NEWS FEATURE: One year after Stand in the Gap, mixed signals from Promise Keepers

c. 1998 Religion News Service UNDATED _ A year after tens of thousands of men gathered on Washington’s National Mall to recommit themselves to God and family, the evangelical Christian ministry Promise Keepers is simultaneously showing signs of decline and evidence of continued strength. On the down side, leaders of the 8-year-old organization _ which […]

c. 1998 Religion News Service

UNDATED _ A year after tens of thousands of men gathered on Washington’s National Mall to recommit themselves to God and family, the evangelical Christian ministry Promise Keepers is simultaneously showing signs of decline and evidence of continued strength.

On the down side, leaders of the 8-year-old organization _ which gained its greatest prominence at its Stand in the Gap rally last Oct. 4 _ recently announced plans to trim 55 members from its current 235-member staff by the end of October.

They also said attendance at the organization’s 19 stadium and arena rallies for men across the country this year will total about 500,000 _ down from more than 638,000 at the same number of events last year.

But even as the organization’s national profile diminishes, Promise Keepers reports continued growth in its ministry abroad. Affiliate groups have been established in Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, New Zealand and Australia.

In addition, an independent Ohio researcher says Promise Keepers”accountability groups”_ local support groups of five to 10 men _ are flourishing across the country.

Much of the ministry’s downsizing since Stand in the Gap stems from its decision to no longer charge a $60 admission to its rallies. Dropping the fee was designed to encourage those already committed to the organization to bring others for a conversion-encouraging experience.

However, the sharp drop in income resulting from the move forced Promise Keepers to lay off its then-entire national staff of 345 in March. Although a resulting surge in donations allowed Promise Keepers to recall the staff just weeks later, since then the group’s diminished financial outlook has forced the new round of staff reduction.

Promise Keepers national spokesman Steve Chavis said the mission of”Team 2000,”the name for the reduced staff, remains the same: to get men to be more committed to their families and their church, and to build relationships with men from other racial and denominational backgrounds.

But, he added:”We’re probably more focused now on working with and encouraging local partnerships”between men who support Promise Keepers and local churches.

As Promise Keepers plans about half as many rallies in 1999 as it held this year, Chavis said the partnerships are crucial”so that our ministry doesn’t just come to town and do a show and leave, but there’s a more lasting impact.” Eliminating the $60 rally admission fee has reduced revenue from $70 million last year to $48 million for 1998.

Brenda E. Brasher, author of a book due out next year called”The Promise Keepers: Faith, Masculinity, Politics and Race in the New Millennium”(Rutgers University Press), said many grassroots Promise Keepers regarded the board decision to end the admission fees as fiscally imprudent.”But I really didn’t see it affecting the formation of small groups, or accountability groups or the involvement of men at the regional level,”said Brasher, an assistant professor of religion and philosophy at Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio.”In fact, that has continued to progress.” Other scholars said the ministry, although focused on men, is still seeking its niche in the evangelical world.

The Rev. John Suk, who has written a dissertation on sermons by Promise Keepers speakers, said the ministry’s shifting focus makes it less distinctive from other evangelical groups.”Now they’re competing with Billy Graham and some of the other better known evangelists who hold stadium events … except they only have half the audience,”said Suk, editor in chief of The Banner, a biweekly magazine of the Christian Reformed Church in North America in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Chavis said he hopes one of Promise Keepers’ legacies will be the men who have converted to Christianity through the ministry.”Maybe we’re finally becoming more true to what God has called us to _ discipleship, which begins at conversion,”he said.”Sure, there’s a wonderful effort to win souls by the Graham organization, and why not PK?” Gender expert Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen thinks it may be time for the ministry to move away from the rallies that have been its trademark.”I think they should settle down and be one parachurch ministry among many that aims at producing quality materials and leadership training and stop this football stadium stuff,”said Van Leeuwen, resident scholar at the Center for Christian Women in Leadership at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pa.”But that may never happen with Bill McCartney being a football stadium type.” McCartney, Promise Keepers’ founder and president and a former University of Colorado football coach, could not be reached for an interview.

Chavis believes there is still a”good demand”for the rallies, which conclude this year with an event Oct. 9-10 in Sacramento, Calif.”There’s a country full of men that haven’t been to Promise Keepers that want to see one happen in their community,”he said.

Brasher, who has interviewed 300 men involved with Promise Keepers, said her research shows that far more men are in small groups related to the ministry than the numbers who attend the regional rallies or were at Stand in the Gap.”When you look at those regional rallies … you’ve got to realize that’s the tip of the iceberg,”she said.”That’s not the movement. Most of the men … that I interviewed at the regional level are men who’ve never gone, or maybe they’ve gone to one.” Many of the men in these accountability groups _ often from different denominations _ gather weekly and study a Bible text or a book recommended by Promise Keepers.”That gets about 10 minutes of attention and then the rest of it is what’s going on in my life and I’m struggling with this issue,”Brasher said.

While men are being accountable to each other, as they were charged at Stand in the Gap, they are doing”not very well”so far with the ministry’s goal of racial reconciliation, Brasher said.”At the grassroots level, what I hear from men _ and I hear this from men across racial and ethnic identities _ is a lamentation about that fact,”she said. Still, the situation may improve with time, said Brasher, who compared Promise Keepers’ possible long-term impact on race to the way radio allowed American society to hear on a broad scale the music of other racial groups.”This rally is the radio of religious life, where all kinds of different people’s traditions can be heard,”she said.”Its long-term implications for the kind of commitment to racial inclusivity and bridging the gap or tearing down the walls … may actually be more effective than is immediately obvious.” Another goal that may take longer to achieve is the professed desire of Promise Keepers men to make wholesale changes in their family lives.”In terms of radically altered behavior, I haven’t heard anyone claiming that,”she said.”If that’s going to happen, maybe it’s going to take more than a few years.” Even as the local groups keep meeting, Promise Keepers staffers are working to enhance the ministry’s impact abroad.”We continue to work with other countries that are asking for help in organizing their outreaches to men,”Chavis said.”Some may become affiliates. Some may not.” (OPTIONAL TRIM FOLLOWS. STORY MAY END HERE.)

In this country, Promise Keepers officials are hoping families _ not just men, but women and children _ will gather in state capitals and other locations on Jan. 1, 2000 to demonstrate their work towards racial and denominational reconciliation.

But some observers are skeptical about the plan, wondering how it will fare in competition that day with a slew of televised football games, millennial celebrations and winter weather.”On New Year’s Day, competing with all the bowl games?”said Mark Muesse, professor of religious studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn.”I’ll believe it when I see it. I mean, nobody’s going to come and protest.” Chavis, undaunted, said local organizers will have to decide about the best location, but he’s hoping for large crowds.”It’ll be their call whether it will be inside or outside,”he said.”The capital has the facilities, the public space, the village green, the open area to accommodate a larger gathering.”

IR END AMB