Keeping the Promise

Retro is a term used by graphic artists to describe a style of American design from the 1950s. It's known for its thick lines, block type, and pictures of women wearing dresses and pearls while cleaning house. It was a time of the nuclear family under the threat of nuclear war.

Among many evangelical Christians-among all of us, to some extent-there is a longing for a return to this alleged Golden Age, a time when the streets were safe to walk at night, the worst thing a kid could do at school was get caught chewing gum in class, politicians were model citizens, a dollar still had value, and the roles of men and women were clear. It was the 1950s, and America was the greatest nation on earth.

It was also a time of fallout shelters, segregation, the rise of the Cold War, the wedding of organized crime and organized labor, the growth of the military industrial complex and its child, the Vietnam conflict, and a façade of order that would soon be stripped away by the activist movements of the '60s.

There are no answers to be found in an idealized and sentimentalized past. Yet it remains a compelling vision to many, both in and out of the church. Every movement sprung from evangelical roots seems to have some relationship with it.

Promise Keepers, a new and growing movement focusing on evangelical men, must beware the traps this model presents to them. Promise Keepers was started in 1990 when Bill McCartney, head football coach at the University of Colorado, had a vision of a stadium filled with Christian men. What began as a small meeting of a few men grew quickly to regional gatherings that are filling stadiums around the country this summer.

Promise Keepers is built on a set of significant if fairly standard promises that each participant must agree to follow. Each man pledges to honor Jesus, build relationships with a few other men, seek purity, nurture marriage and family, support pastoral leadership, reach across racial and denominational barriers, and follow the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.

These are all worthy of affirmation. But there are some perils in the promises that must be avoided if the movement is to have any long-term value. If Promise Keepers falls into the retro trap of trying to return men to a 1950s picture of the family and manhood, then they will do more harm than good.

PROMISE KEEPERS' recent emphasis on racial reconciliation is one area worth affirming. John Perkins, longtime evangelical activist and founder of the Christian Community Development Association, said, "Bill McCartney is one of the first prominent white Americans to say that reconciliation is an important part of where the church is going."

While Promise Keepers events had only a 7 percent non-white attendance in 1994, its leaders have an apparently genuine commitment to ethnic diversity. The challenge to Promise Keepers is the same challenge that faces the evangelical church at large. In order to achieve genuine reconciliation, it must move beyond the safe boundaries of the suburbs and make more than token efforts to reach into the major ethnic population centers-more than just soup kitchen duty or mission trips to the inner city. It will require a solidarity with the economic struggles, the political imbalance, and the abuse of ethnic cultures, and perhaps even a change in the lifestyle of most who attend the rallies-which may be more than most are looking for.

Perhaps the most difficult area of retro thinking for Promise Keepers lies in the relationship with women. One of the spokespersons for Promise Keepers recently wrote, "Clearly, terrible things happen when men forget God. Leadership becomes corrupt. Marriages end. Families suffer. Churches split. Communities decay. And eventually, an entire nation crumbles. But when men remember God, something extraordinary happens."

Can you feel the bend in the logic of this statement? If men, the male gender, get their act together everything will be OK. What about women? Don't they make a contribution? Haven't they held together much of what we call the church? The implication is, Thanks for holding the reins, little lady, but I'll take over now.

The message beneath the Promise Keepers charge to "take back the family" seems to be the edict that women are better seen and not heard. One of Promise Keepers' major goals must become resisting this type of thinking, or their more constructive message will be lost.

If the Promise Keepers movement really wants to make a contribution, it must look to the future, not the past, for its models. The future lies with men who can look into the eyes of half the world's population and say, Please forgive the way we've diminished you in the past; can we build the future as equals? It will be with men who require a deeper revelation of Jesus and his humanity than 1950s role models allow. If this change in outlook can occur, Promise Keepers may yet fulfill the genuine promise that it preaches.

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