Promise Keepers Organization Still Draws Crowds

New York Times/May 21, 2001
By Gustav Niebuhr

Rapid City, SD -- After listening to several hours of religious music and messages, 3,200 men got onto their knees on Saturday in a downtown arena, a place where Elvis once entertained. They had been asked to pray silently, for freedom from temptations like anger and pornography.

"We need a release of the Holy Spirit to set guys free from bondage," said Steve Farrar, head of Texas ministry, who stood on a stage. It was a moment that, in its way, recalled a vastly larger and more public event four years earlier, on the Mall in Washington, when several hundred thousand men spent a day singing hymns and prostrating themselves in prayer, at the invitation of the evangelical men's organization the Promise Keepers - the same group running this event at the far more modest Rushmore Plaza Civic Center.

In October 1997, when the Washington event took place, Promise Keepers had become nationally known and controversial, pictured on the covers of news magazines and a topic for talk shows. The group was alternately praised for its emphasis on men's moral rejuvenation and criticized for its events' exclusion of women and for some speakers' telling men to be leaders in church and at home.

Despite its success, Promise Keepers stumbled financially soon thereafter. Revenues declined, after a decision (since abandoned) to stop charging people to attend. The staff was briefly laid off in 1998. Regrouping followed, but the organization seemed largely off the public radar.

Still, it forged ahead. It has continued to run two-day conferences, although on a smaller budget (about $34 million this year, versus $117 in 1997), with a smaller staff (about 100, compared with more than 300 at its peak) and in smaller venues. In 2000, its events attracted about 300,000 men, compared with more than one million in 1996, their peak year for conferences.

As it enters its 11th year, Promise Keepers appears to be making a transition from mass movement to a more institutional form, a familiar trajectory in Christianity. "We've continued to do the events," Bill McCartney, the former University of Colorado football coach who is the group's founder and president, said in a telephone interview. "It's just that not as many men attend the events as in the time of exponential growth," he added. "Actually, no one was as surprised as us that they came together in those numbers." Still, Mr. McCartney said, Promise Keepers remains unique.

"We believe we still have a very important role to play," Mr. McCartney said, adding that the organization was also working to involve and aid church pastors. James Mathisen, a professor of sociology at Wheaton College, in Wheaton, Ill., said, "They grew so big so quickly, there was no way they were going to persist at that same rate." "In one way," said Mr. Mathisen, who has studied the group over the years, "they were victims of their own success."

Promise Keepers plans 16 two-day events this year, the first June 8 and 9 in Jacksonville, Fla., as well as one for teenagers, in Columbus, Ohio, in December. In something of an experiment, the group decided to hold two one-day gatherings in the lightly populated Northern Plains - in Grand Forks, N.D., in April, and on Saturday in Rapid City, a tourist spot known for monumental sculpture (at Mount Rushmore) and mammoth motorcycle rallies (at nearby Sturgis).

Here the organization has tapped a ready market. One man at the arena, the Rev. Dale Bartscher, 46, said he had attended Promise Keepers' events since 1992. Mr. Bartscher, the pastor of First Christian Church here, said his congregation had set a goal of bringing 100 men to the event, and exceeded that by 18.

The topics discussed by speakers, like the importance of prayer and the evil of Internet pornography, made it seem odd to recall that Promise Keepers once excited so much controversy. The events are still aimed at men, but at least on Saturday, little seemed to be said about sex roles, once the group's most contentious issue.

Mr. Farrar, interviewed backstage, remarked: "As Thoreau said, I think a lot of men are living lives of quiet desperation. We're looking for significance and meaning, and until we get hooked up with our creator, we won't get significance." The organization's current theme is "Turning the Tide," with a reference to a biblical verse about personal transformation (Romans 12:2), and an exhortation to live "an extreme faith," a phrase one official said was aimed at younger men, who have presumably been bombarded with the popular culture's use of the word "extreme," as in extreme sports.

As at the events in the 1990's, the men here appeared to be mainly in their 30's, 40's and 50's. Registration figures indicated that 7 of 10 were from South Dakota, although a few came from much farther afield. Pat Meyer, 38, a member of the Christian Motorcyclists Association, rode 15 hours from Superior, Wis. When asked what he got from the events, Mr. Meyer said, "How to be a better husband."

For years, Promise Keepers has preached a need for racial reconciliation, although attendees have been largely white. Speakers here included two Sioux men, for whom this region is home.

The event also drew several African-Americans, one of whom, Robert Johnson, 25, worked as a volunteer, using a bullhorn to guide people to a stack of box lunches, while trying to rouse them to chant, "Praise the Lord!" Afterward, Mr. Johnson said he had attended the rally in Washington in 1997, and handed out Bibles.

"Whatever I can do to be a blessing to God's people, and to people who would like to know our father, I want to do," he said.

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