Not that long ago, the Promise Keepers routinely packed stadiums with thousands of men eager to take up the challenge of being better husbands, fathers, citizens and Christians.
With the zeal of fresh converts at an old-fashioned tent revival, they would come to superdomes and metrodomes pledging to let God be their collective copilot, and steer them from such evils as anger and pornography and toward their places as heads of their households and communities.
But things have changed.
Thousands of men still attend the extravaganzas, but in much smaller venues. Where once it seemed that a two-day event anywhere in the nation meant a guaranteed sellout, now only venues in the Bible Belt appear to be sure things.
On the eve of a two-day Promise Keepers meeting in St. Paul, several area churches say many of the men in their congregations who attended the event in past years won't be there this time. Instead, say several church and lay officials, smaller, church-based men's ministries seem to be filling the void that Promise Keepers meetings used to fill.
Ironically, those observers say, a number of those ministries owe their start to the influence that Promise Keepers once had.
Certainly there are churches that will send substantial contingents to this week's event, and plenty of individuals have signed up online for the conference. As of last week, 9,000 people had registered for the conference, at the Xcel Energy Center.
But some say that although Promise Keepers is by no means irrelevant, perhaps its most abundant seasons have passed.
"They've definitely had an impact, but was that ministry meant to be huge forever?" said Reggie Cammons, ministry operations manager at Speak the Word Church in Golden Valley. "It's the role of the local church to help them fulfill that mission."
Eleven years ago, when Promise Keepers held their mass meetings in Colorado stadiums, Darrell LaBarron of Park Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis would travel to Boulder to attend. One year he and members of other local churches chartered a jet just to fly to Colorado for a Promise Keepers event.
The first time the organization came to the Metrodome, LaBarron bought $9,600 worth of tickets, charging them on his family's credit card, to sell to men in his congregation and to friends. He later became active in the organization and helped coordinate subsequent Promise Keepers events in Minneapolis.
But this year he isn't going. He and his wife are taking a vacation that weekend. He said he still believes in the organization's mission and said he would probably attend if he were in town. But he also said the men's ministry at Park Avenue that he helped found after he attended his first Promise Keepers meeting provides him with the spiritual sustenance he once found at the big-arena gatherings.
A monthly Saturday morning men's breakfast attracts about 150 to 200 men, and a Wednesday morning prayer breakfast draws about 20 or 30 men, occasionally 50, LaBarron said.
"These men's groups can be like the tide, ebb and flow, but ours has taken off," he said.
At Christ Presbyterian Church in Edina, men's ministries stressing personal accountability to family and community sprang up after a Promise Keepers event in Minneapolis. They were going strong for a while but died down over time. Now lay officials at the church are trying to revive them, said Debbie Ducar, church coordinator. So it would seem that the church would be looking to get another shot in the arm from this Promise Keepers event. Not so, said Ducar.
"Five or six years ago people would have stomped on you to get a ticket," she said. "But this year we only bought 20. Now no one here would say, 'Don't go to Promise Keepers,' but we're putting our energies into smaller things."
This year Promise Keepers expects about 255,000 men to attend its meetings -- that's down from 300,000 in 2000 and more than 1 million in 1996. The group has had to lay off workers, streamline its chain of command and resume charging attendees admission. For a time, they were allowed to go to Promise Keepers events free.
Though not unnerved by all of this, Promise Keepers' executives are concerned. In explaining why event attendance has dwindled over the past half-decade, an executive director of the men's organization responded:
"Sure, some guys have a sense of 'been there, done that,' " said Fred Ramirez, U.S. director. "But Promise Keepers was never meant to be a sprint but a marathon, and what happens is guys who aren't signed up to do business with God for the long haul don't come back."
Whether that's true or not, Ramirez points to anecdotal evidence suggesting that the organization has been influential in getting churches nationwide to build ministries specifically catering to the concerns and needs of men. He said the group regularly receives e-mails and telephone calls from people saying as much, but Ramirez also said the group has not conducted a formal or informal survey or study of churches to determine whether their suspicions are accurate.
"A lot of churches misjudged the need of men to have a specific ministry," said Chuck Fenrick, evangelism and networking pastor at Woodland Hills Church in Maplewood. "Now I can think of several churches that have these ministries going full steam, and they aren't letting up."
Promise Keepers had a lot to do with that, he said.
Ramirez, a former New York law enforcement officer, said he believes that no matter the success of specialty ministries, Promise Keepers will always have a voice -- and an unlimited audience. After all, he said, half of the nation's population is male, and not all of them have been to a Promise Keepers event.
"We've just scratched the surface," Ramirez said.