In the 1990s, the evangelical men’s ministry the Promise Keepers packed 50,000-seat football stadiums and even stuffed the Mall in Washington, D.C., with close to 600,000 sweaty, Jesus-loving males. Marshaled by Bill McCartney, a former University of Colorado football coach, the group took the evangelical world by storm. But P.K.’s star fell as rapidly as it rose, particularly after McCartney departed the organization in 2003 to establish a group that brings Christians and Messianic Jews together. Now McCartney is back, and he’s trying very hard to resurrect the Promise Keepers.
The men’s ministry never really stopped drawing crowds, but the numbers of attendees did dwindle. The organization once operated with a $117 million budget, but it dipped down to $34 million in 2001, according to a New York Times article. In 2003, the year McCartney retired, about 172,000 men attended 18 arena events, according to the Washington Post. While many ministries would be thrilled with those numbers, they were nowhere near the figures the group had enjoyed at its high point. In an attempt to stage a comeback, the Promise Keepers are reaching out to two unlikely groups: women and Messianic Jews.
During the group’s glory days, its approach—singling out men as spiritual creatures, with a side helping of masculinity—seemed to surprise and delight evangelicals. While celibate men were used to a life of scrutiny in the Catholic Church, the religious existence of the unchaste male had been largely neglected. Here, finally, was a ministry that paid them attention. Evangelical men ate it up. Or, at least, they did for a while.
Soon, however, the organization began to make mistakes. “Their move to a voluntary donation strategy to fund conferences was both bold and ill-fated,” says John Bartkowski, a professor of sociology and the author of The Promise Keepers: Servants, Soldiers and Godly Men. Rather than charge for stadium events, P.K. had begun to allow men to pay for rallies on a volunteer basis. But the organization’s attempt to include men from various economic strata backfired—donations dropped precipitously, forcing the Promise Keepers to downscale. And beyond financial considerations, the Promise Keepers still faced what Bartkowski says is both the organization’s best friend and worst enemy: churches.
McCartney aimed for P.K. to infiltrate every church in America— regardless of its specific denomination. After the stadium rallies swept through town, P.K. men were to take what they learned back to their local church and, in small groups, share the struggles they faced in their attempts to be godly men. In Bartkowski’s essay “Breaking Walls, Raising Fences,” an interviewee recalled that in one P.K. small-group moment, “otherwise ‘strong men’ ended up weeping profusely and rolling on the floor in anguish after learning that the vast majority of them had been sexually abused as children.” P.K. uniquely allowed men to be vulnerable and intimate with one another. The organization presented the perfect combination of religion and pop psychology, a mishmash that would appeal to men from diverse backgrounds: those who felt their worldview aligned with P.K. as well as those who may have had a less clear vision but who clung to the opportunity for self-improvement, as Stephen D. Johnson noted in “Who Supports the Promise Keepers?”
But Promise Keepers also offered something different from a church: an unmediated relationship with God. The stadium rallies produce an intimate, almost frenzied relationship with God that create a high—which even an alcohol-abstaining Christian man might seek out. But for how long? The P.K. experience that might have created an ecclesiastical euphoria the first time might not bring the same high the next time. Bartkowski thinks that to continue to bring men back, to sustain the high, P.K. needs to present something new—always. This year, at least, that something new comes in the form of women and Messianic Jews.
“Promise Keepers is not a men’s ministry. It is a ministry for men,” Raleigh Washington, the group’s president, said in defense of their invitation to women. Women, many of them volunteers, have always attended rallies, but they’ve played a secondary role. Much has been made of the organization’s overall stance toward women and its expectation, some argue, that women continually take a back seat. The Rev. Tony Evans advised men on how to reclaim their leadership roles: “The first thing you do is sit down with your wife and say something like this: ‘Honey, I’ve made a terrible mistake. I’ve given you my role.’ … Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here. I’m not suggesting that you ask for your role back, I’m urging you to take it back.”
But as Bartkowski has noted, herein lies part of P.K.’s genius and one reason for the group’s success. By mixing authoritarianism with a dash of gentleness, P.K. offered men—indeed, entire families—a combination of patriarchy and egalitarianism that is likely to continue even now that P.K. has made a formal invitation to women. The ministry plans to include women by focusing on what men should do in relation to them—honor them, respect them, etc. But the question is: What incentive will women have to hover by the football benches? To stand by their men?
The other group the Promise Keepers want to bring into the fold is Messianic Jews, whom McCartney also tried to reach out to as part of his organization Road to Jerusalem. Messianic Jews—cultural Jews who believe Christ is the Messiah—and evangelicals have something other than just Jesus in common: an interest in the preservation of Israel. But P.K. also uses Romans 11:11 as inspiration, arguing that the passage indicates that salvation to Christians came as a way of making all nonbelievers jealous. Part of P.K.’s mission, then, is to fill all non-Christians with envy, causing them to yearn for the zeal they have for Jesus. But, again, the question is, what’s in it for the Messianic Jews? Messianic Jews already believe they have Jesus in their heart; they strive to be accepted by mainstream Jews and are likely to be wary of aligning themselves with an evangelical organization. Although they share a belief in Jesus, Messianic Jews want to be seen as authentic Jews, not evangelical Christians.
In any case, the outreach to women and Jews won’t really help the Promise Keepers once again pack stadiums with adoring men. To include women and Jews, even those who believe in Jesus Christ, will dilute the group’s focus rather than expand its reach, says Bartkowski. Like a rock band that attempts to resurrect itself, getting the groove back is a daunting task. The concerts, the music, and the fans belong to a certain time; try as the group might, things will never quite be the same, as natural as it is for P.K. and leaders like McCartney to yearn for it to be so.
Why is P.K. trying to come back now? In the age of Obama, its flocks feel threatened. Although the organization has never claimed to be political, McCartney and many of the group’s members take a strict pro-life, anti-gay stance. But if P.K. feels forced to reinvent itself continually to retain a large following, what’s next? If the public continues to judge the success of P.K. based on numbers, will the ministry eventually, slowly, simply sell out, losing the original focus of the organization: men and Jesus?
Washington insists P.K. is about to see an explosion. He noted that the first rally attracted close to 9,000 people—double what the organization has become accustomed to seeing in recent years. Maybe he’s right. But to see the kind of burst P.K. is hoping for, the organization needs to take the public by surprise as it did in the ‘90s. Reaching out to new groups is a valiant effort, but it’s perplexing and seems not a little gimmicky. To make P.K.’s star shine as brightly as it once did, its leaders will first have to figure out what, exactly, is in it for the women and the Messianic Jews.