For most of the past couple of decades, the town of Grandview, Mo., had been praying for a miracle. The population was aging, retail space sat empty, and the town desperately needed new employers.
But the explosion of a controversial evangelical group has been changing Grandview’s outlook dramatically. This town of 25,000 is now facing an unexpectedly bright future, thanks to an unlikely savior.
In the final hours of 2012, thousands of mostly teens and early twenty-somethings crowded the huge Bartle Hall convention center to hear songwriter Tim Reimherr sing out in anticipation of the return of Christ. Almost everyone in the room, including the event ushers, sang along with every word. Thousands of hands waved in the air, and tears streamed down faces as bodies swayed, jumped or danced. It was day four of the International House of Prayer’s free onething conference. The annual conference brought diverse and wildly enthusiastic followers from across the country and beyond to be a part of the concerts, devotionals, and undeniably electric atmosphere.
The onething conference may be the highlight of their calendar, but for several years now, the nondenominational International House of Prayer has been drawing increasing numbers of people to the southeast Kansas City area to visit or even live. And many in Grandview say the group is reviving their struggling town.
In 2007, Grandview’s new Economic Development Director, Alan Kenyon, was charged with bringing new business to a town with few prospects. In 1994, the major economic driver, Richards-Gebar Airforce Base had closed, and the town had seen a steady decline ever since. But Alan Kenyon heard about one group, a small religious organization that was actually growing in Grandview. He received an invitation to visit the International House of Prayer’s prayer room and was surprised to see an impassioned 24/7 musical worship service happening in a former strip mall just a few miles from city hall.
“It’s more intense than what I personally may have experienced or could do, frankly,” says Kenyon. “But I [didn’t] see any danger [there].”
Beginnings and Growth of IHOP
In September of 1999, Pastor Mike Bickle started a musical worship service in Grandview, which has continued nonstop ever since. In 2007, the International House of Prayer, or IHOP as it’s usually called, began streaming the worship service live on its website, and quickly found itself with legions of national and international followers. A year after that, IHOP started developing plans for a university to train future missionaries at a state–of-the-art campus in Grandview, and IHOP U opened in 2010. Andrea Wood, who’s the former owner and editor of the Jackson County Advocate , says an influx of new people who came to be part of IHOP saved her economically vulnerable town from the worst of the recession.
“I’ve lived in Grandview for most of my life,” explains Andrea Wood, “And when the foreclosure crisis hit, we had a lot of empty houses around us. So this was probably around 2008, 2009. We saw those houses start to be filling up with, quite frankly, a lot of families that were coming here from IHOP. Families, college-aged kids.”
Today, Grandview is home to about 3500 IHOPers. As an economic booster, the group has won a lot of friends, but it’s also attracted attention for some unusual beliefs and practices. IHOP teaches that, through prayer, followers can accelerate the second coming of Christ. Founder Mike Bickle has said this will probably happen during the lifetimes of the group’s largely college-aged membership. The End Times will mean the death of billions as well as supernatural disasters, like the seas turning to blood. IHOP teaches this will not be the end of the world. The Second Coming will be a time of justice.
“We believe that the shakings that are happening on the Earth - militarily, politically, economically, morally – that a just god cannot just turn his back on that and say, ‘Good luck, you guys. Work it out yourselves. Let me know when you got it at together,’” says Cataldo. “At the same time, we believe that God is going to intervene to bring justice as a righteous judge. And he’s going to do it using his church all over the Earth.”
Some Grandview residents and former IHOP members accuse the organization of being a cult. These critics worry about the effect IHOP has on its impressionable young followers. IHOP has addressed this by hosting open houses and even talked about it at their conferences.
“We always say around here: the truth has nothing to fear from investigation and analysis,” Cataldo explains. “And so we are so transparent in everything that we do here. Because we’re broadcast live, 24/7, because all of our teachers’ teachings are recorded, everything’s open to the public all the time. We welcome the scrutiny of folks that are looking at our theology, at our doctrine, at our practices.”
IHOP has also brought criticism for its teaching of what’s called conversion therapy. Conversion therapy is designed to change the sexual orientation of gays and lesbians. The therapy has been condemned by gay rights groups and the American Psychiatric Association. It’s also currently facing a ban in California. But IHOP teaches gays and lesbians can and should be changed through prayer.
“We believe that, like lots of sin, that God intends to restore us,” says Cataldo. “That God has a way to bring healing, to bring wholeness, to bring love to people. And so, for sure, homosexuality would fall within that. Just like a murderer, just like a proud person, just like somebody that struggles with stealing. Sin is sin from God’s perspective, and he is a restorer of human beings, and one who wants to bring wholeness and healing to people.”
IHOP members now make up about 13 percent of Grandview’s population. Andrea Wood says the newcomers are changing the political climate of her hometown.
“The members that are coming here tend to be more politically conservative,” Wood explains, “And it is creating a voting block here in Grandview that didn’t exist before. Whereas it was just an assumption that if you were a Democrat, you might not even have anyone running against you, now you are seeing more and more Republican candidates that are stepping up and putting their names on the ballot, and some are tied to IHOP.”
IHOP in Grandview Today and Tomorrow
On a recent drive through town, Andrea shows how IHOP is now everywhere. You can’t drive for more than a few blocks through Grandview without seeing an IHOP office or related business. Two separate real estate companies, Glad Heart and rentalsnearihop, have been started to help IHOPers relocate here. Several apartment complexes in Grandview are occupied almost entirely by IHOP members, and more apartment buildings are planned. Developers have already pre-sold almost every lot in a planned subdivision near the site of IHOP’s future headquarters. Luis Cataldo says that IHOP sees Grandview as its partner in growth.
“We want to be good neighbors, and we want to be good citizens of this little community that the Lord has us in, and so, we want to know what are the dreams of the leaders of Grandview, and we want to partner with them in their dreams for this town.”
IHOP has been raising money for its new headquarters for several years, but says it still needs more funding before it can begin construction.