Despite Critics, Worship Leader Says 24/7 Prayer Movement is Centered on Christ
The International House of Prayer has been called “unorthodox” (and worse) by The New York Times. Yet songwriter Jon Thurlow looks to the Bible to ground his worship.
Many Christians can’t spend 20 minutes a day in prayer. Only 79 percent of American adults have prayed in the past three months. Yet in America’s heartland, a prayer meeting has been going 24/7 for nearly 20 years.
Since September 1999, rotating teams at the International House of Prayer-Kansas City (IHOP-KC) in Missouri have continuously led a concert of prayer and worship. Under the leadership of Bible teacher Mike Bickle, the church welcomes visitors who come to pray at any time — day or night. The nondenominational ministry, which includes a church with Sunday services, has hundreds of full-time staff who work in shifts to keep 24/7 prayer going.
IHOP-KC has its detractors, both in the media and in Christian circles. A New York Times article called the group “controversial, cultish and unorthodox.” Last year, two religion scholars wrote a book claiming Bickle and other charismatic leaders interpret the Bible in “non-standard” ways.
Songwriter Jon Thurlow has been around for most of the journey. After graduating from Nyack College in New York with a sacred music degree, he joined the IHOP-KC staff in 2004 as a worship leader. In an earlier interview, Thurlow spoke of he and his wife’s adoption advocacy and his new album, Different Story. Now he shares broadly about the global prayer movement, along with insights into his new songs.
The Purpose of 24/7 Praise
The Stream:The concept of worship and prayer that goes 24 hours every day of the week is new even to many Christians. What does it look like on a daily basis?
Jon Thurlow: The Bible tells us in Revelation that worship and prayer in Heaven never stops. It’s always going. We believe God calls us to a live interaction with Him through the Holy Spirit. Really unique things happen in that live environment. I can explain a little of the structure of how we lead in the prayer room in Kansas City.
We have two different worship and prayer formats: there’s intercession, and worship with the Word. Intercession would be two hours of worship songs combined with individuals coming up to a microphone and praying for a particular topic. It could be a justice issue, like the ending of abortion or human trafficking. It could be praying for a particular nation in Africa. It could be praying for the churches in our city.
The other prayer format is called Worship with the Word. We incorporate what we call antiphonal singing of the Bible. “Antiphonal” is a fancy word for multiple voices and people singing. We sing Scriptures that we all engage with corporately. That’s something we regularly, consistently do as part of our worship model.
Before we all go in to lead worship, my team of a dozen singers and musicians gather together. We take 20 minutes before the set and talk about what Scripture passage we’re going to sing. Or if it’s intercession, we’ll discuss what we’re going to pray over the two hours. I recall a particular briefing.
One of our leaders had just returned from a ministry trip overseas. He said the church in that nation was very familiar with the idea of working for Jesus with acts of service. That’s actually a really important idea in the Scriptures. But interacting with the Lord as a bridegroom or a husband, which is also in both the Old and New Testaments, was a new idea to them.
As this leader is sharing this story, I start hearing this melody in my head and some of the phrases. It became this song about the Cross called “For You.” It speaks of Jesus as the husband who laid down His life for His bride, the church. I love the way that song came forth and the context in which it happened.
The Stream: Some may assume that houses of prayer are self-focused rather than involved in outreach. Could you explain how you see worship linked to global missions?
Thurlow: In Matthew chapter nine, Jesus utters a phrase that is famous across the Body of Christ. It’s where He says, “The harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few.” The church has been using that phrase for the past 150 years to send people on missions, and we should.
But Jesus was mid-sentence when He said that phrase. Few people finish the sentence. He said, “The harvest is plentiful, the laborers are few, therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers.” Right in that verse, Jesus connects missions and prayer. There are not two realities — to the Lord, it’s the same thing. As a missions base doing 24/7 prayer, it’s a passage about which we are very mindful.
Part of our mission statement says, IHOP-KC exists to fuel the work of the Great Commission through prayer and intercession. As intercessors, we see ourselves as missionaries. We are doing missions through prayer. From the Lord’s perspective, they are the same reality.
I will get really specific about this. In our worship and intercession sets, we have partnered with organizations like Cru, Youth With a Mission and Every Home for Christ. In every intercession set now, we pray for their outreaches and staff. These are some of the largest missions organizations in the world.
We see ourselves as part of the missions movement. We’re not in some prayer huddle doing our own thing. We pray for YWAM and EHC workers by name and the nations they’re working in. As part of the Body of Christ, we believe prayer plays a significant role in the missions movement.
Music Born from Pain and Promise
The Stream: Your new album is called Different Story. Where did that theme come from?
Thurlow: The song was inspired by a comment producer Brown Bannister made in one of our early sessions. Typically when I write a song, I get inspired musically first and then I’ll add lyrics afterward. I had a melody line that I felt was really strong. I had the phrase “different story” in my head, but I didn’t know what to connect it to.
I was sharing this with Brown, and he said: I love that phrase. It reminds me how the Lord takes the stories of our lives that are broken, weak and hopeless apart from Him. He takes those storylines and He rewrites them. Jesus redeems our stories through Himself and relationship with Him. When he said that, a light bulb went on for me.
Then I wove my own story in the Lord into that — some of the experiences I’ve had in my own life. We’ve had to walk through loss, grief and physical pain the last several years. The Lord has actually walked us through it. He is in the process of redeeming those things.
The Stream: Could you share more about this past season in your life, the trials you and your wife endured?
Thurlow: My wife had a back injury from competing in high school sports. She kind of recovered, but never fully as far as lower back and disc stuff. We got married in 2010. I recall in 2013, her consistent pain levels really started to increase.
We were trying everything. We went to pain specialists, physicians, chiropractors, physical therapists — we left no stone unturned. Since that time, there has been some improvement for sure. But it’s been a very slow, long process.
I remember we were sitting in church one Sunday morning. During that season, for her to sit for more than a few minutes was really hard. Her pain levels would go way up. Sitting for even a 40 minute sermon was a big deal. I see her there doing everything she can to just engage with the message, because she’s trying not to be distracted by her physical pain.
As I’m sitting there in this situation, I start hearing this melody and some phrases. I am really just sensing the Lord’s heart for my wife in that moment. That was the inspiration for the song “Still Looking Back at Me.” And it applies to all of us.
Whether going through physical or emotional pain, circumstances, the death of a loved one, or whatever we’re facing, the Lord is looking at us. He says, Yes, you’re hurting. You’re in the middle of it. You’re not through it. You haven’t seen breakthrough. But the Lord sees the reach in our heart towards Him.
In our fallenness in our flesh, the human response to pain and suffering is a lot of things. It’s offense, bitterness, anger — and those things are normal. When the Lord sees a heart that is pressing through all that stuff and reaching for Him, we don’t understand how that moves Him.
That’s what the song is about. It’s the Lord’s perspective of our suffering, pain and circumstances that are difficult. When we cry out in prayer, coming to Him in the place of worship, it touches the Lord’s heart very deeply. That can encourage us and get us through some of those really dark moments.
A Vision to Keep Prayer Going
The Stream: How can a culture of 24/7 worship and prayer be sustained? It seems like it would be easy for it to become either performance or listless routine.
Thurlow: Both of those are things that we have to watch out for. No one’s immune to it. I’ve been doing this for almost 14 years full-time. I’ve had plenty of opportunities. In certain moments, we’ve fallen into that: OK, we’re showing up and doing this. We’re going home, waking up and doing the same thing.
What has sustained my heart over the years is coming back to the simplicity of what we’re doing. When I’m sitting on the eighth row in the prayer room agreeing with whatever’s happening on stage, I’m not singing songs to the air. I am singing to a real person. I’m not lifting up prayers to the air. I’m connecting with a man, the person of Jesus Christ.
When I get my heart in that posture, it changes everything. Then I can do this for another however many years. It becomes a conversation. When I posture my heart that way, so much energy, vision and life comes through that. When I step on stage or step into a prayer meeting, my goal is to actually connect with the Lord.
Our director Mike Bickle has said for years: It’s going to be the worth and beauty of Jesus that makes prayer enjoyable. It sustains prayer for long hours if we’re actually connecting to and ascribing worth to the One that we love. That’s happening in Revelation.
You have that throne room scene in Revelation chapters four and five. Everything that’s happening is so explosive. You have worship, the prayers of the saints filling the bowls, lightning, thunder — an incredibly charged environment. At the end of Revelation 4, it says they never cease to say, Holy, holy, holy.
I believe that when we engage with the Lord at the heart level through prayer and worship, we are actually connecting with that prayer meeting in Heaven. We’re ascribing worth to the One on the Throne, and that’s what is going to sustain us over the long haul.