In the last couple of years, I have, like most readers of The Outlook, watched with fascination the Promise Keepers movement. I have stood in amazement at an organization that gathers 50 to 60 thousand men together for 16 hours on a weekend (and does it dozens of weekends each year!) to hear hard-hitting sermons, sing songs, and renew commitments to God, wife and church. I have struggled to determine my own pastoral response to the movement (for it truly is a movement, if only because of the sheer numbers of men it has reached and because of the books it has generated that line the shelves of Christian bookstores), wondering whether I should (or even could) encourage the men of our congregation to participate in a movement that prominently features altar calls (aren’t they Arminian in origin?), seemingly charismatic worship emphases (not too many Reformed churches prominently feature the raising and waving of uplifted hands in praise!), and an ecumenical spirit that encourages the unity of men from Catholic, charismatic, Reformed, and you-name-it backgrounds.
Over recent years, I’ve read many articles from highly respected Reformed writers highly critical of Promise Keepers. During the same span of time, I’ve read just as many extolling its virtues. I’ve found many of the former to be unfair in their criticisms, seeing ghosts behind every pillar of every Promise Keepers stadium. I’ve likewise found many of the latter to be naive, blindly accepting of some things that really need a discerning eye. Having said that, I write this brief article to explain to you why I endorse participation in the movement and encourage men from my congregation to attend.
IN A WORD, FRUIT…
Jesus warned us dearly in Mt. 7:15–20, to “watch out for false prophets.” He wants His church to know that not everything that looks like a lamb and makes sounds like a lamb is a lamb. Sometimes, it is a wolf in lamb’s wool. How does He tell us we can discern the difference between a true prophet and a false one, between a man of God and a ferocious wolf whose sole purpose is to tear the flesh of the flock of Christ? His words are clear: “By their fruit you will recognize them…Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit” (vss.16–17).
When I have studied Promise Keepers, primarily from the detailed reports I’ve sought to gather from recent attenders, I hear things that cause me some concern. Some of them I mentioned above: the altar calls which could send the message that commitment to Christ is a “walk down an aisle,” the embracing of what has been described by some as a charismatic worship style that could be interpreted as putting an unhealthy emphasis on emotionalism, and last but not least, what appears to some to be an uncritical ecumenicity, an ignoring of the distinctives for which our spiritual ancestors often died. I say it again, some of these things give me cause for concern.
But they do not dissuade me from encouraging participation in this ministry. Why? Because of the fruit I witness when the men return from a Promise Keepers weekend. In the first place, unlike so many other “revival movements” that have come and gone, the men who attend these Friday evening and all-day Saturday sessions return to their homes with a real and noticeable revival of commitment to their local church, to their pastors and elders, and to their wives and children. I have been receiving phone calls of gratitude and support for my ministry from these brothers, cards assuring me of their prayers and encouragement, and even an upsurge of their participation as ministry volunteers in various committees and activities of the church. Previous revival movements did not generate such fruit in my experience. Rather, they often “ate their own children,” consuming the energies of the participants in their narrow activities, leaving no time or interest in the Lord’s church locally, and often generating much criticism of it.
Further, I have been pleasantly surprised by the discernment shown by the participants in Promise Keepers. The comments of one brother are instructive. He said, in essence, “I know that the ‘style’ of the worship was somewhat different than ours. I know that some of the messages were more inspirational and less Scripturally instructive than many of us are used to. I know that some of the music contained lyrics that were less than Biblically accurate. Yet, the majority of the messages were Biblically solid, and the overall message of the weekend was not only “acceptable” to covenant theology but seemed to be born out of it. We were called to keep covenant with our God, to walk in covenant with His people in the church, and to fulfill our covenant obligations within our homes, especially with our wives and children. I don’t find that objectionable. Rather, I give thanks to God for it!”
I do too!
IDENTIFYING THE COMPETITION
One more thing needs to be said. Many (not all) of the criticisms of Promise Keepers I’ve heard have been generated by preachers that sound like they are threatened by the competition. (Sorry if that sounds harsh, but I believe it to be true.) Since I don’t think the “competition” of Promise Keepers is the church, I don’t believe the church ought to be threatened. Rather, I believe the “competition” of Promise Keepers is the liberal culture of TV on the one hand, and the immorality and violence of our city streets on the other. Promise Keepers specifically challenges men to turn from the norm-less values and practices they watch on television, and to reject the violence and sexual conquest they observe in their neighborhoods, and to shape their lives instead by the historic Christian value system based on the Bible. In sounding this message, Promise Keepers is less”competition” to the sermons I preach on Sundays than it is specific “application” of them, and that to a much broader audience than I will ever be privileged to address.
In a nation where some 80% of inner city babies are born to single women, in a nation where divorce rates have skyrocketed and remained stratospheric, in a nation where most Christian churches have more women and children on their membership roles than men and where men seem to think their only “fathering” role in family is making babies, not nurturing them, Promise Keepers is a welcome North American revival movement. It has, until now, been almost exclusively a North American phenomenon because it has couched its message for the North American experience and North American men. We have ample reason to believe the message is needed, and many reasons to thank God for its warm reception.
PASTORING PROMISE KEEPERS
Need we offer no challenge to discernment? Should we encourage men to attend and hope the reasons for concern mentioned above evaporate, and that none of the potential problems materialize?
We must take positive steps to harvest the spiritual fruit Promise Keepers evidences, and to help our men discern the spirits that may well contradict a consistent and thorough Reformed and Biblical world view. The principle step I would suggest is a “debriefing session” following a Promise Keepers weekend which some of your men attend. In that debriefing session, I would solicit feedback from their experiences, discuss their understanding of the overall message of the conference and of specific messages delivered by individual speakers. The positive lessons learned should be confirmed; the questionable ones discussed openly. Finally, the participants should be challenged to explore and to find ways to put their new enthusiasm to work in daily life. Perhaps such application could take the shape of an onging men’s Bible study and prayer group, perhaps the formation of accountability partners who meet regularly to challenge and encourage one another to keep covenant with God and family, or perhaps a growing evangelistic ministry to men (usually the most difficult to reach in our society).
Being “Reformed” has always meant both testing the spirits carefully and engaging the world actively, intellectually, cutting to the heart of every issue. It has not meant sheltering our people from the world so that they never face exposure to other ideas, fearful that they might become corrupted by casual contact. I am not afraid of Promise Keepers, despite the fact that men will rub shoulders with people whose theologies I may consider deficient. Rather, I welcome Reformed involvement, believing that we of the Reformation have a heritage and insights that are rich and deep to offer our society and to the broader Christian church within it. I believe Promise Keepers sounds a needed voice in North America. I believe Reformed Christians can sound a needed voice within Promise Keepers. I believe the men I know who have attended have evidenced discernment. They have also been blessed.
Dr. Sittema, editor of this department, is pastor of Bethel CRC, Dallas, TX.