Making Sense Of It All: Explaining the Rise and Fall of Promise Keepers and What We Can Learn From It

Shared By Ron Fraser
President, PointMan Ministries

Being in Ministry to men and being part of a national conference ministry we are always evaluating what works and what doesn’t. One of the best ways to do that is to look at the success and failures of similar type ministries. One of those ministries that we researched was Promise Keepers.

The rapid growth and decline of the Promise Keepers tells us a great deal about the men’s movement and American religion. As a relativistic movement that is sometimes quite critical of the religious establishment, PK was able to repackage spirituality, casting it as something other than “organized religion.” This evangelical repackaging of faith made religious conviction palatable for a large number of American men. But eschewing “organized religion” comes at a cost. Social movements have traditionally found it difficult to parlay their appeal into an enduring influence unless they become institutionalized. In the world of feminism, the women’s movement became consolidated and endures as the National Organization of Women. In the world of faith, religious movements often try to channel their charisma into organizations that are familiar to us all—congregations and denominations. Thus, PK’s anti-establishment approach to faith was its greatest strength and its most glaring weakness. PK was catapulted into the limelight and attracted men by the thousands though because it gave a free-flowing character to spirituality. In this way, it successfully dressed up religion in garb, such as sports, which is very familiar to American men. But this quality also meant that its fame would not last very long, as is commonly the case with relativistic movements designed to attract a limited constituency (in this case, men).

In a broader sense, the rise and fall of the Promise Keepers provides insight into American culture. Americans suffer from what might be best described as a collective form of attention deficit disorder. Our society changes with such rapidity that it is a real challenge for any group to command sustained attention in the public eye. Consider the late artist Andy Warhol’s prophetic reference to the fleeting “fifteen minutes” of fame” that he predicted would characterize popularity in modern America. In many respects, Warhol was right. Social life in twenty–first century America seems to be more liquid than solid.

By diving headlong into the turbulent waters of American culture, Promise Keepers invariably lent themselves to comparisons with the world of entertainment. And the consumers that rule the entertainment world are notorious for their fickle tastes and their insatiable taste for increasingly more spectacular forms of excitement. The problem here is one of continually having to “up the ante.” Of course, this is not to say that fickleness or an insatiable appetite for entertainment dictated the Promise Keeper men’s reactions to conferences. The stated purpose is something different—changing hearts, winning souls. But, as the movement’s signature event, Promise Keeper conferences were designed to be spectacles. They were intended to entertain as well edify. And the problem with a spectacle is it needs to be outdone by something more spectacular and more stimulating the next time around. Thus, the fate of the Promise Keepers sheds important light on both the Christian men’s movement that it represented, and the society in which we all live. The bell has tolled for the Promise Keepers. But, living in such a time of rapid change, it also tolls for each one of us as individuals.

In light of this we must remember that the ultimate goal of ministry to men is to draw men into a deeper relationship with God through Discipleship. We must also remember that discipleship does not come through event driven ministry. Events are super. Men love events.Problem is, if you live off of events, you’ll die from events. PK taught us this. Their events were not ” home-run” events; they were “grand slam” events. PK events were straight up awesome.And that’s the problem. When you create mountaintop experiences, there’s only one way to go from there.

Creating a grand slam event filled with quality wasn’t PK’s problem. That was a win. Where PK lost is that they never emphasized discipleship models with the SAME ENERGY and hard dollar investments that they put into their events.

Churches that host wild game dinners and the proverbial Men’s breakfast do it all the time. I might speak to a group of 300 to 400 men at a men’s breakfast several times a year, but when I ask the men to coordinate the event to tell me about their on going ministry, to these men, they don’t have an answer. There was no “Next Step.”

Men’s ministry leaders have got to learn to create specific ministry design models that use events as conduits, not explosions. There’s a thousand ways to do that, but the problem is, that’s not how most men think. The event is their answer to ministry, and that’s what will kill them within the short future. The bottom line for us as church leaders is this: churches as a whole can take a lot of notes on what Promise Keepers did to be used by God to reach men. Those same churches can flip some of PK’s short comings into victories if they’d only be willing to put in the INVESTMENT with men.