Reshaping the Church

A glimpse into Promise Keepers ‘21

Posted September 14, 2021

by Josiah DeBoer

Promise Keepers 2021 met in Dallas, Texas as an event intended to signal Promise Keepers’ return to prominence in the Christian cultural world.

Promise Keepers, an organization founded by Colorado football coach Bill McCartney in 1990, attempts to promote men of integrity and courage. In the past, it has done so primarily by hosting events, such as the Stand in the Gap event at the national mall that drew over half a million attendees. After McCartney retired in 2003, Promise Keepers sat fallow for about 15 years.

In 2018, Ken Harrison became chairman of the organization. In conjunction with the new leadership, Promise Keepers anticipated shifting towards a model that focused more on community and discipleship. Promise Keepers planned on doing so through a few different avenues, including an app that would serve as a tool for Fire Teams, which Promise Keepers describes as small groups of men who will ensure the impact of Promise Keepers lasts long after our annual events.

The conference in Dallas, which Promise Keepers hoped would attract 80,000 attendees in person, with another 5 million online, would serve as a launchpad for those changes and set Promise Keepers up to be a prominent part of men's lives.

With those goals, the themes of the conference would be crucial. The biggest challenge for Promise Keepers was determining how to pivot from big events to communities that necessitate small groups. Hopefully, Fire Teams or the Promise Keepers app will help them figure that out at some point, but right now that’s a challenge that Promise Keepers is still trying to figure out.

Themes:

It seems as though the Promise Keepers strategy for getting to small groups is to discuss the themes they view as critical to Christian men, setting a vision and establishing a foundation.

Protecting the Oppressed:

In various ways, the conference returned to the theme of protecting those who could not protect themselves. Promise Keepers gave speakers from the International Justice Mission, a nonprofit that attempts to end modern-day slavery, and Compassion International, a nonprofit that allows those who donate to sponsor a child living in poverty, a chance to share how attendees could protect those that their nonprofits fought for. Additionally, keynote speakers such as Donald Burgs Jr. focused on rescuing the victims of injustice.

Man as a Warrior for God:

Roughly half of the keynote addresses over the weekend asked attendees to be a warrior for God, but Samuel Rodriguez, pastor and president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, focused on the topic most heavily. Rodriguez described attendees as hidden warriors called to come out from where they are and change the world. Speakers throughout the weekend focused on rallying attendees to fight for God.

Expelling Evil:

While speakers differed on what exactly the evil they were speaking about was, they all wanted attendees to rid themselves of it. Some speakers passionately pleaded that attendees rid themselves of depression. For others, the evil of choice was racism or inequality. For one speaker, evil was found in relativism and cancel culture. While specific evils varied, nearly every speaker wanted attendees to focus on ending the evil surrounding them.

An overview of the event to provide a more detailed explanation of what happened seems prudent.

Overview:

The conference opened with video messages from Ronnie Floyd, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Doug Clay, and Bill McCartney, the founder of Promise Keepers. Christian musician Cody Carnes led attendees in a combination worship time and concert, as he primarily performed his own songs. After some announcements by Harrison and Dabbs, the first speaker took the podium.

Jonathan Evans, chaplain for the Dallas Cowboys and former NFL fullback, spoke first. Evans focused on submission. He noted that most of the attendees wanted the women in their life to submit to them, but were not themselves willing to submit. Jesus spent his life submitting and, in Evans’ words, “our culture is suffering because of man's unwillingness to suffer.” God commands the suffering that leads to God’s good work. Men want a legacy, and the only way to do so is to follow God seriously. Men take God casually while wanting his blessing, but God says that blessed is the man who fears God.

The most touching moment during Evans’ talk happened when Evans’ microphone began to fail. In a stadium that seats over 100,000, a microphone is paramount, and attendees began to loudly pray for Evans’ microphone. The microphone faltered for a few more seconds, before working for the rest of Evans’ speech, and the rest of the weekend.

After Evans, Donald Burgs Jr. spoke. Burgs, a pastor and author, addressed what he called the ugly elephant in the room: racism, human trafficking, and all manners of oppression. Burgs announced triumphantly that change is possible, which was met by a hearty amen from attendees, before asking attendees to join in the struggle and join those who are depressed and oppressed by actively working to protect others.

Burgs responded by telling those in attendance that “this is not a time to be politically correct.” He wanted attendees to know that God loves justice and compassion while hating injustice and those who are not compassionate. Burgs asked attendees to, “atone your ears and atone your heart to the whispering cries of those in need,” before stressing the need for courage, not niceness. In Burgs, all three themes of the conference are present.

After Burgs, Kennedy Krezi spoke. He was a recipient of aid from Compassion International and currently works as an engineer in the United States military. He told a story about his life in Mathare, a slum in Nairobi, Kenya. Repeatedly, he told those watching that he knew “by the time I was 16, I would be dead or I would be in prison.” Yet, Compassion sponsors decided to help him at the age of 7. Krezi went from eating once every four days to four times a day. Now, he asks attendees to help people like him and protect the oppressed. Promise Keepers handed out hundreds of packets, each corresponding with a child that someone could help sponsor.

In response to Krezi’s story, Dabbs reminded attendees that Promise Keepers is more than just an event. “It is a movement,” and attendees can be an ambassador, member or champion.

The final speaker of Friday night was Nick Vujicic. Vujicic is the founder of the organization Life Without Limbs and is also a bestselling author. He has a habit of breaking out into song midway through his sentences and, most strikingly, has no arms or legs. Vujicic is like no other speaker, and he leans into that persona by immediately telling attendees that he thought he would have no children because he had no limbs. He then cut to a picture of his wife and children.

Vujicic promised that when attendees give their brokenness to God, he will do great things for them. To illustrate this point, Vujicic told a story about a time that he was asked to speak to the Ukrainian government on the 500th anniversary of the reformation. He had them get on their knees and pray for forgiveness. If, Vujicic pled, Americans would only do the same thing, America would experience great revival.

Vujicic then asked attendees to fight for God. “If you don’t get a miracle, you can still be a miracle for somebody else.” Vujicic asked attendees to help the homeless, foster parents, and not simply go to church once a week. With this, Vujicic initiated an altar call, to which about 300 men went forward. Vujicic initiates the altar call alongside a QR code that takes people to a 21-day guide to new believers and a promise that if you believe in God, you will be saved. Dabbs asked attendees to take Promise Keepers into church, and day one ends.

Day two opened with Dabbs introducing musician Tauren Wells. Wells, with a commanding stage presence and regal voice, led attendees in worship.

After Wells, Carter Conlin, lead pastor of Times Square Church and host of It's Time To Pray, spoke. Conlin wanted attendees to leave the conference in a mighty, warrior-like way, like King David. For Conlin, with the help of Jesus, attendees could leave the conference standing above their greatest struggles, such as depression and pornography. Conlin described a battle that Jesus had already won before he tossed a football to a child in attendance. The child spiked the ball into the ground, and Conlin exited, having once again hammered home the ideas of battle and expelling evil.

Jerry Boykin, retired three-star general and member of the Delta Force, then had an opportunity to speak. Boykin’s message: “God did not save you so that you would go to heaven, he saved you so that you could be a warrior in his army.”

Boykin told a story about a time in 1983 that he went to Grenada to prevent the Russians and Cubans from building nuclear weapons. While there, Boykin was hit by a gun in his torso, and the doctors told him that they would have to remove his arm. God told Boykin that he would heal him, and Boykin kept his arm.

For Boykin, there is pain that humans do not understand on this earth, and the only solution is to not sit on the sidelines anymore, but to “work for God as a warrior.”

After a brief panel from four NFL hall of farmers, David Harris briefly spoke on the importance of prayer before giving way to Les Parrott, founder of eHarmony.

Parrott tells attendees that the majority of men do not have close friends. In his words, “if you try to build a relationship with another person before you have done the difficult work of getting healthy on your own, all your relationships become an attempt to complete yourself and they’ll fall flat.” For Parrott, a person’s relationships can only be as healthy as the person is. To get healthy, a person has to understand how God loves you, become authentic, and have empathy.

At the end of his talk, Parrott introduced a tool that he is now selling called the “Better Love Assessment.” The tool is meant to help couples understand how they interact with each other in order to promote intimacy.

With Parrott’s talk done, Phillip Langford of IJM came forward to tell the story of child slavery. He told the story of an attempted rescue of enslaved children in Ghana to great effect. Numerous attendees began crying by the end of the speech.

Next to speak was AR Bernard, founder of the Christian Cultural Center and radio host. Bernard told the story of his conversion from Islam at an altar call many years ago. Afterward, Bernard did not know what to expect from Jesus before realizing that Jesus is character-based and not trait-based. For Bernard, “the institution of Christianity did not save me, Jesus did.”

Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, spoke next. Rodriguez told attendees that they were hidden warriors. For Rodriguez, hidden warriors come out from where they are to change the world and thank God for what they have. Rodriguez told attendees that “when you know who you are in Christ, you will never be held back by where you are in life.”

After a few political sidebars—including telling attendees that Jesus “isn’t coming back to a vaccinated church”—Rodriguez reminded attendees that God is all-powerful, before giving way to his mentor, James Robison.

Robison, president of LIFE today, briefly told attendees that Jesus did not leave them on earth for the purpose of taking them away from the earth, but that instead, they had a purpose.

Finally, Robert Morris, the senior pastor at Gateway Church, closed with what he called a “brief three point sermon.” He told attendees that they are different. At the same time, however, Satan is the same. Fortunately, for attendees, God is faithful.

With that message, the conference ended, and attendees began to disperse.

Takeaways:

Those who watched the Promise Keepers event or attended the conference likely ended up with a few key takeaways.

Attendance:

The Promise Keeper’s conference featured 30,000 men, all together in one stadium. While COVID-19 understandably decreased attendance to a degree, hearing that many men singing together was a unique experience. That many men seeking to follow God is exciting to see.

Passion:

One thing that Promise Keepers did an excellent job at, was stirring up passion within its attendees. Grown men fell on their faces in prayer to God, with others falling to their knees in the middle of the football field. Seeing adults behave with this clear awe of God and how he works was moving, and Promise Keepers did an excellent job of creating that emotion.

Failure to Go Small:

As mentioned earlier, Promise Keepers’ best path forward was to focus on community, whether through Fire Teams, the member program, or their app. Unfortunately, Promise Keepers has not yet reached a point where they were able to focus on long term relationship building. The effort is admirable, but continued change needs to be a focus.

As a whole, Promise Keepers pulled off an amazing feat in even hosting a conference of this magnitude. This was their biggest event in over fifteen years and, from a technical standpoint, it went excellently. Although Promise Keepers has work to do, a new focus on community is exciting to see.