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Return Of The Prophets

Welcome to the Holy Bickle Empire in south Kansas City.

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Onstage at the Spiritual Warfare and Prophetic Worship conference at Municipal Auditorium, Mike Bickle sways with his eyes closed as he cradles an open Bible. Beside him, guitarists play and a woman sings. Two thousand Christians again and again sing a simple lyric:

Pour your spirit out over this place.
Pour your spirit out over this place.
Pour your spirit out over this place.

For fifteen minutes, they repeat the line until, finally, the music quickens and a woman in a red dress on a rear balcony whirls, waving a shredded white flag of surrender from a pole. Some worshipers clasp their hands below their chins in prayer. Others hop up and down, flailing their arms.

"Release the anointing! Release the fire of the Holy Spirit!" an impassioned Bickle cries into the microphone. "Beautiful God! Beautiful God!" In the mosh pit, a middle-aged woman jerks her head forward then back between her raised arms as she dances. She opens her eyes and blows kisses toward the rafters from her open palm, drops her head to giggle, then sends Jesus another kiss or two.

"We must have more, Lord! More in your kingdom!" Bickle yells from the stage. "More, Lord, bring us more!"

More converts, more people praying at his International House of Prayer in Grandview, Missouri. Bickle wants an army of young Christians, "a new breed" that, according to a friend's "prophecy," will rise up in Kansas City. The Municipal Auditorium conference -- held in September -- is part of Bickle's holy mission, one he claims the "internal, audible voice of God" told him to begin one day in 1982, while he prayed on a concrete floor by a rickety bed during a tour of Cairo, Egypt.

Like the pancake house that shares its acronym, IHOP's prayer room is open 24 hours. The room is Bickle's brainchild, a place where everyone is welcome to practice "enjoyable prayer" through contemplative music and prophetic expression. It's in a white, modular, 7,000-square-foot building on Grandview Road, sharing space with Bickle's umbrella organization, Friends of the Bridegroom, and another subsidiary, the Forerunner School of Prayer.

The prayer room is the focal point of Bickle's growing religious and real estate empire in Grandview, where his followers are gathering to prepare themselves and the world for Jesus' reappearance and Judgment Day. The neighbors aren't sure what to think. "We've gotten mixed responses," Bickle says. "Some people are fearful we have an agenda. But we're really nice people, and we can't take your house."

Bickle has a knack for making people nervous. He upset local preachers back in the late 1980s and early '90s, when his Kansas City Fellowship church was home to the Kansas City Prophets, a group of men whose claims of visions from God still stir controversy worldwide on dozens of religious, anti-cult and personal Web sites.

The 47-year-old preacher, who says he has been to heaven, grew up in the Marlborough neighborhood, near 80th and Paseo, on a street where several front yards had beat-up cars resting on blocks. His professional-boxer dad and his homemaker mom did the best they could to provide for seven children. They didn't attend church at all.

When Bickle was a child, he would gaze at the star-filled sky over south Kansas City and wonder: Is there a God? He got the answer when he was fifteen and his football coach paid his way to a Fellowship of Christian Athletes conference in Estes Park, Colorado. After hearing Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach speak of his personal relationship with Jesus, Bickle knelt alone in a grassy field in the Rockies.

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