"Promise Keepers, eh? Nice. Have a good public cry for me."
That was the response from a friend of mine who wondered if Erin and I wanted to hang out last Saturday. I told him I couldn't because I'd be at Promise Keepers in Cleveland and he responded with the above barb. I have to admit that it did elicit a genuine guffaw. Because it rings true. There is a certain kind of overly open and emotive guy who seems drawn to PK--the kind of guy for whom everything is cause for a big, fat-roll-maneuvering, tear-and-snot-soaked hug. I'm pretty sure these guys think Jesus was constantly making sobby confessions and praying out earnest blessings on every random thing like God was working on straight commission. Having read the Gospels a couple hundred times, I just don't see it.
All the same, I love Promise Keepers. My dad brought me to my first event at the Silverdome in 1995 and I've gone now to 13 events plus the Stand In the Gap gathering in Washington DC. The format and focus of PK has changed through the years, but I still get the same vibe that I did at the very beginning.
However, having spent a decade entrenched in super-sacred academia and a few years after that constantly retreating to my ivory tower of exegesis and systematic theology, I approach preaching a little bit differently than I did when I was seventeen. When I listen to others' preaching, I can't help but analyze. I don't mean that I'm counting verbal ticks and monitoring eye contact; I can let that stuff slide. I mean I've got my heresy radar set to "hyper-sensitive." And, believe me, I've heard plenty of heresies at PK over the years. Everything from a former weatherman encouraging the entire stadium full of men to repeat the words, "My heart is not wicked!" with him (shudder) to a retired football coach equating the Gospel with "telling God you want him to be your daddy."
This year's event was relatively heresy-free. Mike Silva gave a tremendous Gospel presentation (complete with sin, hell, cross, and blood) and at least two hundred men went forward (yeah, I know the altar call smacks of Finneyism, but who can even hear themselves think judgmental thoughts over the roar of Heaven rejoicing for these precious souls turning to Christ in repentance?) I heard one of the greatest communicators I've ever had the pleasure of hearing (his name is Bill Butterworth) and some good stuff on fatherhood (which is obviously on my mind these days). In fact, of seven speakers, only one was a dud.
There was some Law/Gospel confusion, but you have that in almost every pulpit in the country. My main critique would be that, had everyone simply redacted the word "personal" each time it was used, not only would their presentations have all been tighter, but we'd have left ninety minutes earlier and I'd have had more time to fine-tune my sermon for Sunday morning. Also, I missed Brad Stine. I really, really missed Brad Stine.
I know it's weird that I, a theologically conservative, Calvinistic, confessional, Reformed Baptist, still love these ubertestosteroned, trying-too-hard-to-be-relevant, revivalist conferences long after the fad has died and its ashes scattered in the river of pop-Christianity. But so what?
I saw the front of the arena swarmed with men seeking prayer for marriages that were hanging by a thread. I saw a hundred men go forward for prayer because they're struggling with loneliness. I suppose they were perpetuating some PK stereotype by crying, but I couldn't care less. I keep remembering one particular fat, awkward guy, waddling his way back to his seat after that prayer. It was clear that he had come to the event all by himself. But he wasn't alone at all after that. The men around him prayed with him, hugged him, exchanged information. And I keep praying for him. How corny, right? Unless you're that guy. Or unless Jesus died for that guy.
Sure, Promise Keepers is somewhat contrived. Sure, it's over-produced. Sure, it's full of shows of emotion that would normally be considered embarrassing (I saw some dancing that made the RNC delegates look like Usher). But,hey, Michal was embarrassed by David's show of emotion before the ark too.
If I could change just one thing, though, I'd have replaced the last speaker. I heard him last year in Cincinnati. And the year before that in Grand Rapids. Same sermon. Same video. Same jokes. Same self-aggrandizing. Same do-it-yourself religion. Three years in a row.
Who would I replace him with? Oh, I dunno. How about...me.
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