Founders: Bill McCartney (co-founded with Dave Wardell)
Date of Birth: August 20, 1940
Birth Place: Riverview, Michigan
Year Founded: 1990
Sacred or Revered Texts: The Bible is the sacred text of the Promise Keepers. The leaders use the New International Version as their New Testament because they believe this translation is easy to read and understand. The leaders “believe that it is God’s written revelation to man and that it is verbally inspired, authoritative, and without error in the original manuscripts.” Within the Bible, the two verses that are most often referred to are Mark 12:30-31 and Matthew 28:19-20. The first passage refers to the Great Commandment while the latter refers to the Great Commission. Both contain passages that reflect the Seven Promises, which make up the basis of the groups beliefs.
After 13 seasons as head football coach at the University of Colorado, Bill McCartney unexpectedly resigned on November 19, 1994. Being the coach with the highest number of winning games in the history of the University of Colorado, McCartney made a decision to devote his life and career to a parachurch religious organization he founded, Promise Keepers.
The idea for the Promise Keepers group evolved in March of 1990 while McCartney and friend, Dave Wardell, PhD, were driving to a Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) banquet in Pueblo, Colorado. Wardell was the Colorado State Director of FCA at the time. During their three hour car ride, the men discussed their faith and the factors that had changed their lives spiritually.
Their conversation centered on the concept of “Christian Discipleship” and how to help men come together and grow spiritually. They envisioned thousands of men gathering in sports stadiums across the United States to worship, pray, and learn together. This vision was seen as “training in godliness and integrity.”
On March 20, 1990, Promise Keepers was created. Later that year in July, seventy-two men began the group with a meeting. The first conference was held at the University of Colorado at Boulder in July, 1991. 4,200 men attended. Two years later at the third conference, the attendance reached 50,000 and filled Folsom Stadium in Boulder. The following year Promise Keepers filled stadiums in seven cities with an attendance of almost a quarter of a million. Over the next four years more than two million men attended Promise Keeper rallies in fifty rallies in stadiums across the country. An additional 700,000 were predicted to attend the “Standing in the Gap” rally on the Washington Mall on October 4, 1997. This rapid growth in attendance at rallies makes Promise Keepers the fastest growing religious movement in the United States.
The beliefs of the Promise Keepers are essentially those of conservative Evangelical Christianity. The group, however seeks to be an inclusive movement. Thus, it tends to stress general evangelical beliefs rather than specific details. In addition to the Bible, the group has a code of Seven Promises. The beliefs of the Promise Keepers are presented as (1) a Message, (2) a Mission Statement, (3) a Vision Statement, and (4) the Seven Promises.
Message: “Christian growth starts by making promises. The Seven Promises are meant to point men toward Christ-likeness, so that He might transform them from the inside out. This is a process. Only through God’s grace and the strength of the Holy Spirit can men become more like Jesus Christ, and be godly influences in their relationships and in the world.”
Mission Statement: “Promise Keepers is a Christ-centered ministry dedicated to uniting men through vital relationships to become godly influences in their world.”
Vision Statement: “A long-range picture of the potential impact of a faithfully executed mission; a world-wide movement of God among men on their knees in prayer and humility, on their feet in unity.”
A Promise Keeper is committed:
to honoring Jesus Christ through worship, prayer, and obedience to His Word, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
to pursuing vital relationships with a few other men, understanding that he needs brothers to help him keep his promises.
to practicing spiritual, moral, ethical, and sexual purity.
to building stronger marriages and families through love, protection, and biblical values.
to supporting the mission of church by honoring and praying for his pastor and by actively giving his time and resources.
to reaching beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity.
to influencing his world, being obedient to the Great Commandment (Mark 12:30-31) and the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20).
A member’s primary devotion in life is to honor Jesus Christ and to change and grow spiritually through worship and prayer. Members must commit to meet in small groups of men several times a month to talk about their beliefs and pray for one another. A member must resist sinful temptations and commit to honoring his wife and family. Promise Keepers must provide help and prayer for the local pastors, as well as encourage and support men of all races, ethnic, and denominational backgrounds as fellow Promise Keepers.
Promise Keepers facilitates the spread of their message through a dozen or so conferences they hold across the country every year and also in small groups that men take part in. Conferences take place in sports stadiums and participation is restricted solely to men. The two day events are organized in an effort to bring together men from around the nation for worship, prayer, and teaching. Various inspirational speakers give their testimonies and encourage the attendees to keep and help understand why keeping their promise will make a difference in their world.
A Field Ministry whose primary focus is to reach out and spread the word of the Promise Keepers to local churches was created in 1991. Within the National Field Ministries Division of Promise Keepers there are three components: Key Man, Ambassadors, and Task Forces. In an effort to carry out their vision at the grass-roots level, members go to their local churches to “recruit, train, and deploy men.”
Key Man: represents his local church and is responsible for building an effective ministry and for communicating with the Promise Keepers.
Ambassador: a volunteer who is a representative to the Key Men. His duties include recruiting Key Men to promote ethnic and racial harmony throughout the group.
Task Force: exists as a liaison between the planning and promoting of conferences as well as working closely with Promise Keepers.
Issues and Challenges
“Standing in the Gap: A Sacred Assembly of Men” Washington, DC (October 4, 1997)
The gathering, “Stand in the Gap: A Sacred Assembly of Men,” seeks to draw men from across the country and from diverse backgrounds, albeit explicitly Christian backgrounds. This multitude of men will gather in the name of Jesus Christ, “to confess personal and collective sin,” and to present themselves “as godly men on their knees in humility, then on their feet in unity, reconciled and poised for revival and spiritual awakening.” The Sacred Assembly is scheduled to last from noon till sundown .
The name “Stand in the Gap” is taken from Old Testament scripture.
“I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before Me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none.” (Ezekiel 22:30)
The context of this scripture is a call for righteousness in the presence of a land filled with ungodliness. The goal of the rally, as is the goal of the broader Promise Keeper effort is to encourage revival in America. The organizational leadership also frequently quotes 2 Chronicles 7:14, the thematic scripture of the Washington for Jesus rally of April 29, 1980:
“If my people who are called by My name will humble themselves and pray, and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and heal their land.”
The proximity of the rally to the Million Man March organized by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan has understandably drawn comparisons. Both are all male events, and both enjoined men to repent and assume greater responsibility for leadership of their families. The leadership of Promise Keepers has sought to down play parallels between the two events. Christian men who attended the Million Man March are welcome, but an invitation was not extended to Louis Farrakhan specifically or Muslims in general. This is a gathering for Christian men. More particularly, the orientation of the group is evangelical. Liberal or mainline Protestant leadership have generally not been enthusiastic about Promise Keepers; some have been openly critical. Male exclusivity is, understandably, one important source of criticism.
Women and Promise Keepers
Many national groups that promote women’s rights have been critical of Promise Keepers for their views on the role of women in the religion and in the home. The National Organization for Women (Now) has been especially critical. Their criticism goes beyond the male exclusivity of the group to a critique that views Promise Keepers as an orchestrated campaign to take back the hard won battles of the feminist movement. Patricia Ireland, President of NOW argues that “when Promise Keepers speak of ‘taking back America for Christ,’ they also mean to take back the rights of women.” NOW leadership views the Promise Keepers as an extension of the conservative Christian Right. “The top leadership behind McCartney,” claims an open letter to NOW activists, “reads like a who’s who of the political religious right, such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and James Dobson — people who consider the Republican Party too moderate!” Other organizations have joined in linking Promise Keepers to the Religious Right. Two notable groups, People for the American Way and the American Civil Liberties Union, have been cautious in their criticism. A search of both of these groups’ web pages revealed no mention of Promise Keepers.
Promise Keepers claim the Bible enjoins men to be the spiritual head of the home, but they deny that this implies male dominance. This spiritual division of labor, they claim, demands that males assume greater responsibility for the well-being of the family. While women do not participate in Promise Keeper activities, they are encouraged to help with various administrative aspects of the organization. They volunteer their time by selling merchandise, answering questions, passing out literature, and doing other things before and after conferences. Indeed, women are key players both in facilitating and spreading the message of the group. Indeed, many women encourage their husbands to participate. And many have offered testimonials as to how Promise Keepers have positively changed both their marriages and their husbands’ lives.
One group of women whose husbands are all Promise Keepers have created a magazine called Adam’s Rib. The primary focus of the text is to spread the gospel of Promise Keepers as told from their point of view as women who live with it every day. Various articles give testimonials and opinions in an effort to bring together women who are married to Promise Keepers to pray together for their husbands.
Another group of women have created a support group known as Suitable Helpers. In 1993, the founder, Cheri Bright, “felt led by the Lord to begin a unique ministry for women.” The group holds several conferences throughout the year that bring together other women involved with Promise Keepers through their husbands.
Commercialization and Growth
The budget of Promise Keepers for 1996 was $96.4 million. Tickets to most of the rallies cost $60 and much merchandizing of books, tapes, CDs, T-shirts, caps, pens, etc. occurs at the rallies. Sales of merchandise accounted for $16.4 million in revenues in 1997. Many have criticized the admission tickets and merchandizing as commercialization of religion. Promise Keepers counter that staging a rally in a sports arena is an expensive proposition. Almost three-quarters of their 1996 budget when to paying the costs of rallies, training, and publications. Skeptics question the cost of well-paid musicians and preachers who come to the rallies, in part, to promote sales of their music and books.
Questions have also been raised about the staffing of Promise Keepers. McCartney receives no salary, but he does receive a $4,000 speaker fee when he addresses a rally. Randy T. Phillips, president of Promise Keepers, received a salary of $132,000 in 1996 and organizational salaries in 1996 doubled to more than $20 million. Skeptics question whether this is religion or the commercialization of a religious concept.
Evangelical Christians are prone to exclusivity and proclaiming that others have strayed from the biblical foundations of the faith. Not surprisingly, while liberals and feminists criticize Promise Keepers for being theologically, politically and socially conservative, many evangelicals question the biblical authenticity of the movement. The scores of web sites created by local Promise Keepers tend to overshadow the biblical critics, but the critics are present in considerable numbers.
Books and Articles by Promise Keepers
Jansen, Al and Larry K. Weeden, eds. 1994. Seven Promises Of A Promise Keeper. Colorado Springs, CO: Focus on the Family.
McCartney, Bill (with Dave Diles). 1995. From Ashes to Glory. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Brickner, Bryan T. 1999. The Promise Keepers: Politics and Promises. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
Claussen, Dane S. ed. 1999. Standing in the Promises: Promise Keepers and the Revival of Manhood. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press.
Claussen, Dane S. ed. 1999. The Promise Keepers: Essays in Masculinity and Christianity. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Messner, Michael. 1997. Politics of Masculinities: Men in Movements. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.( Contains chapter on Promise Keepers)
Alsdurf, Phyllis E. “McCartney on the REBOUND: How a workaholic jock and insensitive husband became the nation’s leading Promise Keeper.” Christianity Today. May 18, 1998 Vol. 42, No. 6.
Conasen, Joe. “The Promise Keepers are Coming: The Third Wave of the Religious Right.” The Nation 7 October 1996: 11-19.
DeCelle, Douglas. “Among the Promise Keepers: A Pastor’s Reflections.” Christian Century 3 July 1996: 695-697.
Feuerherd, Peter. “Not Your Momma.” Commonwealth 25 October 1996: 31.
Hacket, David G. “Promise Keepers and the Culture Wars.” Religion in the News. June 1998. 1:1.
Hannaham, James. “Losers, Weepers: God and Man at Shea.” Village Voice 1 October 1996: 31.
Miller, Holly G. “Real Men Keep Promises.” The Saturday Evening Post July 1996: 46-47.
Novosad, Nancy. “God Squad.” The Progressive August 1996: 25-27.
Pharr, Suzanne. “A Match Made In Heaven.” The Progressive August 1996: 28-29.
Rabey, Steve. “Where is the Christian’s Men Movement Headed?” Christianity Today 29 April 1996: 46-49.
Spalding, John D. “Bonding in the Bleachers: A Visit to the Promise Keepers.” Christian Century 6 March 1996: 260-265.
Summer, Bob. “Male Spirituality on the Move.” Publisher’s Weekly 11 March 1996: 28-31.
Swomley, John. “Watch on the Right: Promises We Don’t Want Kept.” The Humanist February 1996: 35-36.
Tapis, Andres. “Promise Keepers Hear Minority Message.” The National Catholic Reporter 25 October 1996: 15.
White, Gayle. “Clergy Conference Stirs Historic Show of Unity.” Christianity Today 8 April 1996: 88.
Created by Susan M. Lutz
For Soc 257: New Religious Movements
Last Modified 07/23/01