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.