Dallas author and radio pastor Tony Evans gave his best Burgess Meredith impersonation, "Get up, you bum! Get up, you bum!" in mimicking the key scene from Rocky V in which the trainer Mick convinces his boxer to pull himself together and defeat a seemingly unassailable foe.
As Evans's words echoed down the National Mall in Washington, D.C., an epic roar issued from the throng of men, who deeply responded to the parallel between Rocky and the American evangelical male. Evans likened "Get up, you bum!" to the cry of Christ for men to live for God. The crowd rose and let loose a deafening shout.
The breakdown of the American family served as the stark backdrop for Promise Keepers' (PK) Stand in the Gap, the "sacred assembly of men" in Washington, D.C. Although no official tally was made, the October 4 event appeared to be the biggest D.C. gathering ever.
The focus on personal sin and the moral decay of society at large seemed to create a theological and sociological common ground on the Mall, allowing scriptural inerrantists to mix with believers in papal infallibility; overt charismatics to mingle with those who believe the apostolic era of spiritual gifts has ended; and average white guys to embrace average black guys.
As musician Steve Green sang "Let the Walls Fall Down," a 15-year-old messianic Jewish boy, his prayer shawl draped over his head, clasped hands with a pot-bellied baby boomer wearing an Oakland Raiders cap. Pittsburgh electrician John Wilkerson, 47, gripped the hand of his 21-year-old son, Daniel, who recently accepted Christ during a PK stadium event.
LOFTY GOALS: "Our destination is brotherhood in concert!" PK founder Bill McCartney bellowed. In his locker-room-seasoned voice, the former University of Colorado football coach urged the men to prove PK's naysayers wrong. He called Stand in the Gap more than a pep rally.
McCartney used the event as a launching pad for two historic initiatives. First, he plans to take the PK organization and its trademark stadium events worldwide. Second, PK is calling for large gatherings of Christian men to assemble on the steps of every U.S. state capitol on January 1, 2000, bearing witness "that the giant of racism is dead in the church of Jesus Christ."
In North America, meanwhile, PK announced that 37 stadium gatherings will be held during the next two years without charge—9 of them exclusively for pastors, both male and female. McCartney urged his largely lay audience to encourage clergy to attend one.
HUMBLE BEGINNINGS: During his coaching career at the University of Colorado, McCartney led his team from the ash heap of the Big Eight to a national championship. Similarly, McCartney has molded modern evangelical males into a remarkably motivated team. PK long ago left the secular men's movement behind in a cloud of dust.
"The significant factor here is the grassroots spiritual hunger of the men that are coming," says Richard Lovelace, emeritus professor of church history at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and author of the 1978 classic Dynamics of Spiritual Life. Lovelace noted that in this century's first decade a similar organization, the Men and Religion Forward Movement (CT, April 29, 1996, p. 46), emerged to call men from their preoccupation with business and into church service. "Historians say that it fizzled," Lovelace says. "The thing that is noteworthy about Promise Keepers is that it is not fizzling."
On the contrary, although stadium attendance fell to 700,000 this year from 1.1 million in 1996—forcing PK to cut its budget and reduce its staff by 20 percent (CT, Sept. 1, 1997, p. 90)—Stand in the Gap redeemed the group's season.
PK's vision is more than ever open for inspection as it attempts to instill spiritual vigor into Christian men, pointing them back into their families and local churches, a goal mentioned repeatedly from the Stand in the Gap stage.
One risk is that a strong PK presence in the local church may in some situations compete with the church rather than complement it as PK makes demands on men's time and money through small groups and other initiatives.
VINEYARD INFLUENCE: This potential threat to denominational and congregational solidarity is one reason why, after seven years, there remains no significant Reformed leadership participation in PK events.
Reformed leaders, with their high view of the institutional church and its confessional standards, find it difficult to endorse outright a movement that operates outside their parameters.
"There is a strain of Reformed thinking that is so eager to preserve the authority of Scripture that it is highly suspicious of movements of the Holy Spirit," says Lovelace.
Alternatively, the Vineyard movement and its charismatic orientation has a commanding influence on PK. McCartney; his pastor, James Ryle; and PK president Randy Phillips are all part of the Vineyard movement.
Indeed, the wellsprings of PK's approach to ecclesiastical and theological issues come in part from its leaders' association with the Vineyard, brought to prominence by author and pastor John Wimber. The Vineyard has 88,600 adherents in 422 U.S. churches.
Some key Vineyard characteristics that mark PK as well include:
—Suspicion of large, bureaucratic institutions.
—Passionate openness to current activity of the Holy Spirit.
—An experiential accent on spiritual transformation of individuals.
—A tactical, rather than strategic, approach to an organization's growth and development.
Lovelace believes both PK and the Vineyard have largely avoided the difficulties other Pentecostals and charismatics have encountered, including the problems caused by being overly rigid on behavioral concerns or being manipulative of individuals in dire spiritual need. "There is every evidence that [Promise Keepers] is not trying to convert everyone to their position," Lovelace says.
PK REPOSITIONING: As Promise Keepers has evolved as an organization, some religious leaders have disappeared from the movement, while others have come aboard.
Glenn Wagner, who wrote and edited the important 1995 PK book The Awesome Power of Shared Beliefs, which set forth PK's theological argument for unity amidst denominational diversity, is no longer on PK's staff and did not speak at Stand in the Gap.
Wagner's speech to the 1996 PK pastors' conference in Atlanta (CT, April 8, 1996, p. 88) helped convince many skeptical pastors that PK's vision could be trusted to maintain a focus on biblical truth.
Today, however, Wagner has no apparent ongoing input into PK theological discourse and is minister at Calvary Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Moreover, since the Atlanta gathering, a Roman Catholic has joined the PK board (CT, June 16, 1997, p. 59). Catholics accounted for an estimated 5 percent of those at Stand in the Gap.
PK's generally welcoming attitude toward Catholics caused several conservative Protestant denominations to warn their members to beware of its ecumenical goals.
There have been other shifts of nuance since last year's Atlanta pastors' convention. In Atlanta, a hasty call for repentance from the "sin of denominationalism" drew many questioning reactions. In Washington, PK's mostly nondenominational leadership, having mused over what they really meant to condemn, issued a call for repentance from sectarianism rather than from denominationalism. As a result, PK leaders have shifted their rhetoric to put the spotlight on religious prejudice, not on the theological distinctives that shape denominational identities.
Up until now, PK mostly has been about reconstructing a moral code in a society that is demolishing it. It has been marked by its family-oriented goals, and this emphasis should remain a factor in boosting its new push worldwide.
A NEW HYBRID? The day after Stand in the Gap, McCartney reiterated PK's expansive agenda, saying on NBC's Meet the Press, "I believe God is showing us now that he wants us to go global. How that unfolds is anybody's guess."
One possibility is that PK may evolve into a twenty-first century hybrid of contemporary spiritual and theological experience.
The movement could, for example, become a populist incarnation of the theological call from Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT). This group of theologians and institutional leaders seeks not only to make common cause against rampant immorality of individuals and institutions, but also aspires to rethink historic Christian theological disagreements in hopes of facilitating a stronger Christian unity independent of established ecumenical efforts.
McCartney's own biography—as a cradle Catholic who became born again and then found his way into a lay-led parachurch ministry—offers one possible scenario for PK's growing role as an agent of change within American Christianity.
The significant spiritual influences on McCartney's life encompass his Catholic, shepherding-movement days with Ralph Martin, time spent around Campus Crusade-influenced college ministries, and his understanding of the local church from his involvement with the Vineyard. These elements coupled with McCartney's persona as a spiritual coach, derived from his football days, provide PK with its most potent tools to bring about spiritual renewal in individuals and churches.
McCartney's Vineyard-inspired understanding of a congregation views it as a dynamic entity, operating under the power of the Holy Spirit. PK carries on in much the same way.
Gordon-Conwell's Lovelace notes that, as with the Great Awakening in the eighteenth century, PK seems less moved by spellbinding leadership and more by a Spirit-quickened hunger. McCartney may not be a great orator, but neither was Jonathan Edwards when he preached "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" in the 1740s. Both men got results.
SECULAR PROTESTS: At Stand in the Gap, PK's secular critics had little influence on the gathering itself.
A group of around 20 Lesbian Avengers took turns removing their T-shirts to expose their breasts to passersby. Undistracted, Christian men focused on the stage and continued to shout "Jesus!" and "Hallelujah!"
The National Organization for Women called for PK to endorse "a new promise" in which men would reject calls for women to submit to male authority, uphold the right to abortion, and support civil rights for homosexuals. But no efforts have been made to amend or add to the seven PK promises, its defining statement.
Some homosexual activists charge that PK is exclusive and promotes homophobia. But in television interviews, McCartney clearly said homosexuals would be welcome in the movement, yet they might not be comfortable because PK attendees have Jesus as Lord and Savior of their lives and consider homosexual conduct a sin.
RACE MATTERS: A Washington Post poll pegged the Stand in the Gap gathering as 80 percent white, 14 percent black, and 2 percent Asian.
PK has made visible strides in adding minorities to its professional staff, and its board chair is a bishop from the Church of God in Christ, a predominantly African-American denomination. Yet those black Christians who decline to join forces with PK often do so for reasons similar to those of their Reformed white brethren.
In Chicago, for example, some top black denominational leaders remain alienated because Raleigh Washington, PK's vice president of racial reconciliation and an African American, is from the Evangelical Free Church and not a historically African-American denomination.
"It would appear that in its zeal to attack racism and denominational structures, Promise Keepers has sought to bypass God-ordained black denominational leadership," Chicagoan James Stuart wrote to McCartney in September. "One must ask why not a single black denomination has endorsed Promise Keepers."
McCartney's reply to Stuart is the same as his reply to other critics, whether their comments deal with race, sexuality, or theology: "As we seek to deal with this difficult subject," he wrote, "I would ask you to pray for us . …We are all terribly fallible and in great need of God's grace."
MALE HEADSHIP: There are some issues on which McCartney remains polite but immovable. Before and after Stand in the Gap, he has pointedly declined to change his message promoting men's "servant leadership" in the home.
"I was very happy to see Promise Keepers not backing away from affirmation of male headship of families according to Scripture," says Wayne Grudem, president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. "The gathering made clear that male headship does not lead to abuse of women but rather honors wives."
Eastern College scholar and PK analyst Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, who attended Stand in the Gap, saw the day differently. She noted that, while PK has actively sought racial minorities for leadership and input regarding their historic mistreatment by the white evangelical majority, and while white leadership at the Stand in the Gap event confessed not only personal but historic and structural sins of racism, they made no comparable effort with women.
Though the Stand in the Gap crowd was openly encouraged to repent of past personal sins of abuse and mistreatment of their wives—both represented as a failure of proper biblical headship—Van Leeuwen asserted that the group stopped short of a full expression of repentance for historic and systemic oppression of women by men.
CHANGED LIVES: In the end, PK's growth derives from the changed lives of its membership.
After years of his own failures being made a spectacle in the media, McCartney started PK having lost any hope of clinging to self-respect as the world defines it. He inaugurated PK out of his need to rediscover personal integrity in the wake of failure and damaged family relationships. Men who attend PK gatherings identify with his wounded-warrior narrative.
In addition, McCartney has developed a team of male kindred spirits who round out the roster of speakers at PK stadium events, including Christian therapist Gary Smalley, popular author Max Lucado, media preacher Tony Evans, and Foursquare Gospel pastor Jack Hayford.
During an interview with CT, John Perkins, a leading African-American evangelical, smiled as he contemplated McCartney's goal of eradicating racism from the American church by the dawn of the new millennium.
Perkins's attitude reflects that of many of those who have chosen to cast their lot with the enthusiastic founder of PK. "I would rather be on his side of energy, because I hate racism, than be on the side of those who say racism is too big," Perkins says.
PK's massive success at Stand in the Gap has transported this men's movement from the religious margins quickly into the national debate over America's cultural destiny at the turn of the millennium. And no one is more surprised at this turn of events than the ever-humble, underdog-loving McCartney.
Copyright © 1997 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more