Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Promise Keepers gets leaner

Media conference today will focus on home church trend

By David Montero, Rocky Mountain News
March 15, 2006

Gone are the heady days of packing football stadiums, annual operating budgets not far south of $100 million and a massive merchandising blitz to rival a mid-market basketball team.

Instead, these are the days of small arenas, lean budgets and modest-to-minimal merchandising.

This is the emerging face of Promise Keepers, the Denver-based nonprofit evangelical group founded by former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney back in 1990. And, according to spokesman Steve Chavis, they're good with this approach.

"The mythology was, by going great guns the way it was going, we'd reach every man in the country and we'd finish the job. The fact is, encouraging men spiritually was a much bigger systemic cultural nut to crack," Chavis said. "Now that we're smaller, what kind of impact can we make? I think we're going after a deeper conference experience so the Friday night, all-day Saturday experience is hopefully more profound and had more impact."

In that vein, Promise Keepers is hosting a media conference today that will tackle an issue somewhat controversial in the evangelical Christian community - the recent trend of men and youth leaving the traditional church to host services in the home.

Chavis remembered the days in the '90s when Promise Keepers could pack Invesco Field with men searching for spiritual answers and help in figuring out their role in families and churches. Near its zenith in 1996, the group hosted 22 stadium conferences and drew 1.1 million men.

There are 19 conferences scheduled this year - including one at the World Arena in Colorado Springs this summer. Each gathering, according to Chavis, doesn't come close to the scale of those mid-'90s events. The World Arena, in fact, only has 7,343 fixed seats in it. All the other conferences are in small- to mid-sized venues.

And the unaudited operating budget for 2005 was just over $23 million compared with $79 million in 1997.

"We had to get lean and mean," Chavis said. "The nonprofit sector will paint you a picture of tough sledding in this century with 9/11 and the recent hurricanes, so we're being really frugal and creative. It's a tough environment."

Paul Lichterman, an associate professor of sociology and religion at the University of Southern California, has studied trends and patterns in the evangelical community and believes the recent machinations of Promise Keepers are entirely in line with the direction of the evangelical Christian movement.

He said Promise Keepers took its initial model of large stadium gatherings from a point of view largely held by activist movements of the '60s - namely that large public showings and gatherings will generate media coverage and awareness of the issues facing the group.

But Lichterman said the scaling down is more in line with the Christian view of change - that smaller, individual attention affects deeper, long-lasting results.

"Mass meetings and mass movements may be exciting and a way to affirm your faith, but they're not necessary for being a good evangelical Christian," he said.

"Think about the the kind of relationship that is central to evangelical Christians - it's the one-to-one personal relationship that is most valuable and is modeled after the relationship they have with Jesus Christ."

Chavis said the original mission of Promise Keepers has remained. It's still on the Web site and reads, "Revival and discipleship are the two elements that became the foundation and focus of Promise Keepers."

Stan Perea, executive director of HIS Ministries in Denver, said the original mission is "a worthy one," but added that if Promise Keepers is to remain successful, it has to address issues he doesn't believe the church as an entity is talking about.

Perea will be on the panel today discussing why men are leaving the church. He said part of it is due to an overpoliticization of faith and that pastors aren't addressing the everyday concerns of men.

"The church is driving the issues - gay marriage, abortion - and to the average guy out there, those aren't really critical," Perea said. "The things they consider critical are, how do you make a marriage work? How do you get up and go to work every day in the same old tired job? There is a disconnect there."

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