Christian Group Aims to Reshape The Male Mold

IT may seem like the perfect recipe for rowdiness and masculine camaraderie: a crowd of 65,000 men filling nearly every seat of the Georgia Dome, a sports arena in Atlanta.

But instead of whooping and hollering over the gridiron exploits of high-paid athletes, the men who gathered here last Saturday cried, embraced, shared personal stories, and clapped, sang, and shouted to God.

They were participating in a conference organized by Promise Keepers, a five-year-old evangelical Christian men's movement that is packing stadiums around the country. Promise Keepers, founded in 1990, seeks to raise the standard of what it means to be a Christian man.

The group name refers to promises members make to build strong family ties, honor Jesus Christ, support their church, maintain high moral standards, form close relationships with other men, and break down racial barriers among Christians.

Since 1991, when the first Promise Keepers conference drew 4,200 men to Boulder, Colo., the movement has mushroomed. In 1994, 279,000 men, from Indianapolis to Anaheim, Calif., attended seven of these all-male revivals. This year, the organization has scheduled 13 meetings that are expected to lure more than 600,000.

"Our purpose is to change one man at a time," says Randy Phillips, president of Promise Keepers, who sees lots of room for expansion of the men's ministry.

Experts share different views on what these gatherings mean and why they're happening now.

"One thing that's behind it is the impulse toward revitalization," says Frank Lechner, a sociologist at Emory University in Atlanta. "Churches are trying to reenergize the troops."

Nancy Ammerman, a religious sociologist at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Conn., says that Promise Keepers has emerged to fill a niche for men. "The culture at large doesn't give men much in the way of incentives or training or role models for how to be a good husband and father. What Promise Keepers does is say this is what it means."

Promise Keepers is not without its critics, mainly from the gay community, upset at denunciations of homosexuals by the group's founder, former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney. Some women's groups also take issue with the Keepers' message and male-only policy.

"They are exclusionary, patriarchal, and misogynistic," says Regina Barry Cowles, of the Boulder chapter of the National Organization for Women. "The meeting is all about how men can dominate at home, that they should be head of the household."

But several men attending the Atlanta conference say Promise Keepers does nothing to downplay women. "They're telling us to praise our wives, to show us how to better take care of women," says Harvey McAnally, who traveled to Atlanta from a Dallas suburb. "We're just a bunch of guys trying to figure out how to do things right."

Mr. Phillips explains that the male-only policy is a way to address issues directed at men "while not feeling we have to adjust the message ... if women are present." Some men said the all-male gathering allowed them to more freely express emotions that might otherwise be suppressed in front of women.

The Atlanta meeting, like the others, followed a set agenda. Speakers - mostly well-known preachers - focused on topics ranging from personal finance to raising the standard of marriage. In between, musicians performed Christian songs, urging the audience to join in as words flashed across two large video screens. One end of the stadium was turned into a mini-store, with an endless supply of Promise Keeper T-shirts, books, and hats. A prayer booth was set up in which men could pray.

At times it was an emotion-charged event. One speaker, a pastor from Georgia, touched a sensitive spot for many men when he broke down after explaining his father was about to pass on and the example his father has been to him in being a responsible Christian man. The camera panned to show men wiping tears from their eyes. Now and then, men were asked to huddle in small groups with people they didn't know and share personal stories and prayers.

One emphasis was breaking down racial barriers among churches and parishioners. In a press conference before the event, McCartney said that attracting more minorities was a goal. Promise Keepers "goes across all denominations and all races," he said.

Most men said they heard about Promise Keepers through their church. The organization hopes this year to recruit and train 65,000 "ambassadors" and "point men" who help serve local churches and supply them with resources for the development of men's ministry. Promise Keepers has a staff of 150 and a $22 million budget. Men pay from $55 to $65 to attend each conference.

Edred Mitchell, a musician from Tuskegee, Ala., who has attended a previous conference in Indianapolis, says it has helped "restore his faith" and enabled him to become more sensitive to his wife. "This is the motivator."

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