An Investigation into Books Related to the Promise Keepers Movement

Defining the New Christian Man

by William H. Lockhart | April 30, 1997
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As the role of men in families is debated in America, since 1991 the rapidly expanding evangelical (Promise Keepers) men’s movement has sponsored conferences filling major sports stadiums. This organization aimed to reach over a million men in 1996, and to sponsor a million man strong prayer rally in Washington, DC, in 1997. Christian bookstores are creating new “men’s" sections for the many new books on masculinity being produced by most of the conservative Protestant publishing houses. A survey of these books shows that the books do not display a monolithic “return to traditionalism" approach to the changing issues of gender and family relationships. Instead there are at least three additional approaches to gender issues: 1) seeking the “essence(s) of masculinity" by the use of archetypes drawn from psychology, 2) helping men to build new egalitarian relationships with their “sisters in Christ,” and 3) a pragmatic approach from family counselors seeking to help men communicate and help families stay together. These alternative approaches provide room for evangelical men to maintain evangelical distinctives yet also cope with changing social realities. The Promise Keepers movement by the official use of their name seems to be endorsing the pragmatic approach rather than a pure return to traditionalism.

An estimated three-quarter to one and a half million men attended one of twenty-two regional “Promise Keepers” stadium events during 1996. Where did this movement come from?

On March 20, 1990, Bill McCartney, the football coach at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and a member of the charismatic Vineyard Church in Boulder, traveled with Dave Wardell, a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) in Boulder, to an FCA meeting in Pueblo, Colorado, where McCartney had been asked to speak about his Christian faith. In the context of praying and worshipping together as they traveled, McCartney asked Wardell: “What do you feel is the most important factor in changing a man’s life spiritually, from immaturity to maturity?” “Discipleship” was Wardell’s immediate answer.1 McCartney then turned to Wardell.

“I want to share something with you,” McCartney said. “I have this vision that by the year 2000, every football stadium across America will be filled with men—across racial lines. We can turn this thing around.” “What thing?” Wardell asked. “Our nation,” McCartney said. Shortly after that trip McCartney [and Wardell] founded Promise Keepers. 2

The idea of the organization was to encourage men to become “men of integrity” who keep their promises to God and their families:

Promise Keepers is a Christ-centered ministry dedicated—to unite men through vital relationships to become godly influences in their world. Wives, children, churches and communities all seem to agree that what we need today are men who are Promise Keepers: men who will not compromise the truth, men who are true to their word, men who are trustworthy. Promise Keepers is committed to igniting, equipping, and uniting men to do just that—keep their promises. 3

In 1990, seventy men gathered with McCartney and Wardell to pray and fast. By 1991, at the first conference, the number grew to 4,200, many of which were drawn from smaller evangelical men’s ministries, such as Ed Cole’s Men’s Network, or encouraged to attend by evangelical leaders such as Dr. James Dobson. In 1992, 22,500 jammed into Folsom stadium in Boulder.4 In 1993 and 1994, they had to turn people away at the stadium gates, for there was no more room. Even as they added many more regional conference sites in 1995 and 1996, several of them were sold out weeks and even months ahead of time, filling the stadiums. Table 1 shows the continuing exponential growth of the movement. In 1992 Leadership Conferences were added to train leaders for men’s ministries. In 1996, a male-only clergy conference was held, with over 39,000 participants, perhaps the largest gathering of male clergy ever. The Promise Keepers organization now has a staff of 300, a $65 million annual budget, and a national network of representatives and offices. This year it is projected to reach 1.5 million men in its stadium events.5

Why are so many men coming to these events? Part of the answer lies in the difficulties of being a man today. Family sociologist Judith Stacey writes:

In the summer of 1986, I attended a wedding ceremony in a small Pentecostal church in the Silicon Valley. This service celebrated the same “traditional” family patterns and values that two years earlier had inspired a “profamily” movement to assist Ronald Reagan’s landslide reelection to the presidency of the United States. At the same time, however, the pastor’s rhetoric displayed substantial sympathy with feminist criticisms of patriarchal marriage. “A ring is not a shackle, and marriage is not a relationship of domination,” he instructed the groom. Moreover, complex patterns of divorce, remarriage, and step kinship linked the members of the wedding party and their guests—patterns that resembled the New Age extended family. .. far more than the “traditional” family that arouses the nostalgic fantasies so widespread among religious and other social critics of contemporary family practices ....

While economic pressures have always encouraged expansionary kin work among working-class women, these have often weakened men’s family ties. Men’s muted family voices in my study whisper of a masculinity crisis among blue-collar men. As working-class men’s access to breadwinner status recedes, so too does confidence in their masculinity. The decline of the family wage and the escalation of women’s involvement in paid work seems to generate pride and ambivalence about the eroding breadwinner ethic. 6

Kathleen Gerson’s research on contemporary families has delineated three roles used by men today. Her data indicates that due to economic and social changes only 36% of American men today fill the traditional “breadwinner” role, 34% are active “involved fathers,” and the remaining 30% have dropped out of family roles and can be described as “autonomous men.”7 The book cover of Rodney Cooper’s 1996 Promise Keepers-endorsed book, Double Bind: Escaping the Contradictory Demands of Manhood, describes the tensions faced by contemporary American males:

Be a company man and a great provider ...
     but invest your time in your family.
Be aggressive, take-charge ...
     yet sensitive, caring, considerate.
Be transparent, in touch with your feelings ...
     but remember, real men are rugged.
Multiply the above scenario at least fourteen times.
     Feeling squeezed?
Congratulations. You’re a typical modern male. 8

The contemporary American male is not supposed to be like John Wayne (strong but silent), nor like Alan Aida (talkative, but weak). Nor is he supposed to be a harsh dictator, teaches evangelical pastor and men’s book author Stu Weber:

Harsh dominance is not the way of Christ. Headship is linked to saviorship. The heart of saviorship is sacrifice. The key to leadership is serving—not “lording it over.”9

He is not to be a passive “soft male” either, as author Robert Bly writes in the best selling “bible” of the mythopoetic men’s movement, Iron John:

In the seventies I began to see all over the country a phenomenon that we might call the “soft male.” Sometimes even today when I look out at an audience, perhaps half the young males are what I’d call soft. They’re lovely; valuable people—I like them—they’re not interested in harming the earth or starting wars. There’s a gentle attitude toward life in their whole being and style of living.

But many of these men are not happy. You quickly notice the lack of energy in them. They are life-preserving but not exactly life-giving. Ironically; you often see these men with strong women who positively radiate energy.

Here we have a finely tuned young man, ecologically superior to his father, sympathetic to the whole harmony of the universe, yet he himself has little vitality to offer....

The soft male was able to say; “I can feel your pain, and I consider your life as important as mine, and I will take care of you and comfort you.” But he could not say what he wanted, and stick by it. Resolve of that kind was a different matter....

The journey many American men have taken into softness, or receptivity; or “development of the feminine side,” has been an immensely valuable journey; but more travel lies ahead. No stage is the final stop.10

However, evangelicalism also presents tensions to its adherents, as Hunter, Bromley; Wuthnow and others have noted, including tensions between modernity and orthodoxy; contractual relationships and covenantal relationships; today’s world and the world of Jesus and the Bible.

So how do males solve these tensions? In my studies of .the secular men’s movements, I’ve noticed four approaches:

  1. A supportive, feminist approach;
  2. A therapeutic, healing aggressive men approach;
  3. A defensive, anti-feminist approach; and
  4. A mythopoetic/Robert Bly approach, seeking the essences of masculinity.

What is the Promise Keepers movement? Is it a resurgence of the anti-feminist political 1980s evangelical approach as typified by Tim LaHaye and Phyllis Schlafly?11 Is it Robert Bly wrapped up in Scriptures with Jesus added on? Is it just another evangelistic approach with more masculine language to reach men? Or is it something else?

The Promise Keepers movement has developed “Seven Promises” for men to keep. Skipping the first two for the moment, let’s look at the last five (emphasis added):

  1. A Promise Keeper is committed to practicing spiritual, moral, ethical, and sexual purity.
  2. A Promise Keeper is committed to building strong marriages and families through love, protection and biblical values.
  3. A Promise Keeper is committed to supporting the mission of the church by honoring and praying for his pastor, and by actively giving his time and resources.
  4. A Promise Keeper is committed to reaching beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity.
  5. A Promise Keeper is committed to influencing the world, being obedient to the Great Commandment (see Mark 12:30-31) and the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20).12

These are all calls to commitment in relationships. In 1996, Coach McCarmey called upon the 40,000 panicipanr.s at a Promise Keepers conference to seek to get a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10 on each of these. He admitted that he didn’t score a 10 in his marriage, but he was working on it.

How can one be empowered to live a pure life and get a 10 in all your relationships? That’s where promises one and two come in (emphasis added):

  1. A Promise Keeper is committed to honoring Jesus Christ through worship, prayer, and obedience to God’s Word in the power of the Holy Spirit.
  2. A Promise Keeper is committed to pursuing vital relationships with a few other men, understanding that he needs brothers to help him keep his promises.13

The first promise comes from basic, traditional evangelicalism, with perhaps a little touch of the charismatic emphasis on worship and the Holy Spirit. The second promise comes from the men’s movement. Yes, evangelicalism has had a theme of small groups and “discipleship” relationships14 but the men’s movement has emphasized and revitalized this. It is God and your brothers who empower you to live a pure life and get “10s” in your relationships.

How is this worked .out in the movement’s ideologies? This is where I examined the books published in relation to Promise Keepers. The new Christian men’s movement is “causing a minor revolution in the Christian publishing and retailing industry, which has long been dominated by products for its predominately female clientele.”15 Christian bookstores are creating new “men’s” sections for the many new books being produced by at least twelve conservative Protestant publishing houses. At least ten publishers are coming out with new Christian men’s books in 1996 alone. Christian Booksellers Association President Bill Anderson says that nearly a quarter of the shoppers in Christian bookstores are men, compared to one in six 15 years ago.16 There are also videos, tapes, music and Bible study guides being produced and marketed, including a new magazine entitled New Man: for Men of Integrity, published by the publisher of Charisma magazine.

The sample of books I examined is broader than those officially endorsed by the Promise Keepers organization. When I started this stud); they had only about four or five books out, published by two evangelical publishing houses. They now publish their own books as well as endorsing books from other publishers. My sample includes the major books they have published. plus a variety of others published since 1990 from other conservative Protestant presses.

I have found four basic approaches taken on issues relating to masculinity. Being evangelical, all four approaches depict Jesus as the ideal perfect man and all four use the Bible in their writings. These four approaches to the issues of masculinity are quite similar to the four found among the secular men’s movements:

Displaying these approaches in David Bromley’s Contractual-Covenantal Social Relations Continuum produces the following chart: 17

Time constraints limit me from further describing these four different approaches, but let me focus on the one promoted by the Promise Keepers organization.

The Promise Keepers organization has copyrighted its name and logo. Only about seven books carry the official Promise Keepers imprimatur. Except for Robert Hicks’ The Masculine Journey (a psychological archetypes book, and one of the first with the Promise Keepers’ name), they all fit in the “pragmatic counseling approach.” (And I just recently learned that Promise Keepers has withdrawn its endorsement of Hicks’ book.) Thus I conclude that the Promise Keepers movement is not just a resurgence of traditionalism, nor is it a Christianized Robert Bly. Although there are tinges of traditionalism, it is a movement with an ethical and family counseling orientation which is aimed at evangelizing and motivating men and establishing men’s groups.

Typified by the prolific work of Gary Smalley and John Trent, the stress in these “pragmatic counseling” books is on how to fix the marriage or family so it works. For example, The Hidden Value of a Man, a best selling book by psychologists Gary Smalley and John Trent, acknowledges “positional power” (the husband being the “head of the household”), 18 yet focuses not on “positional power” but on “personal power”—“the ability to develop meaningful, fulfilling relationships; a willingness to, do whatever it takes to strengthen our families and find the help we need to overcome any strains in our marriages.”19 It appears that although male “headship” is stated, it is not emphasized or enacted. Dr. Gary Oliver, a Promise Keepers board member and a psychologist, sums up this approach when he writes:

The feminist movement was arid is primarily a sociopolitical movement. It was in part a healthy and legitimate response to the repression, inequalities, and abuse of women. It sought equality and increased power and political influence. In contrast, the men’s movement is not about gaining more power, privilege and prestige. It is much more personal and relational. It’s about how to be human, how to feel, how to love, how to be better husbands, fathers, and friends. 20

The books in this category are very practical. All of them have personal and/or group study questions, and sometimes include lists of additional materials to read. This inclusion of study questions may be a function of its use as literature—to help build men’s groups. The latest official PK book—heavily promoted at stadium events and in promotional materials—is Go the Distance, edited by John Trent.21 It fits this category and is designed to get men’s groups started, focused on the seven promises and working on implementing these promises in the lives of the participants.

In her August 1996 Presidential address to the Association for the Sociology of Religion, Nancy Ammerman quoted a Conservative Jewish rabbi who described his approach to his religion like this: “There are 613 commandments, fmd one and begin.” Similarly, she noted, the “spiritually vital” Episcopal churches she is currently studying might say, “There are 613 prayers in the prayerbook; find one and begin.”22 In Go the Distance, John Trent essentially says to men, “There are seven promises of a Promise Keeper, find one, and—with the help of your brothers and God—begin.”

Notes

  1. Swenson, Rob, ed. No date, probably 1995. The Ambassador. Training booklet for Promise Keeper “ambassador” applicants/ volunteers edited by the National Director for Point Man and Ambassador Ministries. [Boulder, CO: Promise Keepers], p. 6.
  2. Maxwell, Joe. “Looking for a Few Good Men,” Charisma, July 1993, p. 24.
  3. “What is Promise Keepers? A statement of purpose” brochure. Promise Keepers, PO Box 18376, Boulder, CO, c. 1995.
  4. Maxwell, p. 24.
  5. Rabey, Steve. “Where is the Christian Men’s Movement Headed? Burgeoning Promise Keepers inspire look-alikes,” Christianity Today 40:5, April1996, p. 47.
  6. Stacey, Judith. “Backward toward the Postmodem Family: Reflections on Gender, Kinship and Class in the Silicon Valley” in Alan Wolfe, ed. America at Century’s End. [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press], 1991, p. 17, 26, emphasis added.
  7. Gerson, Kathleen. “Coping with Commitment: Dilemmas and Conflicts of Family Life,” in Allan Wolfe, ed., America at Century’s End. [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press], 1991.
  8. Cooper, Rodney L. Double Bind: Escaping the Contradictory Demands of Manhood. [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan ], 1996, cover.
  9. Weber, Stu. Tender Warrior: God’s intention for a man. [Sisters, OR: Multnomab], 1993, p. 96.
  10. Bly, Robert. Iron John: A book about men. [Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley], 1990, pp. 2-4.
  11. Lienescb, Michael. “Anxious Patriarchs: Authority and the Meaning of Masculinity in Christian Conservative Social Thought,” Journal of American Culture, 13:4, Winter 1990.
  12. Taken from Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper. ed. by Al Jansenn [Colorado Springs, CO: Focus on the Family], 1994, p. 8. Emphasis added.
  13. Ibid, emphasis added.
  14. Snyder, Howard A. The Radical Wesley and Patterns for Church Renewal, [Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press], 1980.
  15. Rabey, p. 60.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Bromley, David. “Presidential Address: Society for the Scientific Study of Religion,” publication in process, distributed during Graduate Seminar in Religion Behavior, University of Virginia, Jan-Apr 1996.
  18. Smalley, Gary and Trent, John. The Hidden Value of a Man. Word. 1992, p. 43. 136,000 copies in print as of 1993. Audio cassette of the book is also available. Both authors are popular Christian counselors and speakers.
  19. Ibid, 14.
  20. Oliver, Gary J. Real Men Have Feelings Too. [Chicago, IL: Moody Press], 1993, p. 19. Gary Oliver is a Christian counselor and speaker, and a member of the Promise Keepers board.
  21. Trent, John. Go the Distance. [Colorado Springs: Focus on the Family], 1996.
  22. Ammerman, Nancy Tatom. “Organized Religion in a Voluntaristic Society.” 1996 ASR Presidential Address, ASR Meetings, Aug. 15, 1996, New York.