It began in 1990 with a vision. University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney saw thousands of men worshiping together and confessing their sins to one another. He created a ministry called Promise Keepers to make the vision a reality.
“A man’s man is a godly man,” he said.
Only a few dozen men went to the first gathering in Boulder in 1991. But by the end of the decade, about 7 million men had attended Promise Keepers events at football stadiums and in the nation’s capital.
Promise Keepers inspired a Christian men’s movement that would influence men’s ministries in the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God and many other denominations. Promise Keepers also spawned a brief male surge in the typically female-dominated Christian publishing industry.
But after a talk with Billy Graham, who said he never charged his audiences to hear the Gospel, McCartney announced in 1997 that future Promise Keepers events would be free. The ministry’s $100 million budget and hundreds of employees would be covered by donations, he promised.
When the donations didn’t materialize, hundreds of employees were let go in 1998. Promise Keepers continued but never recovered its mojo.
Now local businessman Ken Harrison is resurrecting the ministry by taking it back to its roots. He is expecting 80,000 men next summer for the new Promise Keepers’ inaugural event at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Tickets went on sale June 1.
“I am shocked at how powerful the Promise Keepers brand is after all these years,” says Harrison, a Castle Rock resident who since 2017 has served as CEO of Colorado Springs-based WaterStone, a Christian foundation that pioneered tax-deductible donor-advised funds in the ‘80s. The Promise Keepers office is housed in WaterStone’s office across Interstate 25 from the Air Force Academy.
McCartney, who is battling Alzheimer’s disease, has given his blessing to Harrison, who never attended a Promise Keepers event.
Annual stadium rallies are the best way to combat toxic masculinity while encouraging a nationwide revival of Christian faith and practice, Harrison says.
He says Promise Keepers lost its focus on the two things men said they most valued:
• “The feeling they had when they joined voices with 70,000 other men to sing songs like ‘Amazing Grace,’”
• And the opportunities fathers had to tell their sons they loved them and prayed for them, “often for the first time.”
A former Los Angeles Police Department officer, Harrison, 51, left the force to become a successful San Diego real estate entrepreneur. He retired to Colorado with his wife and three children in 2009 but soon grew restless as he saw “toxic masculinity” causing men to forsake their obligations to family, church and culture.
“I was as happy as I could be, but I realized I can’t ski and hike for the rest of my life and watch Rome burn,” he said.
Harrison spells out his view in his new book, “Rise of the Servant Kings: What the Bible Says About Being a Man,” published by Springs-based Waterbrook-Multnomah. Harrison says servant kings take responsibility for their families and their neighborhoods as servants, not rulers.
Toxic masculinity makes some men passive and weak, while it makes others overly macho and abusive, he says. “We have a whole lot of boys with men’s bodies.”
He won’t say how well President Donald Trump fulfills his masculine ideal but says Atticus Finch was a good role model.
“The mark of a person who is in love with Jesus is humility,” he said, “and the outward expressions of this love in a man’s life will be courage and generosity — like the character Gregory Peck played in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ a single dad who raised his kids with grace, had an unshakable moral character and stood for justice in a nonviolent way.”
Under McCartney, Promise Keepers supported Amendment 2, Colorado’s 1992 anti-gay-rights initiative, which passed but later was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. But Harrison says the new Promise Keepers will “avoid being political but won’t avoid politics.” He turned down offers from politicians wanting to appear at the ministry’s Arlington event next summer.
Harrison says Promise Keepers will engage two key social issues:
• Pornography (“Too many guys look at pictures exploiting women, then have five beers, then try to act like gentlemen.”),
• And abortion (“No abortion has occurred that a man didn’t have something to do with.”)
Harrison says many Christian men regularly use porn, but pastors don’t address the topic for fear of driving them away.
As for abortion, Promise Keepers will advocate for avoiding unwanted pregnancies, caring for struggling women, supporting adoption and standing up for the unborn through anti-abortion laws.
“We need Christian leaders who will stand up and be real and declare the word of God without apology,” he says. “But the goal is to tell men to repent and give their lives to Jesus, not beat them up.”