Promise Keepers (an update) – Part 1

(February 1997 – Volume 3, Issue 1) 

Midwest Today magazine opens its coverage of Promise Keepers with these important questions: “How faithful to the Word of God is the Promise Keepers men’s movement? How close of an association do its founders and board members have with the Charismatic fringe? What theology is really being espoused by its guest speakers, and its numerous books, videos and other materials that carry the Promise Keeper imprimatur?” It then adds, “These and other legitimate questions have largely been overlooked as this evangelical men’s group attracts uncritical and enthusiastic press coverage, and its ranks of members swell with every big conference it holds.”

It is the intention of this paper, and those that follow, to carefully examine the above questions. That Promise Keepers is successful is beyond question; however, whether it is a movement of God, that honors the Lord and should be supported by His people, can only be discerned by exposing the movement to the light of God’s Word. We will start our examination by looking at Promise Keepers in general, pointing out what we believe to be positive and then finish by traveling to Atlanta to sit with forty thousand pastors at the 1996 Promise Keepers National Clergy Conference.

Some General Information about Promise Keepers

Promise Keepers is barely six years old and is already one of the largest Christian organizations in the world. Their headquarters receive up to five thousand pieces of mail and over ten thousand phone calls per day! It has a permanent staff of three hundred and sixty, and a budget of $120 million.

It is estimated that one million one hundred thousand men attended the twenty-two stadium rallies that were spread out over the country in 1996. Its official magazine, New Man, already has a circulation of three hundred twenty thousand, which by comparison, is three times greater than that of Christianity Today, the leading evangelical magazine in America.

Promise Keepers has held stadium events in three foreign countries, with requests from twenty-two more. Its radio program, Promise Keepers Highlights, can be heard on over twelve hundred radio stations; and Promise Keepers Week in Review, a thirty minute show, is on two hundred stations.

In addition to its large rallies, Promise Keepers also has its act together on the grass roots level. This comes in several forms:

Wake Up Calls — Promise Keepers hosted about three hundred of what are known as Wake Up Calls” in 1995. These mini-conferences serve three purposes: 1) to build momentum for the large conferences, 2) to bring men together who have a heart for men’s ministry, and 3) to stir men’s heart’s about needs within their community – to encourage them to get together, pray and form small groups.

Task-force — This is a group of ethnically and denominationally diverse men who meet for prayer and Bible study on the local level. Task Forces are comprised of Ambassadors and Key Men who meet as often as weekly. The principle goal of these gatherings is to share information and plan strategy on the local level.

Key men — Are liaisons between Promise Keepers and the local church. These men are attempting to promote Promise Keepers and its ministries in their local congregation.

Ambassadors — They are the liaisons between the key men and the task-forces.

A basic summarization is as follows: Key men are Promise Keepers’ promoters in the local church — they report their accomplishments and other information to the ambassador who in turn reports to the task-forces. The task-forces come together for Wake Up Calls. The Wake Up Calls promote the big rallies. The rallies send the men home with an encouragement to join a task force. This is organization (the envy of anyone)!

It is said that imitation is the highest form of flattery. If so, Promise Keepers ought to be greatly flattered, because several denominations have made attempts to duplicate the Promise Keepers format. Also, women, not wanting to be outdone, are starting to jump on the bandwagon with their own Promise Keepers type of organizations.


The reaction to Promise Keepers, as with anything of this size and magnitude, is mixed:

Christianity Today: “I think it is time to acknowledge that the Holy Spirit is igniting a flame in the hearts of men all over the nation” (Feb. 6, 1996 p26). Many would agree with this assessment, declaring Promise Keepers to be evidence of a great revival in our country.

Paul Cain, the Vineyard prophet, thinks so highly of Promise Keepers that he claims it is a fulfillment of a divine dream he received when he was nineteen (Aug. 30, 1995 message at Christ Chapel, Florence, AL — reported in Beyond Promises, by David Hagopian and Douglas Wilson).

Some do not quite know what to make of Promise Keepers, as was evidenced when USA Today described its rallies as “Part rock concert, part football, part evangelistic crusade” (Mar. 23, 1996).

Still others, such as John Armstrong, who wrote the forward for Beyond Promises, take a critical view: “In the end Promise Keepers is simply what evangelicalism has become, a movement without a doctrinally defined focus, that can draw multitudes to exciting events but without a theology of the church that will build Christ’s church in a New Testament sense. . . .It will ultimately give us what several generations of similar “revival” movements have already given us — emotional burn-out and doctrinal confusion and indifference” (pp10,11).

Of course, no movement can be judged by its outward success, or by the opinion of its observers. Ultimately, only the Word of God can evaluate the Promise Keepers movement.

Commendable Aspects

The overall agenda of Promise Keepers would be hard to challenge. The leadership of the movement has identified true problems, concerns and sins that exist in America in general, and in the church specifically.

First of all, racism is far too prevalent even among true Christians. Many believers are no different than their unsaved counterparts when it comes to racial issues.

Our prejudices must be exposed to the light of the Word and changed. That we should more aggressively pursue the removal of the walls of racism, and should seek friendship and fellowship with those of other races is a commendable goal. To think of oneself as superior because we happen to be born into a certain race, or of a certain color, is nothing less than sinful pride. Racism should not be tolerated among Christians. Promise Keepers is right to say so.

Second, there is a lack of male leadership in the home and in the church. We should definitely pity the American male at the end of the twentieth century, for he has never been more confused about his role in society. There was a time when he thought that he knew who he was and what he was to do in life, but that was before the women’s liberation movement.

As women began to change how they perceived themselves, it inevitably caused men to view themselves differently. Men who used to think they were strong, now understand themselves to be insensitive; leaders are tyrants, silent men are bad communicators, providers are workaholics, etc. Women expect more from men today, however, as men have tried to understand what women want, many have simply given up. They have interpreted women’s assertiveness as demanding control.

As a result, far too many men, even Christian men, have abdicated their role as leader in the home. Their wives are making the decisions about where the family will go to church, how they will raise the kids, how the money is spent, etc. Many men, finding it too much of a bother to challenge their wives leadership, simply walk away. They live independently of the family, at least on an emotional and spiritual level, which means the wife must now fill the void that her man has left.

Promise Keepers has discerned this cycle and has sought to provide a remedy. They rightly point to this sin in men’s lives and encourage them to promise to make amends. While some of the messages and materials used to guide men back to home leadership are errant (as we will find later), Promise Keepers has correctly identified that a problem exists and they are trying to do something about it.

Third, there is an epidemic of spiritual deadness. Promise Keepers promotes commitment to Christ and godly living. This is a refreshing call to an increasingly secularized church.

Statistics often demonstrate that those who claim to be born again, are barely living above their unregenerate peers in the areas of morals, divorce, “addictions,” and other measurable forms of sinfulness. Promise Keepers has recognized this and has called men to live up to what they profess to believe. We are more than happy to join in this invitation. Our problem, as we will attempt to show, will come in the specifics of the invitation.

The Clergy Conference 1996:

During the month of February 1996, the largest gathering of pastors that the world had ever seen, took place. Almost thirty-nine thousand pastors from every denomination (ranging from fundamentalists to approximately six hundred Roman Catholic priests) met in Atlanta for the first Promise Keepers National Clergy Conference. The purpose of the Conference, according to the founder of Promise Keepers, Bill McCartney, was to “Tear the hearts of pastors open so that a single leadership could be produced.”

Randy Phillips, current president of Promise Keepers, apparently felt that the conference met its objectives. In the 1996 Spring issue of Men of Action, he said, “The Clergy Conference in Atlanta was awesome! In just three days we began to see some of the walls which have divided the church for centuries break down” (p3).

Of course, evaluation is always subjective. One Christian journalist, writing from another perspective said, “The writer witnessed the most vivid illustration of massive emotional hysterical mind crowd control he has ever seen anywhere” (Promise Keepers, by Don Jasmin, p10).

So, which was it? A great movement of God or an example of mass manipulation? Even for those at the Conference, it would be difficult to subjectively discern. After all, were the loud cheers for Jesus, the hugs, the tears, the pleas for forgiveness, the excitement and enthusiasm, and renewed commitments, generated by the Holy Spirit for the glory of Christ; or were they well orchestrated reactions based upon methods guaranteed to produce emotional catharsis? This is a question that is always asked whenever a mass movement in the name of Christ (usually known as a revival or an awakening) takes place.

Is it of God or is it of man?

Charles Finney, the 19th century revivalist, after whom almost all movements such as Promise Keepers take their cue, assured the Christian world that the right methods will always produce revival, with or without the aid of the Holy Spirit. In his Lectures on Revivals of Religion (1835) he stated:

The connection between the right use of means (methods) for revival and a revival is as philosophically sure as between the right use of means (methods) to raise grain and a crop of wheat. I believe, in fact, it is more certain, and there are fewer instances of failure (p33).

Os Guinness, commenting on Finney’s methods, writes:

On the one hand, his new methods accented the human initiative instead of the divine. On the other hand, they gave rise to a sense of “engineered” or “worked up” revival. Revival could occur whenever Christians used the proper means. . . Finney’s methods have been a defining feature of evangelicalism ever since. They have been demonstrated by later evangelists, such as D.L. Moody and Billy Sunday, or by the evangelistic approaches of the 1940s and 1950s. Billy Sunday, for instance, boasted to his sponsors that if “Gypsy” Smith could win converts for $4.92-a-piece, he could cut the cost to $2.00-a-soul when he got his system working.

. . .Reliance on methods has even been lifted to new heights by the church-growth movement. From parking-lot theory to platform-dress style, everything in worship as well as evangelism can now be engineered and enhanced. . . .Through it all pragmatism has become part of the evangelical soul. Finney’s “right use of the appropriate means” is our hallmark (Fit Bodies, Fat Minds, pp58,59).

Is the Promise Keeper’s phenomenon a movement of God or Finney’s method updated? This is still a difficult question to answer, even if the leaders of Promise Keepers are using Finney’s “means.” It is possible that in spite of (not because of) man’s manipulation — God is doing a great work!

This is the issue that Jonathan Edwards attempted to address in works such as, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, and Treatise on Religious Affections. Iain Murray, in his excellent book, Revival and Revivalism, attempts to distinguish between true revival in history, and its counterfeit, revivalism. His summary is:

In all revivals there are admixtures. It cannot be supposed that, in the high excitement attending a work of the Spirit of God, God’s saving work can be instantly distinguished from what moves men only temporarily or from what can be accounted for in psychological terms (pp82,83).

And, it would be entirely wrong to suppose that periods of true revival are not also times of danger. To ignore that is to ignore a major lesson of history (p382).

Similarly, it would be foolish to argue that wherever earnest gospel work is attended by any errors or by any unwise methods, there cannot be true revival. . . .Calvinists have sometimes been inclined to deny God’s sovereignty by imagining that His work is always in proportion to the doctrinal correctness of the earthen vessels which He employs. But such is God’s mercy that His blessing may also be found even among ‘wood, hay, and stubble,’ as was the case in Corinth (I Cor. 3:12). . . .But this same qualification is misused (as Finney misused it on a grand scale) when it is employed as an argument to show that because God has granted His blessing, therefore the ‘wood, hay and stubble’ cannot be errors at all but must represent a cause which He honors” (pp382,383).

So, the question remains: Is Promise Keepers a great movement of God or manipulation by men? It could be both, or neither — this is the issue we will begin to examine in our next paper. While we ponder this subject, let’s close this paper with two major concerns we have with the Clergy Conference:

The Charismatic Influence

If our presupposition, based upon our understanding of Scripture, is that the Charismatic and Vineyard movements are not of God (see our papers on the Vineyard Movement), then something is terribly amiss at the Promise Keepers’ conferences. Not only are the founders of Promise Keepers, many of the key leaders, and a number of favorite speakers Charismatic, but the very worship, music and methods of Promise Keepers spring from the Charismatic’s well. I believe that in a very real sense Promise Keepers is the machinery that is moving the evangelical church wholesale into the Charismatic camp, without most even realizing it.

One example at the Clergy Conference will suffice at this time: Jack Hayford, one of the most often used speakers at Promise Keepers conferences, attempted to teach the thirty-nine thousand pastors how to “dance in the Lord.” He said he had learned a little dance in Africa and later the Lord spoke to him directly saying, “May I have this dance?” At this point he demonstrated his dance before the pastors.

Hayford and Promise Keepers were subtly introducing thousands of pastors to some of the heretical teachings of the Charismatic movement. The focus was on a Charismatic form of worship — dancing in the Lord! The real issue, one that seemed to be missed by most of those pastors, is that this man is claiming direct revelation from God! Where was the outrage among those pastors? Are they being anesthetized by Promise Keepers to the extent that those who claim direct revelation are accepted without rebuke? If so, where will this lead?

A Centralized Authority

McCartney wants the hearts of pastors so torn open that a single leadership can be produced. Just who will assume this leadership? Is it to be McCartney? How about the leadership of Promise Keepers? Are all local churches and denominations to submit to the authority of Promise Keepers?

Randy Phillips believes that, “In just three days we began to see some of the walls which have divided the church for centuries break down.” What walls is he talking about? The walls of doctrine? Pastors are now being told that they must lay down their beliefs in order to unite with a common leadership. Is this the real agenda of Promise Keepers? More on these things next time.


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