Started by former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney and his friend Dave Wardell in 1990, the Promise Keepers (PK) was a parachurch Christian men's ministry. Concentrated in the United States, the central goal of PK was to encourage men to become promise keepers who lived in accord with seven promises. The promises PK urged men to make included to "pursue vital relationships with other men," to practice "spiritual, moral, ethical, and sexual purity," to build "strong marriages and families through love," and to reach "beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity."
PK garnered significant public recognition for its ability to draw huge attendance to the all-male religious conventions it held in sports arenas across the United States. As a follow-up to convention attendance, PK encouraged men to form small accountability groups of four to ten men in their local communities that monitored the extent to which men kept their PK promises. They subsequently established regional offices to oversee these accountability groups, and area task forces that worked to coalesce Christian men's interests and actions, especially in the area of race relations. Although the organization was characterized by explicitly evangelistic appeals, PK leaders insisted they did not wish PK to compete with local congregations or denominations for men's religious loyalty. The evangelistic goal of PK was not to get men to join the PK organization; instead, it was to get men to become promise keepers. Hence another of the promises PK asked men to make was to support their local pastor.
Arising during an era when women's rights were on the upswing, major controversies swirled around the PK movement with regard to its stances on women. The language of submission it used to depict a marital ideal was strongly attacked by the National Organization for Women, a leading U.S. feminist organization. PK's invitations to male pastors to attend workshops on men's ministries were criticized for ignoring the existence of female ministers and their interest in men's ministries. Finally, its exclusive targeting of men was questioned, even by some men within its own folds who wanted to involve their spouses in PK activities. In response to this barrage of criticism, PK altered some of its practices; most notably it began inviting female ministers to its men's ministry workshops.
The substantial material culture that developed around the PK organization contributed to its appeal. This primarily consisted of PK baseball caps, T-shirts, and sweatshirts, but was supplemented by a wide variety of other miscellaneous personal items. Marketed as an extension of this material culture was a huge array of books and magazines targeted at Christian men, which PK encouraged men to use as the focus of accountability group studies.
By the mid-1990s, only five years after its inception, PK was one of the best-known Christian ministries in the United States. Its substantial popular appeal was demonstrated on a national stage when it drew approximately one million men to its first national meeting, Stand In The Gap, held in Washington, D.C., on October 4, 1997. Yet this watershed event was quickly followed by considerable intraorganizational turbulence and decline. A policy change that curtailed the PK practice of charging entry fees to attend its stadium conferences plunged the organization into financial chaos and resulted in large swaths of staff layoffs. The poor publicity that ensued generated diminished popularity for the organization and placed its long-range continuance in serious doubt.
Among religious studies scholars, millennial experts deemed this popular religious movement an expression of late-twentieth-century millennial enthusiasm. In particular they noted the striking similarities between PK's support for male public displays of emotion—defining men as "weeping warriors"—and the weeping warriors associated with the Peace of God movement at the end of the first millennium.
Abraham, Ken. Who Are the Promise Keepers? Understanding the Christian Men's Movement. 1995.
Brasher, Brenda E. "On Politics and Transcendence: The Promise Keepers at Washington, DC." Nova Religio 1, no. 2 (1998): 289–292.
Brenda E. Brasher