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James A. Mathisen

The Strange Decade of the Promise Keepers

The revealing story of the rise and fall but continued existence of Coach Mac's Christian men's movement.

Imagine a future historian or sociologist attempting to capture the status of American Christianity at the turn of the twenty-first century. Among the movements she will have to consider is Promise Keepers. Indeed, the 1990s might well be characterized as "the decade of Promise Keepers" in American Christianity.

Consider: On March 20, 1990, Bill McCartney—the highly successful football coach at the University of Colorado—and his friend Dave Wardell from the university's physical education faculty drove from Boulder to Pueblo for a Fellowship of Christian Athletes banquet where McCartney was speaking. Among their topics of conversation en route was the need for a new group specifically aimed at meeting the spiritual needs of America's men. McCartney verbalized to Wardell his dream of filling a football stadium with thousands of men willing to commit themselves to God, to their families, and to "Christlike masculinity." From that chat grew a group of 70 men who dubbed themselves "Promise Keepers," which in turn led to a 1991 meeting of 4,200 men at the university's basketball arena and the launching of the decade's most unexpected and immediately successful movement within the American church.

Promise Keepers grew from that single meeting in 1991 to 22 stadium rallies nationwide attracting nearly 1.2 million men in 1996. In its peak years, the movement received enormous media coverage, much of it presenting McCartney and PK in exaggerated rhetorical extremes. For some, McCartney was a Hitler-like cult figure, stealthily seeking to manipulate the PK organization to impose his right-wing political and cultural agenda on the unwitting and beleagured men of America. For others, he was a muscular Christian exemplar of virtue and godliness, bearing witness in a postmodern and pagan world.

By mid-1997, however, the movement had clearly begun to sputter, with Promise Keepers trimming its staff by 20 percent even as it prepared for the much-trumpeted "Stand in the Gap" gathering that October in Washington, D.C. By March 1998—two weeks after McCartney announced he intended to lay off 345 members of PK's paid staff and rely mainly on voluntary help—religion editor Steven Kloehn of the Chicago Tribune could observe that it did not really come as a surprise when the Promise Keepers edifice was suddenly swallowed into the earth, leaving hardly a trace.

In fact, the organization has proved to be more resilient than many people expected; an obituary would be premature. And the real story of this movement—its rise and fall and scaled-down continuing existence, and what it tells us about the peculiarities of religion at the end of the millennium—is only now beginning to unfold.

In early 2000, Dane Claussen of Southwest Missouri State University's Department of Communication and Mass Media published two edited volumes, The Promise Keepers and Standing on the Promises, consisting of 39 essays that look at Promise Keepers from multiple angles. Shortly after, the quarterly journal Sociology of Religion released a special issue edited by sociologist Rhys Williams that included six more essays on PK. In addition, PK's first decade inspired a number of theses and dissertations, with the field of mass communications and rhetoric best represented and historical, theological, and biblical studies underrepresented.

Taken together, these essays show that the published literature in the first decade of PK consisted mainly of articles in a wide variety of sources, ranging from newspapers and popular magazines to academic journals. Most of these pieces were of the polarizing sort mentioned above. Negative responses to McCartney and PK from journalists and activists tended to center on the culturally explosive issues of race and gender. Simplistic misrepresentations of PK as merely a version of the larger men's movement, as essentially homophobic, and as inherently repressive of women were common. For example, the National Organization for Women passed a resolution in 1997 denouncing PK as militaristic and anti-woman. Less noticed were similarly harsh, theologically based critiques that attacked PK for its biblical and theological naivete, its misinformed ecumenism, and more.

At the same time, affirmations of McCartney and PK also emerged; indeed, Claussen remarks that secular press coverage of PK in its first decade was more favorable than one might have expected. Positive treatments of PK were typically sprinkled with anecdotal, experiential, or apologetic emphases. (One example is Ken Abraham's book Who Are the Promise Keepers?, published in 1997 by Doubleday.) PK itself, along with affiliated groups such as Focus on the Family, published numerous articles and books seeking to justify and advance the rapid growth of the movement.

So, after ten years, we know something about Promise Keepers, but less than we might have hoped. Where should we begin to dig deeper? A good place to start is PK's strategic fusion of conservative religion and bigtime sport. The sport stadium settings, the frequent rhetorical use of athletic metaphors to depict a stereotypically masculine approach to the Christian life, the featured appearance of Coach McCartney as keynote speaker—all these and more dramatized PK's successful synthesis of "muscular Christian" religion and sport. Men were frequently exhorted, "We are not here to play games, but to claim the victory! We have read to the end of the book, and we win" (Big cheer!). Similarly, McCartney would note in his 1997 book Sold Out, "Steering a nationally-ranked football program and calling men to godliness through an upstart Christian men's ministry were, to me, incomparably significant, worthwhile callings. Each required total focus, commitment, and dedication." This sort of rhetoric has continued to be pervasive in the movement's stadium events.

Some of this has been noted, of course, in the earlier literature. What hasn't been adequately explored is the way in which PK combined features of three types of earlier gatherings in American sport and religion: the pep rally, the camp meeting, and the men's retreat. One is struck first of all with how similar PK gatherings are to the pep rallies that often precede spirited athletic contests between rival institutions. Obviously the stadium setting is a powerful environmental determinant, and it is clear that many of the male attendees have been there before, as part of a sports crowd. PK crowd members are casual, even festive, and ready to participate, not unlike youthful pep rally participants. Perhaps an hour prior to the formal beginning of the first session, a group from one side of the stadium begins to chant, "We love Jesus; yes we do; we love Jesus; how about you?" with the final you emphasized. After a 10- or 15-second pause, a second group from the opposite side of the stadium responds in kind. Later, during the actual meeting, the pep rally atmosphere persists, although in a more restrained form. Participants cheer for the speakers, for themselves, for Jesus, or for no apparent reason.

Most of the speakers, and especially McCartney, make liberal use of sport metaphors, jargon, and allusions to—and contrasts with—experiences from their own participation. As McCartney speaks, presumably his listeners project from the success he experienced as a coach to his new calling and then, most important, to their own needs and goals. They recognize that he chose to walk away from success in the ultimate male domain of bigtime sport for the greater service of the kingdom. His shortcomings as a coach and a family man only give him greater credibility as a flawed male and fellow pilgrim. Not a polished speaker, certainly not an intellectual, McCartney represents what many culturally conservative, middle-class, middle-aged American men would like their own lives to include: persistent faithfulness to what is really important, and success despite warts. In this sense, McCartney is both the coach and the ultimate cheerleader, preparing his team and his fans for the only game that really counts.

PK stadium gatherings are pep rallies, but they are also adaptations of two tried-and-true forms of gatherings that characterized conservative Christianity for over a century. PK gatherings are camp meetings for our time. Now nearly extinct in their historically recognizable version, camp meetings were annual gatherings of like-minded believers. Offering opportunities for religious teaching, they were also important sociologically as settings for fellowship, affirmation of group identity, and (within obvious limits) fun and recreation. The religious teaching was attained both cognitively and experientially—both taught and caught. The past was rehearsed, and bridges to the future were put in place. Individual members could be assured by a series of biblically oriented speakers that they had an identity as part of a larger clan. Perhaps most important, symbolic boundaries were reinforced to mark off who "we" are in contrast to who and what we do not wish to be. But all of this took place in a casual, almost festive, and participatory setting that clearly aided the more overtly religious purposes of the camp meeting.

Finally, PK gatherings resemble a men's retreat on a massive scale. For several decades, one staple of religious education and programming, typically at the parish level, has been the two- or three-day getaway retreat. Retreat participants are often grouped along demographic lines—high schoolers, college aged or early career, young couples, middle agers, or senior citizens. Retreats may be open to both sexes or segregated along single-sex lines. As with camp meetings, retreats fulfill both religious and nonreligious functions that sociologically are intertwined. Religiously, retreats provide an opportunity to escape from the usual church setting in which parish-based religious learning and experience occur—a chance to "get away from it all." Instead of listening to a minister or priest who has become too familiar, participants are exposed to "experts" from outside the parish. Same-sex retreats have been especially popular, apparently because many American Christians assume that certain topics, concerns, and explanations are more appropriate for learning and discussing within such a setting.

But if Promise Keepers effec- tively blended evangelical religion and bigtime sport, responding effectively to the perceived needs of millions of American men, how can we account for the movement's precipitous decline? After all, religion and sport continue to maintain their symbiotic relationship in American culture. Moreover, it seems incongruous that such a spectacularly successful movement could fade from public view so rapidly. So what happened?

Before pursuing an answer, two caveats are helpful. One is that any movement or organization inevitably reaches an optimum size or level of growth. Such growth may be rapid and visible early in its history, but it is unrealistic to expect that PK, or any other movement, would expand forever. In that sense, PK is partly a victim of its own early success. Between 1991 and 1996, the number of men attending its stadium rallies increased by nearly 300 times. Had PK grown more slowly, as new movements or organizations usually do, an eventual plateau or even a decline such as it now experiences would seem less dramatic.

A second caveat is that PK is also partly a victim of having achieved a modicum of success in accomplishing one of its primary goals of sensitizing and even mobilizing thousands of American men to take some spiritual and interpersonal responsibility for making important changes in their lives and relationships. A body of anecdotal and survey data exists today that verifies that PK did help many men change as it had implied it would. (How to measure that level of success relative to the high expectations PK helped create, however, is another matter.)

With these caveats in mind, let's consider eight overlapping factors that may account collectively for the decline of PK.

1. Bill McCartney. McCartney has always been a "hot" personality—good news and bad news. Clearly, not everyone responds positively to him, as evidenced by varying reactions to him prior to and during his PK career. His personal charisma, infectuous enthusiasm, and solid identity with bigtime sport all stood him in good stead during the formative days of PK. Just as any personal and organizational limitations he had as a coach could be overlooked when his teams were winning, so these limitations were more easily discounted during PK's growth spurt—when PK was "winning." But eventually McCartney's feisty defensiveness, stubbornness, and singlemindedness may have shifted from being charming assets to troubling liabilities. Along the way, McCartney's attempts at transparency and self-disclosure also may have betrayed him. His brutally frank confessions in Sold Out can be read in more than one way and likely were upsetting for some. "In the ugly final analysis," McCartney wrote, "in most situations I think about myself first: my comfort, my reputation, my rights. My, my, my. … And when I am confronted or criticized, I have a strong propensity to defend myself." And again: "A man of integrity is someone whose public persona is squarely reconciled to, and in full agreement with, his private reality. Therein lay the problem. Therein had always been the problem—the undeniable contradictions between who I wanted to be and who I was. … Circumstances seemingly out of my control accentuated gaping discrepancies between who I was portrayed to be and who I was in private. By the latter definition, I wasn't a man of integrity."

In the final analysis, no one knows how many men may have been turned off from identifying with PK because of some of McCartney's warts, just as no one knows for sure how many had signed on because of him. Arguably, however, some of the personality flaws that contributed to his wife Lyndi's widely publicized near-collapse in 1993 also were detected by others who in effect tried McCartney and PK and found them wanting.

2. PK as an organization. As described in the sociological literature on the "routinization of charisma," an interesting moment occurs for any organization or movement—particularly religious ones—as the charisma of the founding leader is gradually patterned or "routinized" along more structured, organizational lines. The Book of Acts gives one partial account of what successful routinization might look like, but the history of the church is littered with examples of the unrealized or stunted charisma of visionaries who were not able to perpetuate their original vision in subsequent organizational forms. For Bill McCartney and Promise Keepers, it became problematic in the mid-1990s just how Coach Mac's charisma could be given shape. Indeed, in sheer numerical growth PK was more successful before McCartney signed on full time in early 1995. How adequately McCartney was able to transmit his personal vision, goals, and charisma through existing organizational channels, once he assumed that leadership, including what his role would be vis-a-vis PK president Randy Phillips's responsibilities, is not clear. Whether to lay off paid staff in 1997 because of growing financial exigencies, whether to require rally participants to continue to pay a registration fee, and how best to allocate the gross revenues in excess of $100 million being generated annually—answers to these and other organizationally related matters emerged practically as difficulties of perpetuating McCartney's charisma.

3. PK's programmatic approach. Related to the ambivalence about charisma and structure is a corrolary matter of PK's "program." Claussen cites a two-time PK rally attendee who "assumed that the third year's [content] would be yet the same. Not interested in the potential ritual value of attending annually, he was looking for new substantive content and not getting it." Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen makes the same point more emphatically: "Like going to a Billy Graham crusade, once you've been to one PK rally you've pretty much been to all of them." Here PK was caught in a dilemma. In the stadium rallies, typically the men were asked how many of them had come before, and those who had were lauded. But an obvious scheduling constraint concerned how much PK could attempt to accomplish programmatically in about 28 hours—whether to take the previous attendees to a "more advanced" level as spiritual leaders, or to emphasize incorporating the first-time initiates. Eventually those attending, particularly the returnees, did an informal "cost-benefit" calculation, and some likely began to wonder how much bang they were getting for their buck. One possible solution was to adapt and transfer some of the stadium events' goals to local churches and to local PK groups. For a time, this appeared to be the direction PK would take, particularly in developing a "curriculum" that could be communicated, thereby transmitting the "Seven Promises" at the local level in conjunction with continuing stadium gatherings. That it has not worked well is suggested by one survey of PK event participants that cited both "content concerns" and "national rather than local focus" as two criticisms they had of PK. So how to provide the optimum content, continuity, and "quality control" necessary has proven to be a major strategic concern that PK has yet to resolve programmatically.

4. PK's anti-denominational stance. If the two previous explanations for PK's recent difficulties are related, they are perhaps reinforced by PK's persisting ambivalence about denominations. Recently I re-read notes I made after attending a 1996 PK rally in Chicago. One of the "problems" I observed was PK's "avowedly anti-denominational stance." It perplexed me then, and it still does. The PK "Statement of Faith" begins with, "Promise Keepers is a non-denominational, Christ-centered ministry dedicated to uniting men," and PK Promise #6 states, "A Promise Keeper is committed to reaching beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity." McCartney and those closest to him obviously reflect a long-standing suspicion that many Protestant Christians have harbored about the way the American church is patterned, and they are entitled to their view that denomination is a barrier among Christians. But their antipathy has been shortsighted in at least two ways.

First, the denominational structure of American Christianity has long been a sociological and historical reality, and McCartney and PK are not going to transform that reality. Despite the waning of denominational loyalty, especially among young people, many Christians continue to find one primary aspect of their identity as Christians in also being Presbyterian or Lutheran or Baptist. To them, the notion of denomination as a barrier is counterintuitive, if not offensive. So, why not advocate "inter-" or "trans-" denominational ministry? Why raise an issue that causes some men to think twice about signing on?

Second, and related to the programmatic difficulty, has been the awkward reality of simultaneously objecting to denominations while having to cooperate with them. Major denominations, such as the Southern Baptists or Missouri Synod Lutherans, include large numbers of conservative men who do not respond positively to the nondenominational posture of PK. In such cases, groups of men from local parishes attend the stadium events, and upon their return home they likely turn to their local or denominational leadership for some means of achieving continuity. But if the men's new identities as Promise Keepers threaten their denominational allegiances, then their local leaders have had little reason to accept PK on its terms. Developing a denominationally based alternative to PK becomes a real possibility. That this in fact has occurred was borne out in a Christianity Today article on the prospect of "PK lookalikes." So in terms of both denominational identity and programming, the PK strategy has been unnecessarily self-limiting. (Ironically, McCartney was already suspect among some fundamentalist Protestants because of his close personal identity with the Vineyard, the charismatically inclined quasi-denomination he has affiliated with and from which he has chosen several in PK leadership.)

5. American demographic realities. The brief allusion to the sociology of denominationalism raises a demographic reality, partly in conjunction with the programmatic limitation noted above. The harsh demographic reality is that while PK identified a niche within American Christianity, that niche was smaller and more limited in its potential for longtime growth and stability than one might have anticipated. Obviously, PK was tremendously successful in identifying quickly a niche among white, culturally conservative, middle-class, early adult to middle aged men. But that is not an infinite population from which to draw ardent supporters.

One survey found that some PK participants felt that the homogeneity of rally participants was a disappointment, an "overwhelming number of middle-aged white men," as one put it. Indeed, survey results consistently found that about 85 percent of the rally attendees were white, nearly 90 percent were married, with a median age of 38, and half had had absentee fathers when they were growing up. This vast majority of attendees also represented a relatively narrow spectrum of evangelical Protestant backgrounds—Baptist, nondenominational, and Assemblies of God accounted for well over half.

What PK appears to have been successful at, then, was identifying a "choir" of loyal evangelicals to preach to, while not diversifying its constituency as broadly as it should have for growth and stability over the long haul. Stated differently, demographically what PK inadvertently fell into was a version of what missiologists have long called "the homogeneous unit principle." PK identified a large group of similar evangelical men, tapped into their felt needs, communicated with them on the basis of familiar biblical and cultural symbols, and reinforced their ready desire to be more effective men of God. But homogeneity became a disadvantage when the movement sought to recruit from a broader spectrum to build a demographically diverse base for continued growth.

6. Persisting theological concerns. Almost completely overlooked by PK's secular observers was the fact that not all evangelical Protestants were responding positively to McCartney and the movement he founded. While the popular press noted the 1.2 million men who turned out in 1996, it had little reason to ask about those who stayed home, some to write critically and passionately about their disdain. If Promise Keepers could be defined theologically as "broadly evangelical," there were alternative theological "subtraditions" within evangelicalism which at best did not support PK, some actively opposing it.

Three theologically based objections to PK were frequently heard. The first objection was that in its effort to be ecumenical, PK blurred theological distinctions that mattered. While PK did have a five-point statement of faith that many evangelicals could support, for others it did not go far enough. For still others, if its five points were broad enough that Catholics and Mormons could include themselves, that meant evangelical orthodoxy was being threatened. A second objection was to PK's lack of ecclesiology and how it undermined the church—in both its universal and local manifestations. Ironically, in its anti-denominational zeal, PK appears inadvertently to have elevated itself as a nondenominational, parachurch organization with little theological sense of its role as part of God's church. Evangelicals of a Reformed bent were particularly less than enamored with Promise Keepers. And third, some Baptists, independents, and fundamentalists were suspicious of PK's emphasis on the Holy Spirit and acceptance of charismatic gifts. For those "cessationist" evangelicals, McCartney's close ties to charismatic theology was a hurdle, not a bridge.

7. Evangelicalism as subculture. The subculture of evangelicalism can be a two-edged sword, as several historians and sociologists of the movement have noted. In his recent book, American Evangelicalism, sociologist Christian Smith argues convincingly for a theory of "subcultural identity" to explain why evangelicalism has thrived in the past generation. At the same time, however, "many of the subcultural distinctives which foster evangelicalism's vitality. … are the very same factors which can foster its ineffectiveness." So it is with PK—subculturally-situated explanations for its success may also point to weakness.

Smith cites six or seven qualities of evangelicalism, perhaps three of which are shared by PK, that may help explain PK's apparent demise. First, suggested strategies for change that rely on "personal influence" constrain evangelicals' "ability to understand how the social world actually works," and therefore limit their "capacity to formulate appropriate and useful responses and solutions" to those problems. PK clearly operates on the basis of a "personal influence" model, whether addressing issues of gender, race, or other matters. By contrast, notions of collective action or underlying social structures and the importance of effecting change corporately or structurally have not been on the PK agenda.

Second, if evangelicals typically begin with a personal-influence strategy to solving problems, then they proceed relationally—by seeking to exert influence upon those with whom they relate. Smith suggests that this "'personal benevolence' framing" is widespread among evangelicals, and it clearly defines PK's approach, particularly in framing men's relationships to the women in their lives, as well as whites' relationships to persons of color. And third, evangelicals "have not persuaded one of their major target audiences—Americans who are not conservative Protestants—that they have solutions. … to America's social, economic, and political problems." Part of the reason why PK has not continued to grow is that the movement has not been able to present an agenda that nonevangelicals find persuasive.

8. Cultural concerns and the cultural milieu. Here the salient instance is PK's emphasis on racial reconciliation. In Sold Out, McCartney notes that of the men who had complaints after the 1996 stadium events, "nearly 40 percent reacted negatively to the reconciliation theme. I personally believe it was a major factor in the significant fall-off in PK's 1997 attendance—it is simply a hard teaching for many. … Even within Promise Keepers there has been pressure to de-emphasize or soften the racial message. But we hold firm. We press on." Despite that admirable determination, PK never really "sold" its message of racial reconciliation to either the white majority audience or the minority audience—but for different reasons.

In part this failure fits Christian Smith's depiction of the larger evangelical failure to grasp the structural dimensions of racism in America. PK's "solution" was relational and interpersonal—get together in small groups with men of other racial and ethnic identities to know and appreciate them as persons loved by God. (McCartney often takes off his shoes before he speaks to symbolize his interpersonal intentions.) The possibility that such a solution is good as far as it goes, but not adequate to "solve" much at a deeper level, has not been grasped by McCartney or PK.

But another part of the explanation for rejection of the racial reconciliation themes comes from the minority communities. Although PK involved selected leaders from minority communities in planning for and speaking at the stadium events, those leaders did not represent sufficiently broad-based minority constituencies. Part of the problem may have been generational, but part was also more philosophical. When one combines a possible white backlash against the reconciliation theme with PK's unwillingness to consider racism in its structural dimensions and its inadequate strategy for involving minority communities, it is understandable that race as a cultural concern could have contributed to the sharp decline of PK in the late 1990s.

In a 1997 interview with an Associated Press writer prior to the "Stand in the Gap" gathering, I noted that race and theology were two important concerns that might stem the growth of Promise Keepers. Now that I have thought about the subject further, those two problems remain significant and have been joined by several more. Without sounding too deterministic and while believing firmly that "the spirit moves where it wills," I am not sure if or how Promise Keepers will be able to reverse five years of stagnation and decline.

Probably the best chance for righting the course lies with reasons #2 and #3 above. PK can learn from the organizational and programmatic difficulties it has experienced and adapt accordingly, clarifying its organizational mission while shifting emphasis away from the repetitive stadium events. The family- and gender-related themes of the movement have caught the attention of many, and those could still be developed more fully than they have been. Expanding PK's ministries to men within local churches to work either alongside or through compatible denominational structures also seems feasible and advisable. Similarly, some combination of smaller-scale stadium events with complementary local or regional meetings is possible. At the top, there are no signs that the PK leadership will change markedly, but some younger men will likely be in the next corps of leaders, bringing fresh ideas with them.

The past five years have been a time of significant decline and reluctant transition. Promise Keepers will not disappear anytime soon. But it will be quieter, more localized, and more specialized, as it seeks to identify and meet the changing needs of its audience.

James A. Mathisen is professor of sociology at Wheaton College. This essay is condensed from papers presented in several settings, most recently at the annual meeting of acts, the Association of Christians Teaching Sociology, Cleveland, Tennessee, June, 2000.

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