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Promise Keepers

Why do these men need to exclude women in their quest for a better world?


ust as I was beginning to think I had the male species figured out, I entered into that surreal alternate universe known as the Memphis Promise Keepers Conference last weekend at The Pyramid. Some 19,000 men wearing Jesus T-shirts and carrying Bibles in handy canvas zipper totes turn out to worship God and, as the conference brochure describes, "take a stand for truth, holiness, righteousness and Christ." Speakers' faces appear on three large video screens as they address the crowd. Soft piano music in the background contributes to the emotional mood in the cavernous arena.

Although one of the Promise Keepers' goals is racial reconciliation, the overwhelming majority of the participants pouring from the church vans into The Pyramid is white. Fathers and sons attend together along with other Promise Keepers who come from a wide range of age groups. While there are a few women volunteers passing out programs and selling retail items, young and old alike do a double take when they see me sitting in the stands.

A few hours pass before anyone musters the courage to speak to me. The man behind me asks if I am a Christian. When I say yes, he seems satisfied and turns away.

It isn't long before men of all ages, races, and backgrounds are holding hands, swaying, shouting hallelujah, crying in pain, and shouting with joy. "We love Jesus, yes we do, we love Jesus, how 'bout you?" they cheer. It is as frenzied as a middle-school pep rally, but not nearly as contrived. Their religious zeal emerges from the depths of their hearts at this rare chance for self-expression.

Bob Horner, a member of Campus Crusade for Christ and the host of the Memphis conference, takes the stage and exclaims, "How different Memphis will be because of Promise Keepers!" A burst of applause indicates the crowd's agreement. It's this kind of large-scale transformation that Promise Keepers aims to stimulate.

Promise Keepers attorney and leader of various special undertakings Pat Cloust tells the audience about the Lighthouse Project, an attempt to change the nation man by man, church by church, and city by city. A man must incorporate three elements into his home in order to make it a lighthouse, Cloust says. First he should pray for 20 homes on his street. Next he should exhibit a caring spirit toward his neighbors by lending a tool or a helping hand. Finally he should share his stories and his Christian experience with those around him.

A graphic on the video screens displays a map of the United States with points of light at each of the Promise Keepers conference locations. From those points the light spreads across the nation.

Speaker Henry Blackaby, a member of the Southern Baptist Mission Board from Alpharetta, Georgia, and author of several popular Christian devotional books, encourages the men to make time to hear the voice of God, "even if you have to get up early to meet Him." He shares his own family experiences in which his daughter and son gained strength from him as the spiritual leader of the family.

"The Bible is your life," he declares. "Take time in it. Be unhurried in it."

Men scribble notes in their Promise Keepers journals, and Horner reappears on stage and screen to accentuate the points of Blackaby's speech. A flip of a page reveals a segment of one of Horner's small-group manuals, and the 19,000 spend the next 15 minutes practicing small-group participation with those around them.

Who can argue with Promise Keepers' avocation of prayer, Bible study, group discussion, and lending a helping hand? What a relief it must be for men to unleash the emotions they so often have to keep bottled within. It is amazing to watch them laugh, cry, cheer, wave their hands, stomp their feet, and express themselves in this setting.

But there is something missing. It is evident even from the opening hymn. A multitude of low voices unite in beautiful song, but the addition of soprano voices would create a balance far more rich in tone and full in effect. In the real world women, not men, wait in line for restrooms. Men and women work side by side in the classroom and in the workplace. Single moms raise a large population of the world's children. This conference is indeed surreal.

If changing the nation is Promise Keepers' ultimate goal, why not employ the help of the other half of the population? Why not encourage spiritual discipline in women as well? Perhaps a conference open to everyone would transform more families. Perhaps then such a genuine cause would have a better chance of succeeding.

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