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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" ...

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