- The Washington Times - Friday, July 12, 2002

The Promise Keepers men's movement hits Washington this weekend for the first time since 1997, when it packed the Mall with a crowd estimated at up to 1.1 million, a high point from which it has wound down every year since.

As part of a 16-stop tour, Promise Keepers has booked the 15,000-seat Capital Centre Arena in Largo and in its 12th year expects the idea of "seven promises" of faith, family and morality to resonate as strongly as ever with area men.

"Our leadership is praying for a full house," said Bruce Pape, a Salisbury, Md., businessman and Mennonite, of tonight and tomorrow's event.

By the end of 1996, the movement started by former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney was flush with a $117 million budget and staff of 452, making it one of the most influential evangelical organizations in recent decades and a focus of great cultural debate in the Clinton era.

But the momentum was too much to maintain.

Four months after the Mall rally in 1997, Mr. McCartney had to lay off all the paid staff to end a budget hemorrhage. By the end of the next year, the ministry had leveled out at 250 paid workers and an annual budget of $48 million.

James Mathisen, a professor at Wheaton College who has written on Christian men's movements, said Promise Keepers hit its limit.

"Nondenominational churches are growing in America, but a lot of conservative men still have denominational loyalties and won't attend" a Promise Keepers event, Mr. Mathisen said. "As a result, there have been a lot of Promise Keepers look-alikes."

High attendance had been built on the same men returning, often bringing friends, and naturally the constituency thinned, he said. "Attendees realize that after two visits, there's not much bang for the buck anymore."

Mr. McCartney said in a telephone interview that attendance has been about 200,000 for each of the past three years.

"That's still significant," he said. "Guys came out in great numbers. The most important thing for them is to be in a big stadium glorifying God."

In 1995, Mr. Pape was one of the 52,000 men who attended the "PK rally" at RFK Stadium, a prelude to the Mall rally. This year, he volunteered to organize activities.

"I was really touched by what was going on," he said of the 1995 event. "Before that, I was one of those 'sit on your hands at the back of the church' kind of guys."

Mr. McCartney said that a second "extreme teen" event in November will draw thousands to Los Angeles and that he hopes 55,000 pastors will meet in Phoenix in February.

The young people are of new importance, said the former coach. "The reality is that if you were born between 1977 and 1999, the chances of being a Christian are the lowest in our history."

The Promise Keepers program will operate on $30 million this year. "We live day to day," Mr. McCartney said. "One month at a time. We do believe that God's hand is on us."

The tours after 1997 had hoped to lay the groundwork for a rally of men at all the nation's capitals on Jan. 1, 2000, but the worries about the Year 2000 bug, organizers said, prompted them to cancel the rallies.

The typical Promise Keepers program is expressive worship, music and motivational speaking on the seven promises. Men are encouraged to change their lives in the home and at work and to join men's prayer or "accountability" groups at their local church.

This influence has reached local churches, Mr. Mathisen said, but it no longer guarantees mass attendance.

"They just have never been able to penetrate minority groups," he said. "What they are good at is preaching to the choir."

The core constituency is white, male baby boomers who attend suburban evangelical churches, usually with a charismatic worship and theology.


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