone exposé Love and Death in the House of Prayer. Mike said he was sincerely sorry that I “felt penalized” for holding different views, but assured me that IHOP leaders “honor sincere questioning” and “do not penalize” staff members or students for holding different views. My negative experience was a one-off anomaly, something easily amended. The only problem is that it was not my only negative experience.
Shortly after that episode, my wife and I were in an end-times Bible study lead by another senior leader. We were discussing Isaiah 7:14 and the way Matthew quotes it in connection with the birth of Jesus (Matt 1:22-23). I mentioned the way Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1, which is not a prophecy, and says that it also was fulfilled in Jesus (Matt 2:15). I suggested that maybe Matthew meant something broader with the word “fulfill” (Greek: pleroo, to fill to the full) than a simple one-to-one realization of prophetic predictions. It seemed like a minor point to me, but the leader shut the conversation down and later called my wife and I into a private meeting with him and another leader. They told us we needed to watch what we say in public and always present a unified front with the leadership of IHOP. But we remained confused about why we were being reprimanded in the first place.
About a year or so after this, after I was no longer on staff at IHOP, I was having a discussion with another senior leader about biblical prophecy on a public forum that he moderates, which is unaffiliated with IHOP. Instead of addressing the points I raised in that thread he started addressing me personally, saying that I was “blind to my own deductive reasoning,” that I had “trapped myself in a prison of my own making,” and that I was “content to pay the Holy Spirit lip-service”. I stopped responding at that point, but several other people reacted to these disparaging remarks, so he shut the thread down. I then emailed him a couple months later seeking reconciliation, but he didn’t respond, so I sent him a private message on the forum, and he said (apologetically) that he was too busy to respond at that point. This was in early 2011.
He finally responded and asked for my forgiveness a few months ago, after I shared my story along side dozens of others in a 75 page document presented to the IHOP leadership team last April. In response to that meeting, Mike instructed many of the leaders who were implicated in that document to apologize to the people they mistreated, and they finally established a standard grievance policy for staff and students. Mike adamantly denies, however, that there is a more pervasive issue in the IHOP leadership culture that might call for deeper reform, insisting in several public statements that “some” people had been hurt by “some” statements made and attitudes held by “some” of their leaders in “some” of their messages and conversations. Mike also insists that IHOP’s vision and values are not based on prophetic words. Both of these statements strike me as being extremely dissociative, if not disingenuous. The recent steps they’ve taken are necessary and encouraging, but they are treating a symptom while denying the cause.
In order to understand my experience at IHOP, you have to understand the role that Mike’s eccentric eschatology plays in shaping the shared identity and controlling narrative of the community. As Dr. Andrew Jackson observes, Mike places a huge emphasis on the idea that this is the last generation and that God is raising up an elite end-time army to prepare the church for the soon-coming great tribulation. Like many similar movements since the late second century, IHOP’s apocalyptic framework goes back to a series of ecstatic experiences, commonly referred to as their prophetic history. In one such experience, Mike believes God spoke to him about raising up “10,000 forerunners” to proclaim an “end-time revolution” that will confront the status quo and usher in the second coming of Jesus. In Mike’s mind, one of the primary purposes of the International House of Prayer is to function as a “spiritual boot camp” to train these end-time revolutionaries. To question that emphasis at any point, therefore, is to question a central boundary-marker of the community.
But things are more complicated than this. On the one hand, Mike is just trying to be faithful to what he humbly calls his “specific ministry assignment” — a vocation which he believes was given by divine revelation and which just happens to involve training thousands of young adults to change the understanding and expression of Christianity and usher in the second coming of Jesus. On the other hand, Mike is acutely aware of the fact that this vocation, and the underlying narrative which supports it, is controversial and divisive on a number of levels; so he downplays the most controversial elements of that narrative, saying it is merely his “opinion” that Jesus will return in this generation and that he does not base his ministry on prophetic words. So, for example, while Mike places the belief that Jesus will return in this generation on the lowest tier of his recent “Varying Importance of End-Time Beliefs” document, he also spends the first three chapters of his newest book (which bears the unassuming title 7 Commitments for Spiritual Growth) explaining why he believes this is the last generation and how forerunners should prepare for the years ahead by reading the book of Revelation every week. IHOP leaders are thus faced with the ambiguous task of enforcing this narrative while navigating the disparity between Mike’s two different modes of public messaging, which breeds a culture of dysfunction and control.
I would love to think that my negative experiences were isolated cases, but I’ve heard too many similar stories over the years to not believe there is a larger, more systemic problem. My story pales in comparison with many others I’ve heard. Many of my friends have spent years in counseling to recover from the trauma of their time at IHOP. Many are now agnostic or atheist. I harbor no ill will toward the leaders who mistreated me, which is why I’m not including their names. The real problem, after all, isn’t with one or two abusive individuals. The real problem is that IHOP’s main ideological boundary-markers are defined more by their “prophetic history” than by the clear emphasis of Scripture, the creeds, or even by their own statement of faith — and as long as Mike fails to admit this, the dysfunction and control will continue as people continue to trip over those unspoken boundary-markers.
I’m sharing my story because the problem has gone unchecked for far too long. I have such a deep love for the International House of Prayer and I want to see it grow and thrive into the next generation. But the leadership has made a lot of things central and nonnegotiable that really should be more peripheral and open to discussion. IHOP is at a watershed right now. If they continue to define themselves more by the private experiences of a few individuals than by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, they will progressively lose influence and credibility in the wider church, and they will become increasingly isolated and sectarian. If the prayer movement wants to continue into the next generation of Christendom, it will have to rebuild its identity on the rock of the Christian story rather than the sand of its own special narrative.