Promise Keepers, the Christian men's movement that has drawn 5 million often-tearful males to outdoor stadiums and sports arenas over the last 12 years, is launching a rite-of-passage offshoot for teenage boys.
Hoping to capture what organizers fear could be a lost generation of evangelical Christians, "Passage" uses Christian rock bands, hip-hop artists, extreme sports exhibitions, testimonials and scores of fast-paced videos in an attempt to reconnect teenagers with their faith and families.
Bill McCartney, the founder of Promise Keepers, cites survey data to back up the claim that the percentage of Americans who say they have accepted Christ as their savior--the hallmark of evangelical Protestantism--has dropped sharply.
The most dramatic drop was found in a poll conducted by the Billy Graham School of Missions, which found the percentage dropping from 65% of Americans in the World War II generation to 35% in the baby-boom generation, to 15% in Generation X and even smaller numbers in the most recent generation of teenagers. Other surveys have found declines, although less steep.
"If the current trend continues, we're going to be a heathen nation," said McCartney, who was head football coach at the University of Colorado before retiring after the 1994 season to devote himself full time to Promise Keepers.
But Randy Phillips, who heads the Passage event, says a youth revival is possible if the Christian message is repackaged in a more relevant form.
"The emerging generation has far more spiritual hunger than the previous four generations," Phillips said. "But they are rejecting the current expression of the church that's been model for them."
Phillips has spent the last three years meeting with consultants, youth pastors and teenagers to develop a program that would click with a more cynical generation of boys that puts more value in tangible relationships and actions inspired sermons from the pulpit.
"If it was just words, why did Jesus come?" Phillips asks. "We need an intimate connection at a heart level."
The language of the Passage program is meant to appeal to hormone-raging boys who are challenged to "step up to the plate" and "become warriors for Christ."
"In ancient times as well as today, warriors have always fought together," the teenagers are told at the outset of their training. "Every fighting force is organized into platoons, squadrons, or units of some kind. By putting together this Passage group, we are forming a kind of fighting unit--a band of brothers. This unit has a single purpose of helping you learn to become a warrior for Christ and successfully navigate the passage into manhood."
Down-to-earth relationships between the boys and spiritual mentors--fathers, uncles, big brothers or church members--are at the core of the program, with the teenagers' spiritual advisors revealing painful mistakes in their past in order to develop intimacy and warn against the dangers of drugs, alcohol, premarital sex, crime and violence.
The second of two test runs for Passage will be held Nov. 1 to 2 at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim. The expected crowd of 14,000 will leave the event with six weeks worth of curriculum designed to give teenagers concrete steps to increase their commitment to their family, church and community and also hook them up with a spiritual mentor.
Using informal feedback as well as surveys conducted by university researchers, a tuned-up Passage curriculum will be given away at a Promise Keepers conference in February that's expected to draw more than 40,000 pastors from around the world to Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix.
"What should happen after February is all over America, churches will be implementing Passage," said McCartney. The program has the potential to be "the most important project Promise Keepers has ever launched," he said.
The idea of using the spiritual mentors is that "the men have gone through certain life experiences that have changed them for the better," said Joe Hernandez, the youth pastor at Mission Ebenezer Family Church in Torrance. "Hearing about them motivates the young guys who think, 'Maybe I don't need to go through all that.' "
Hernandez plans to bring more than 30 teenagers to the Anaheim event. The two-day program costs $59 for boys 18 and under, and $65 for those 18 and older. Scholarships are available.
An academic study on the first Passage event last year in Columbus, Ohio--and its 12-week follow-up program (since shortened to six weeks)--shows it had deepened the teenagers' faith and other commitments, according to the Applied Research Center of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
Three months after the Passage event, a follow-up survey of 31 small groups in eight states showed those who strongly agreed that Jesus is the ultimate role model for a man grew from 63% to 94%. Those who strongly agreed that there should be no sex until marriage rose from 63% to 75%. Similar jumps were seen in prayer time, quality of relationships, devotion to Bible study and commitment "to make a difference."
The results were absolutely invigorating to me," Phillips said.
More Passage events are being planned for next year, but the organizers say the program will fail if it's not embraced and implemented by local churches.
Phillips said one of the program's most powerful messages is delivered when the teenagers are recognized during a church service for graduating from Passage, a technique that has worked well for Jewish boys honored during their bar mitzvah ceremony.
We need to celebrate their decision to live a Christ-centered life," Phillips said. "We need to say three things: We honor you. We're here for you. And we're counting on you. That's what a young man wants to hear."