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Keeping a different promise


Paul Schomburg's first Promise Keepers rally changed his life.

A lapsed Presbyterian with a wife and two young daughters when he attended the event 10 years ago, Schomburg found himself swaying with 47,000 men at RFK Stadium, singing, praying and praising God.

"Just the fact that you saw so many thousands of men getting together to worship Jesus Christ, and to hear how their lives had been changed by knowing him in a personal way, that was tremendously encouraging - and also challenging," he says.

The Gaithersburg man, active at Seneca Creek Community Church in Germantown, is planning to come to Baltimore this weekend for "Unleashed: Releasing the Raw Power of Your Heart," a two-day Promise Keepers conference set to begin this evening at 1st Mariner Arena.

With 7,000 men expected at the medium-sized venue, the event will be far smaller than the football-stadium-filling rallies that made Promise Keepers the fastest-growing force in evangelical Christianity.

A 1997 rally that attracted hundreds of thousands of men to the National Mall - and captured the attention of the media worldwide - was soon followed by a financial crisis that nearly bankrupted the organization.

Promise Keepers is re-emerging as a leaner movement. The organization is pursuing a less-ambitious schedule of traditional, two-day conferences such as the one that begins here tonight, while developing plans for shorter, smaller and, in some cases, ethnically specific events. Meanwhile, it continues to spread the theologically and socially conservative message that its leaders say men still need to hear.

"Guys are confused over masculinity," says Thomas S. Fortson, a former General Motors administrator who became president and chief executive officer of the Denver-based organization in 2003. "What does it mean to be a man today? Who do they talk to if they really want to know what it means to be a man?

"I believe that Promise Keepers has the answer. And that is the god of the universe, the person of the lord, Jesus Christ."

Still listening

The question, observers say, is who is still listening.

"Over the years, I've been asked by friends and students and complete strangers, 'Well, are Promise Keepers still around? I never hear about them anymore,'" says Dane S. Claussen, a professor of journalism and mass communication at Point Park University in Pittsburgh who has edited two books on the movement.

"PK has sort of settled into sort of a long-term holding pattern," Claussen says. "I certainly don't see them doing anything that's going to reignite growth."

Founded in 1990 by then-University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney, Promise Keepers attracted men through events staged in the familiar atmosphere of a sports stadium, with flashy visuals, rock music and fiery preaching.

Speakers urge men to commit themselves to what they call the seven promises. These include honoring Jesus Christ through worship, prayer and obedience to God's word; pursuing vital relationships with a few other men; and practicing spiritual, moral, ethical and sexual purity.

"In many ways, Promise Keepers has been a wakeup call for a lot of men to be the spiritual leaders of their households," Eric Tiansay, managing editor of the evangelical magazine New Man, wrote in an e-mail. "The seven promises ... really challenged men to stop playing church and start getting serious about their relationship with Jesus and people."

The 1997 National Mall gathering turned out to be the high point of the movement and the beginning of its decline. It was there that McCartney announced that the organization would no longer charge admission to its conferences.

The decision was meant to open those events to lower-income participants. But donations failed to make up for lost revenue, and the organization soon found itself at the edge of financial ruin.

Attendance has dropped from more than a million in 1997 to 176,600 last year. The staff is down from a reported 450 to 70 over the same period; the budget has been cut from a reported $70 million to $23 million.

Mississippi State University sociologist John Bartkowski, the author of The Promise Keepers: Servants, Soldiers, and Godly Men, says the rapid growth of the 1990s burdened the movement with high expectations.

"If we measure them by what they've done in the past, they're a shadow of their former self," Bartkowski says. "But if we measure the Promise Keepers by comparison with other men's ministries, they're actually still doing quite well. There's not a lot of other evangelical men's ministries that can claim the kind of staying power and sustained effort that they've exhibited."

Fortson says Promise Keepers is evolving.

"When you look at the '90s Promise Keepers, it's like General Motors: There were no other cars out there on the road," he says. "What PK has done is generate other men's ministries, which are excellent, which are very good. And so I think over time PK has to change."

New division

That change includes plans for PK Select, a new division that is to stage smaller, shorter and more timely events.

"We're going to have to get to the marketplace quicker with issues that impact men," Fortson said. "Areas of finance. Issues regarding marriage ... there are a number of issues that we're going to have to tackle.

"There's a niche there, not for the day-and-a-half event or the arena event, but we may have 500 guys there, 1,000, 2,000, meeting in a convention center or a larger church, less inspirational and more teaching."

In some cases, Fortson says, those events would be aimed at specific ethnic groups.

"Let's face it," says Fortson, an African-American. "The PK event that we're having this weekend is going to be predominantly white. But what about going to the heart of the African-American community and we have an all-ethnic event, whether it's African-American, whether it's our Hispanic brothers and we do it in Spanish?"

Baltimore is the second of 19 cities Promise Keepers plans to visit this summer. "Unleashed," which begins at 7 tonight at 1st Mariner Arena, features Reggie Dabbs, an Assemblies of God preacher from Fort Myers, Fla., Bob Reccord, a former president of the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Samuel Rodriguez Jr., president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

"We want the guys to really discover who God is," Fortson says. "If a guy does not know God through Jesus Christ, he's going to get a clear message of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Those men who know him and kind of need to be revitalized, they're going to discover further, through worshiping with other men, still in the context of the seven promises, who God is."

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