What's next for the Promise Keepers?

During the Vietnam era, Chuck Colson and others on Richard Nixon's White House staff became experts at analyzing aerial photographs of antiwar rallies. So Colson knows how many bodies it takes -- give or take 100,000 -- to form a shoulder-to-shoulder mass from the Capitol to the Washington Monument and beyond. Thus, he believes there were 1.5 million praying, singing, weeping, hugging and Bible- waving men on the National Mall during last fall's Promise Keepers "Stand in the Gap" rally. This wasn't an event, he said. It was "a cultural icon."

Commenting on the rally for the MSNBC news network, I called it the capstone on an era in which Pentecostalism became an undeniable force in mainstream America -- the Woodstock of the charismatic movement. Colson picked up on this image in a recent essay written for his organization Prison Fellowship.

"Woodstock symbolized the counterculture -- thousands of young people rollicking in the mud, celebrating cheap drugs and free love," he said. "'Stand in the Gap' symbolized exactly the opposite: repentance and responsibility. And it proved that Christian men, on their knees, can potentially transform society."

Now, the question facing the Promise Keepers movement is not whether it can transform homes and communities, but whether it can pay its bills. Many supporters of the Denver-based group were shocked to hear that it is laying off all 345 members of its global staff. The group hopes to rebuild with funds raised through voluntary donations.

This news was painful, but not surprising, said Colson, a veteran Promise Keeper speaker. He also has built Prison Fellowship into a thriving ministry active in 50-plus nations.

"I have never seen Promise Keepers as an ongoing organization. I saw it as a wonderful movement, as a phenomenon, in the true sense of that word. I never thought they had a chance to sustain that," he said. "The refreshing thing about Promise Keepers was that it wasn't something that anybody planned."

The debate over Promise Keeper's future began at the beginning, in the early 1990s. I was teaching at Denver Seminary at that time and, on a number of occasions, spoke to audiences that included early Promise Keepers staff members. Some where already convinced they should pledge to ride the stadium-rally wave for five years and then make a planned retreat. Some believed that the long-range goal should be to create a small, efficient group that would help other groups reach men -- not a massive structure built on a statistical explosion.

So far, nearly 3 million men have attended these events. Thus, the group estimates that 72 percent of its operating funds -- the 1996 budget reached $87 million -- have come from ticket sales. Founder Bill McCartney has pledged that the group will no longer charge admission fees, in order to reach a wider spectrum of men.

It will be hard, but Promise Keepers must now focus on working with churches at all levels, said Colson.

"They must begin facilitating the work of others. They have to provide the materials and the expertise that help churches find ways to help men keep their promises," he said. "All of those giant events got everyone's attention and got their message out. But they have to get past that. It's time for sustaining what they have begun."

The movement's charismatic leaders also have to face a painful tension built into their cornerstone document, "The Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper." Its sixth promise commits them to reach "beyond any denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity." This will require new efforts to negotiate the deadly doctrinal minefields that separate many Christians -- especially charismatics, Calvinists and Catholics.

"Promise Keepers has to have a faith statement that all true Christians can affirm. That will not be easy, but it can be done," said Colson, a Baptist who is a leader in the controversial "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" movement. "They can't back down on this. They have to be able to work with traditional Catholics and Baptists and the Orthodox and all kinds of solid Christian groups. They need as broad a support base as possible."