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Promise Makers

Monday, September 1, 1997

The founder of Promise Keepers explains
why he’s calling for a spiritual assembly of men in the nation’s capital.

America is suffering from a severe shortage of integrity, and men are behind some of its worst manifestations. Men are more likely than women to break their marriage vows through adultery, violence, or abandonment. Men are impregnating young women in record numbers and leaving them to deal with the consequences--a stint on welfare, an education cut short, or a trip to an abortion clinic. Men are also more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and then engage in a wide range of criminal behavior. Indeed, it is men, overwhelmingly, who commit most of the nation's violent crimes and dominate its prison system: At least 94 percent of all inmates are male.

Social problems are moral problems, which ultimately have a spiritual cause. For those of us involved in Christian outreach programs, the connection is inescapable: The failure of large numbers of men to live up to their family and social obligations represents a failure of faith.

More to the point, the growing irresponsibility of men points, in large part, to a failure in our Christian churches. Men are much less likely than women to set foot in a church, less likely to say they are absolutely committed to Jesus Christ, less likely to read the Bible during the week or strongly affirm the role of religious faith in their lives. Many--perhaps most--men see church mainly as a place for women and children. A similar separation of men from religious life is to be found in non-Christian communities as well. Uninspired by any religious vision for their lives, more and more men are becoming disconnected from any moral vision.

All of this is taking a tremendous toll on our culture. The absence of responsible men from the home is now widely regarded as the most important cause of America's social decline. If America is truly in the throes of cultural breakdown, then the shallow faith of so many men, and the kind of behavior that follows from it, has contributed to this breakdown.

The Need of the Hour

But here is where many feminists and others who scorn traditional virtue have it wrong: If men are a principal cause of family meltdown, crime, and racial strife, then men also are central to the solutions to those problems. What America desperately needs today is men who take responsibility for their actions, who are faithful to their families, who keep their word, even when it's difficult or costly.

America is crying out for a generation of "promise keepers." Five years ago, when I was still the head football coach at the University of Colorado, I realized that too many men were getting their priorities out of alignment. I'd seen too many men who called themselves Christians and attended church, but had little idea what it meant to live out a Christian ethic, either on the playing field or in their homes. To be honest, I watched my own family suffer as I poured myself into my career. I rationalized my workaholism, of course, but in reality I was letting go of my most basic responsibilities. Family members and friends finally helped me to see that, in essence, I had been directing my own life without reference to God. Because I failed so miserably, I've been able to see that many men today are doing exactly the same thing I did.

I resigned my coaching position in order to help bring together men who were interested in succeeding in the most important areas of their lives: their personal relationships with Almighty God, their wives, and their children. Just over 4,000 men met in 1991 at the Coors Event Center in Boulder, Colorado, for the first conference of our new organization, Promise Keepers. It was not a gathering of angry white males or an exercise in chest-beating or in lifting male self-esteem. This was about men taking stock of their moral and spiritual inventory. We asked men to publicly proclaim their love and allegiance to Jesus Christ and their commitment to their families. Since then, more than 2 million men have attended conferences in which they are challenged to make, and keep, a series of promises to honor God, to remain faithful to their spouses, and to support their churches.

Now we are taking Promise Keepers a step further. We are calling on men to come to Washington, D.C., for a day of heartfelt confession and prayer. Men from all over the country will gather not for any political cause, but for the purpose of being honest with each other and, most importantly, with God Himself, about our shortcomings. We want to see God spark personal renewal in the lives of tens of thousands of men, the kind of spiritual commitment that radically changes attitudes and everyday decisions.

Why Washington, D.C., and why now?

The nation's capital has historically served as the geographical soul of America, the place where national tragedies are mourned, where victories are celebrated, where protests are most keenly felt, and where the nation's attention turns to in times of crisis. Many believe we are in such a crisis. Many Christian leaders correctly see the crisis not only out there in the larger culture, but right here, inside the church. That's why, despite what our critics claim, we aren't interested in political agendas; politics simply can't touch issues of the heart.

Prayer can do that, for it involves communicating with our Creator. It means bowing down before Almighty God. For Christians, humble prayer unlocks the door to a personal, life-transforming relationship with Christ Himself. It is perhaps the most important tool for moral and spiritual rebirth. And so what better place to spark such renewal, to help address our national ills, than in the symbolic heart of the nation?

Signs of the Times

In the game of football, if your team is getting trounced, you'd better have a serious talk with the men at halftime and identify the problems. There is plenty of blame to go around to explain the ills afflicting America, but the decline in responsible manhood is surely one of the worst culprits.

Could it have anything to do with the fact that fathers are less and less likely to live with their sons? In one generation, the proportion of children entering a broken family has more than quadrupled. Patrick Fagan of The Heritage Foundation, using data from the National Center for Health Statistics, calculates that in 1950 about 12 out of 100 kids entered a family torn by divorce or illegitimacy; last year the number was 58 out of 100. More children are growing up without fathers than at any time in our nation's history. And though many women are courageously raising children on their own, kids--especially young boys--need the firm guidance of a loving father.

Why have crimes against American women-assault, rape, spousal abuse-hit new highs among the industrialized West? Is it a coincidence that America leads the world as a peddler of pornography? According to U.S. News & World Report, the number of hard-core pornographic video rentals rose from 75 million in 1985 to 665 million in 1996. Last year, the money that Americans (mostly men) spent viewing hard-core videos, peep shows, live sex acts, adult cable programming, computer porn, sex magazines, and the like exceeded all of Hollywood's domestic box-office receipts. Any clearheaded man can tell you: The more that men are exposed to images of women as objects created only to satisfy their needs, the more likely they are to treat women in exactly that way.

The list could go on. In a breathtaking range of categories, America ranks as a leader in vice. "If God withholds judgment from America," Billy Graham once said, "He will owe Sodom and Gomorrah an apology." He echoes the warning of Founding Father Thomas Jefferson: "Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, and that His justice cannot sleep forever."

A Weakened Church

One of the most important reasons for America's declining morals is the lack of powerful restraints on people's worst impulses. In my view, every society needs the restraint of the people of God, who act as bulwarks against people's ill-informed and destructive choices, like offensive linemen protecting the quarterback. They are the ones most likely to discourage evil, to argue for moral reform, and to perform heroic acts of kindness. Russell Kirk once put it this way: "Without Christian culture and Christian hope, the modern world would come to resemble a half-derelict fun fair, gone nasty and poverty-racked; one enormous Atlantic City."

Yet today the church in America is grievously compromised. In a 1991 poll conducted by George Barna, 25 percent of regular church attendees admitted that their Christian beliefs made no significant difference in their lives. The problem is especially acute among men: Barna found that men are half as likely as women to attend a church during any given week. Men are also 33 percent less likely to say they are religious and to claim they are absolutely committed to their faith.

Pollster George Gallup reports that, while almost half of Americans attend church services, only 6 to 10 percent are what he terms "highly spiritually committed." Gallup's research has compared behavior of churched and unchurched people in a variety of categories: people who call in sick when they are not, pad their resumes, cheat on tax deductions, and so on. His research has found little difference in the ethical views and behavior of the churched and the unchurched.

How can this be? Despite evidence of interest in religion at the popular level (books about angels, the growth of "psychic hotlines"), people seem to be looking for support, not salvation; help rather than holiness; a circle of spiritual equals rather than an authoritative church or guide. Too many churches are pandering to this trend.

But one of the major functions of the local church is to help Christians continuously deepen their devotion to God, to become more like Christ Himself. That means facing up to personal failures, shedding selfish attitudes, and exchanging destructive habits for healthy ones. In countless practical ways, Christian faith ought to affect how men resolve conflicts, control their tempers, juggle work and family responsibilities, and discipline their children. Without such devotion, there is little reason to expect most men to make good choices most of the time.

How can we recover a healthy fear of God in our lives, our churches, our communities? How can people of faith re-emerge as a powerful, nearly irresistible force for good in our society? It will not happen without prayer: prayer for repentance, reconciliation, and renewal.

The failure of men to live out their responsibilities
as husbands and fathers reflects a profound failure
in the American church.

Biblical repentance means taking personal responsibility for our actions, admitting to God where we've gone out of bounds, and asking for His forgiveness and for the strength to change course. Reconciliation means taking whatever steps necessary to repair relationships that we've helped to damage. Renewal involves pledging our best efforts to honor God and meet our God-given responsibilities in our families and communities.

This is what our sacred assembly in Washington aims to bring about. We will spend most of the day in prayer, worship, and confession. Pastors and other Christian leaders will speak about these subjects. Men will be challenged to admit their failings and sins not only to God but to one another. The adage "confession is good for the soul" is much more than a religious platitude. It is an affirmation that there is a spiritual dimension to life, and that when we neglect our spiritual lives, we damage our own souls.

A New Game Plan

We realize that conferences might produce a lot of heat, but not much light. As a former coach, I know it's not enough simply to get men worked up in the locker room about winning a ball game. They need a game plan.

That's why Promise Keepers, since its founding, has worked closely with local churches, which are still the key to revitalizing men's commitment to spiritual growth. Promise Keepers has three roles, all of which we believe will strengthen local congregations: First, we use stadium conferences to challenge men to rededicate their lives to Christ, through biblical teaching, worship, and the Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper (see box, page 19). Thousands of men have made decisions to follow Christ that have profoundly and positively changed the way they regard their family responsibilities.

Second, we offer pastors the tools to challenge men to grow in their faith and in their ability to live out the promises they make to their wives, children, and churches. When it comes to influencing men through our congregations, the role of spiritual leaders is absolutely crucial; yet while men are catching the vision at the conferences, few churches have established men's ministries that are prepared to help them live out that vision. We distribute study materials aimed at men that can be used both in the pulpit and in group discussions.

Finally, we want to see men become significantly involved in serving people in their congregations and in their local communities. From a biblical standpoint, serving others must involve real sacrifice: At a recent conference in Washington, D.C., for example, we mobilized 1,500 men to help clean and repair 47 dilapidated school buildings. On October 3, approximately 5,000 men will go to 90 D.C. schools and do the same thing, all as unpaid volunteers.

Behind our goals is an assumption that one of the ways to help people make real life changes is through relationships. This is why churches are so important: They offer numerous opportunities for men to build friendships with other men, especially in the context of small groups. Whether task-oriented (fixing a church member's car or mowing the lawn for a single mom) or study-oriented (poring over a passage of Scripture), small groups allow men to get involved in each other's lives.

How does that make a difference? Only in the context of meaningful friendships can men hold one another accountable for their behavior, seek advice about their marriages or careers, and be candid about the struggles they're facing. The authors of the Bible understood this when they wrote that "plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisors they succeed" and that "as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another" (Proverbs 15:22; 27:17).

In our best moments, we want to do the right thing, but often we don't. If men are regularly getting together as friends, with a common Christian commitment, then they'll be asking each other some tough questions about their behavior: Who was that woman you were having dinner with the other night? How are you handling the temptation to pad your expense account at work? The men could lie, of course. But the better a man knows his friend, the easier it is to sense when he's fudging the truth.

Men and Manhood

Many have asked us, why only men? Won't another men's-only club just worsen the relationship between the sexes?

There's no doubt that when men are simply left to themselves, whether roving in gangs or gathering in locker rooms, they often are trouble waiting to happen. That's exactly what our conferences are not about.

Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper

A Promise Keeper is committed to:

Honor Jesus Christ through worship, prayer, and obedience to God’s Word through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Pursue vital relationships with a few other men, understanding that he needs brothers to help him keep his promises.

Practice spiritual, moral, ethical, and sexual purity.

Build strong marriages and families through love, protection, and biblical values.

Support the mission of his church by honoring and praying for his pastor and by actively giving his time and resources.

Reach beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity.

Influence his world, being obedient to the Great Commandment (Mark 12:30-31) and the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20).

Men can meet and work together for positive purposes, whether it's fixing up schools or coaching Little League baseball. And when they do so to establish or deepen their relationship to Christ, something extraordinary happens. It's a dynamic that is hard to describe, but our events seem to reach a level of lasting honesty, vulnerability, and commitment. Our conferences and the friendships that grow out of them help to create a healthy pressure among men to do the right thing. It's a sense that we're in this thing-this journey of faith and commitment to God and our families-together. When I talk to men about the impact of the conferences on their lives, this is one of the first things they tell me.

I've worked closely with hundreds of men over the years, and at least one common denominator stands out: Men are eager to make and keep promises; they want to be challenged to "be all they can be"-that is, to adopt a thoroughly Christian vision for their lives. Promise Keepers is about helping men see a picture, giving them concrete goals and helping them move toward those goals, whether that's spending more time with their children, learning to honor their word to their wives, or learning to own up to failure on the job. It is about becoming men of integrity, because integrity is impossible without keeping promises.

There's another reason to bring men together for training and encouragement. We live in a society that is, almost daily it seems, redefining manhood. That men are carrying more responsibility in child-rearing is a great step; it is one of the most important ways that men can demonstrate their love for their families. But it's not the whole story of what it means to be a husband and father.

From a Christian perspective, men have a unique, God-given responsibility for the spiritual health of their families. Some suspect that in emphasizing this leadership role for men, we seek to put women down or turn back the clock on women's recent gains. On the contrary, by challenging men to take their faith seriously, we think they will work harder at nurturing their wives and children and helping them fulfill their own God-given potential.

Whenever the Bible discusses the issue of male leadership, for example, it is always for the purpose of serving and sacrificing for others-for the family, the church, and the world. To read the teachings of Christ and the apostles in any other way is to distort the Scriptures. Period. Ironically, it is men's masculine qualities, their willingness to provide for and protect their families, for example, or to draw strong boundaries for their children, that seem to be in greatest demand by women today. And so one of the specific promises of a Promise Keeper is to support his family through love, protection, and biblical values.

We realize that many people, even those sympathetic with our goals, remain suspicious about Promise Keepers' challenge to men. Let me suggest that much of this skepticism is a result of some pretty lousy examples of men, even supposedly religious men, who manipulate and exploit the women around them. No woman wants-nor should want-to love and support a husband who acts like a predator or a tyrant. Those who remain skeptical ought to ask the wives and children of men who attend our conferences if they resent or are troubled by their husbands' determination to follow Christ. He is, after all, our supreme model for manhood.

In a few weeks we will assemble men from around the nation and from other countries on the Mall in Washington, D.C., in what will be a national sacred assembly. There are great precedents for such a gathering. Spiritual assemblies such as these played an important role in some of America's greatest spiritual awakenings-which always led both to transformed lives and to significant moral reform.

During the early 19th century, for example, tens of thousands of men and women converted to Christianity in revival campaigns that became known as the Second Great Awakening. The movement began in England and had its roots in a Call to Prayer issued by pastors in Northamptonshire in 1784. The flame of revival eventually spread to America, where it shaped the course of the great national debate on abolition. Large numbers of new converts, determined to follow Christ wholeheartedly, freed their slaves. Many began to preach publicly against slavery. Others helped with the Underground Railroad, which shuttled slaves to freedom in the North.

We sense that America faces a cultural crisis as potentially destructive as that facing the nation in the era of slavery. That's why we are calling the October 4 event "Stand in the Gap: A Sacred Assembly of Men." It's taken from the prophet Ezekiel's plaintive cry for his own people to return to God. In Ezekiel's day, the people of Israel had wandered far from God, their first love. The result for Israel was national disaster: military defeat from without, moral rot from within. Ezekiel despairs that no one is willing to come forward to climb the literal breach in Jerusalem's walls and act as a human rampart against the evils of his day. In Ezekiel 22:30, God tells the nation: "I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none."

We believe that God is again looking for a few good men who desire to honor Him in every area of their lives. In so doing, such men will refuse to abandon their wives during the tough times; they will balance their obligations at work with those at home; they'll gladly lose sleep to calm a child who hears ghosts under the bed. Today, more than ever, America needs men like these, men who will "stand in the gap" and stand against a culture that mocks commitment, sacrifice, and virtue. May God find a multitude of such men when He looks upon our capital this October.