Whatever happened to the
Excerpted from John P. Bartkowski’s forthcoming book, The Promise Keepers: Servants, Soldiers, and Godly Men (Rutgers University Press, 2003)
Remember the Promise Keepers? PK, as it was popularly called, emerged from the obscurity of a small 1991 gathering of around four thousand men at its first conference in Colorado to fill stadiums throughout the nation for several years during the 1990s. By 1997, PK supporters estimated at 800,000 strong filled the National Mall in Washington, D.C. for “Stand in the Gap: A Sacred Assembly of Men.” That PK event was voted the second most–newsworthy story of 1997. Now, just a few years past that triumphant march, this very same organization is struggling to reinvent itself. When these facts are considered, 1997 seems like eons ago.
Signs of decline
Careful observers of PK could notice telltale signs of the movement’s decline soon after Stand in the Gap. Just four months after that event, the organization laid off its entire office staff because of its dwindling finances. Armed with the catchy slogan, “Open the gates in ‘98!” PK had decided to drop its conference admission fee of sixty dollars at more than a dozen venues across the nation. The donation–only strategy of fundraising was designed to attract a more economically and racially diverse group of men to PK conferences. PK had long promoted reconciliation among men from different racial, socioeconomic, and denominational backgrounds under the banner, “Break Down the Walls.” Yet, the most significant breaking that took place in 1998 was the financial sort. PK was in desperate need of cash.
The organization’s cancellation of its long–planned millennial march was another sign of its decline. Dubbed “Hope for a New Millennium: Light the Night,” that event was billed as the follow–up march to Stand in the Gap, and was introduced to PK faithful there on the National Mall in 1997. The goal was ambitious—have PK men across America descend on capitol buildings in each of the fifty states at midnight on January 1, 2000. This “Y2K” reprise to 1997’s Stand in the Gap was anticipated to lend even more visibility to the movement. Yet, by early April 1999, the millennial march fell prey to the Y2K bug. Caution apparently being the better part of valor, PK leaders told men to remain home with their families to face what was expected to be a precarious transition to the new millennium. Many wondered if the event had been cancelled primarily because it would have been an embarrassment, a testimony to the falling fortunes of PK.
PK lost much of its newsworthiness soon after laying off its staff and canceling its millennial march. In the blink of an eye, the high–profile media attention PK once enjoyed had evaporated. Gone was coverage of massive PK stadium conferences and the personal testimonials of lives changed that had graced the covers and feature stories of all the nation’s top weekly news magazines. And front–page headlines captured so effectively by the group suddenly became a distant memory. Those left scratching their heads from diminished news coverage would see the writing on the wall with a quick glance at the numbers. The Promise Keepers’ annual budget dwindled from $117 million in 1997 to $34 million in 2001, and its surviving office staff of one hundred—those rehired after the layoff—was a skeleton troupe when compared with the veritable army of three–hundred and fifty that it employed during its heyday.
More convincing yet, the movement’s stadium gate draw became a mere shadow of its former self. Once able to attract more than 50,000 men to each of more than a dozen football stadiums during its “conference season,” the movement adopted the more modest goal of filling convention halls and civic centers of about 15,000. One of the more striking examples of the drought in attendance was found in Minneapolis. PK attracted 62,000 men to the Metrodome in 1995, but could muster only 16,000 men to Minneapolis’s much smaller Target Center in 2000. Similar drops in attendance occurred in other repeat–venues throughout the nation.
For their part, the Promise Keepers have not resigned themselves to being dismissed as yesterday’s news. When questioned about their drastically diminished revenues and less impressive membership rolls, one PK spokesman glibly asserted that the group is merely letting “the soil rest” before reinitiating its harvest of men’s souls. Other spokesmen have adopted a more forthright tone. One leader described the group’s well–publicized financial woes and staff layoff as its “puberty era.” Such images suggest that PK has “grown up” from a gangly revivalist movement to a more mature men’s ministry. Still others have sought simply to downscale expectations. Another leader in the group painted the Promise Keepers as a front–line crusade whose primary goal has always been to serve as a “starting point” for channeling converted men into local churches. According to this logic, once the baton has been passed to local churches, observers should not expect to see PK tally the same numbers in fund raising or conference attendance that they previously commanded.
Recent Efforts to Revive PK
More compelling than such rhetoric are PK’s practical efforts to reinvent itself in recent years. The form and the substance of PK conferences have changed in significant ways. In contrast to the glitzy high–tech conferences of years past, recent events have taken on a more earthy, traditionally evangelical feel. Still, this is not to say that PK has suddenly become a technophobic organization. PK continues to redefine the very notion of “electronic church,” a phrase sociologists first used in the 1980s to describe the phenomenal growth of Christian radio and televangelism. Information technology has come a long way since the 1980s. Never the Luddite, PK continues to use all of the latest technological media to their best advantage.
Select PK conferences are now broadcast live over the internet through the group’s use of webcast technology. PK’s website (www.promisekeepers.org) features a “myPK” link that, among its other features, can connect individual Promise Keepers with their brothers in the “PK Online Community.” And, for his part, PK founder McCartney has used an array of electronic media to reach American men. McCartney’s popular three–minute “4th and Goal” radio broadcast, carried by nearly five hundred local radio stations at it peak, is supported by a companion website (www.4thandgoal.org) as well as an e–mail distribution list. The Promise Keepers even offer a filtered internet service provider, “pkFamily.com,” and its own “internet accountability software” called “Eye Promise”—the latter with a catchy “eye” logo that helps men to feel as if they are under the caring yet watchful gaze of the group as they surf the web. A host of local Promise Keeper faithful have followed suit by constructing their own websites at which they pay homage to the group and its influence on their lives. At many such sights, old–time religion meets high–tech spirituality.
Alongside such efforts, the Promise Keepers have also sought to broaden their target constituency. In 2001, PK began sponsoring a youth ministry series called Passage, complete with conferences aimed at young evangelical males. PK describes this cohort of young evangelicals as “The Next Warriors For Christ,” and provides the hip admonishment, “THIS AIN’T YOUR DADDY’S PK!” Passage events feature big–name Christian musical artists, such as Michael W. Smith and the Katinas, who are widely popular among evangelical youth. Not to be dismissed as out of touch with today’s youth culture, Passage’s supporting websites (www.passage2001.com, www.passage2002.com) feature pictures of teen surfers and skateboarders alongside Bible–reading adolescent boys. Passage conferences also feature young Christian athletes—a new generation of Muscular Christians, it would seem—performing extreme sports to pulsating but sanitized tunes that resemble the emergent genre of “ska music” sweeping through American teendom. The climax of every Passage conference is the pairing up of each teen boy with an adult male mentor. Like accountability partnerships that were formed in their “Daddy’s PK,” the expectation is that this mentor–protegè relationship will last well beyond the event itself.
The Promise Keepers’ new emphasis on youth ministry was presaged by the 2001 eighteen–city conference series, “Turn the Tide: Living Out an Extreme Faith,” which melds a biblical reference to promoting social change through Christian living (Romans 12:2) with the concept of “extreme sports” popular among young people today. Passage conferences are touted as an “in–your–face experience.” Balancing their anti–establishment orientation with respect for competing forms of youth ministry, PK leaders are quick to emphasize that Passage is not aimed at supplanting more traditional church–run ministries to male youth groups such as the Boy Scouts.
The Promise Keepers have also broadened their reach beyond U.S. borders through “PKI”—Promise Keepers International. PKI hosts “International Summits” designed to unite evangelical Christians from around the world in brotherly prayer and worship. These summits are translated into no fewer than seven languages, are enlivened with world music (albeit from a Christian perspective), and feature “presentations from representatives of nations from every continent, including Messianic Rabbis, Pastors from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe” (www.pk–intl.com/summit.htm). By 2002, PKI had been established in nine countries, including Canada, Germany, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and other European nations. And, true to form, several of these PKI chapters have their own websites.
PKI extends the group’s longstanding engagement with cultural diversity. PK was criticized early on for a lack of representation of racial minorities on its staff and its failure to attract men of color despite its stated emphasis on racial reconciliation (see Allen 2001; Diamond 1998; Hawkins 2000; Jones and Lockhart 1999). Even McCartney himself, grandfather of two multiracial children, had previously acknowledged the group’s failure on this front (Culver 1999b). However, in the last few years, the movement has begun to offer a more culturally diverse slate of speakers and is guided by a more genuinely multiracial cadre of leaders (Dujardin 2001; Rivera 2001). PKI is designed to take PK’s multicultural brand of evangelicalism to the next level by broadening its base to include born–again Christians from outside the United States.
Making Sense of It All: Explaining the Rise and Fall of PK
The rapid growth and decline of the Promise Keepers tells us a great deal about this men’s movement and American religion. As a revivalistic movement that is sometimes quite critical of the religious establishment, PK was able to repackage spirituality, casting it as something other than “organized religion.” This evangelical repackaging of faith made religious conviction palatable for a large number of American men. But eschewing “organized religion” comes at a cost. Social movements have traditionally found it difficult to parlay their appeal into an enduring influence unless they become institutionalized. In the world of feminism, the women’s movement became consolidated and endures as the National Organization of Women. In the world of faith, religious movements often try to channel their charisma into organizations that are familiar to us all—congregations and denominations. United Methodism, begun by evangelist John Wesley, is one case in point. Thus, PK’s anti-establishment approach to faith was its greatest strength and its most glaring weakness. PK was catapulted into the limelight and attracted men by the thousands through because it gave a free-flowing character to spirituality. In this way, it successfully dressed up religion in garb, such as sport, that is very familiar to American men. But this quality also meant that its fame would not last very long, as is commonly the case with revivalistic movements designed to attract a limited constituency (in this case, men).
In a broader sense, the rise and fall of the Promise Keepers provides insight into American culture. Americans suffer from what might be best described as a collective form of attention deficit disorder. Our society changes with such rapidity that it is a real challenge for any group to command sustained attention in the public eye. Consider the late artist Andy Warhol’s prophetic reference to the fleeting “fifteen minutes of fame” that he predicted would characterize popularity in modern America. In many respects, Warhol was right. Social life in twenty–first century America seems to be more liquid than solid.
By diving headlong into the turbulent waters of American culture, the Promise Keepers invariably lent themselves to comparisons with the world of entertainment. And the consumers that rule the entertainment world are notorious for their fickle tastes and their insatiable appetites for increasingly more spectacular forms of excitement. The problem here is one of continually having to “up the ante.” Of course, this is not to say that fickleness or an insatiable appetite for entertainment dictated the Promise Keeper men’s reactions to conferences. The stated purpose is something different—changing hearts, winning souls. But, as the movement’s signature event, Promise Keeper conferences were designed to be spectacles. They were intended to entertain as well edify. And the problem with a spectacle is it needs to be outdone by something more spectacular and more stimulating the next time around. Thus, the fate of the Promise Keepers sheds important light on both the Christian men’s movement that it represented, and the society in which we all live. The bell has tolled for the Promise Keepers. But, living in such a time of rapid change, it also tolls for us all.
John P. Bartkowski is an associate professor of sociology at Mississippi State University. He is author of Remaking the Godly Marriage: Gender Negotiation in Evangelical Families (Rutgers University Press, 2001) and Charitable Choices: Religion, Race, and Poverty in the Post–Welfare Era (New York University Press, 2003).
Books on the Promise Keepers
Abraham, Ken. 1997. Who are the Promise Keepers? Understanding the Christian Men’s Movement. New York: Doubleday.
Bartkowski, John P. 2003. The Promise Keepers: Servants, Soldiers, and Godly Men. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
Brickner, Bryan W. 1999. Politics and Promises: The Promise Keepers. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield.
Claussen, Dane S. (edited). 1999. Standing on the Promises: The Promise Keepers and the Revival of Manhood. Cleveland, Oh.: Pilgrim Press.
Claussen, Dane S. (edited). 2000. The Promise Keepers: Essays on Masculinity and Christianity. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc.
Lundskow, George N. 2002. Awakening to an Uncertain Future. New York: Peter Lang.
Williams, Rhys H. (edited). 2001. Promise Keepers and the New Masculinity: Private Lives and Public Morality. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.