There comes a moment in every old-fashioned tent revival when the preacher has to get the people out of their seats.
After convincing worshippers they face a spiritual crisis, after offering them hope for a righteous triumph, after building the struggle to a Titanic, emotional climax that depends on each and every person’s next move - then it is time for action.
For the evangelical men’s movement Promise Keepers, that moment was this weekend.
Harnessing seven years of preaching about the decline of church and family morality, the Promise Keepers made a grand altar call that drew hundreds of thousands of devoted and emotional men to the National Mall.
In size and focus, it was an assembly unlike any other in American religion, one that had even the jaded locals blinking in surprise.
But as the Promise Keepers’ fleets of charter buses dispersed, rumbling back to the far corners of the country, the question lingered behind them: What comes next?
Will “Stand in the Gap: A Sacred Assembly” become a warm memory, a sort of anti-Woodstock that fades to wistful nostalgia? Or can the Promise Keepers channel that energy into something more lasting?
Bill McCartney, the former football coach who founded and still holds sway over the Promise Keepers, gave his answer Saturday evening, as the shadows began to lengthen on the Mall.
“When you are born again, you’re born into spiritual gifts,” McCartney said, rocking the acrylic lectern in front of him. “You can’t sit on those gifts! You can’t squander them!”
McCartney’s plan is to hold two more years of stadium events devoted to bringing in new followers, then assemble thousands of men representing churches from across the nation on the steps of each state capitol on New Year’s Day 2000.
Racism will be declared dead, the coach said, and unity will be achieved across the Christian church. Then Promise Keepers will turn its attention to the rest of the world.
But even McCartney’s strategy suggests some of the difficulty in keeping an emotional revival rolling.
The 18 stadium events and 19 arena events planned for 1998 mark a slightly less ambitious schedule than the past two years. Moreover, these events now will be free of charge. Admission was $60 in the past.
Stadium attendance dropped dramatically from 1996 to 1997, but the Promise Keepers said that was because potential attendees were sitting them out in favor of a trip to “Stand in the Gap.” The new plan is a tacit admission that men might have stayed away from costly events in years to come as well.
But it is also a declaration that the Promise Keepers will not go away any time soon.
“A movement collapses if emotion is the only thing going for it,” said Robert Wuthnow, director of the Center for the Study of American Religion at Princeton University. “It survives if it has an infrastructure, and Promise Keepers has an infrastructure.”
The Promise Keepers took in $96million last year, and employed a staff of 510 people early this year. The precipitous drop in stadium revenue this summer forced the organization to cut more than 100 jobs, but as the overflowing trash barrels used to collect donations Saturday suggest, Promise Keepers still can draw upon considerable resources.
Although its style is new, Wuthnow said Promise Keepers fits well within the American tradition of evangelical eruptions, a tradition that also has spawned ongoing revivals in Pensacola, Fla., and Toronto.
“You can find examples of that in every decade,” Wuthnow said.
Whether that translates into the “next Great Awakening,” as many Promise Keepers have suggested, remains to be seen.
Scholars identify three major waves of revivalism in American history, beginning with the first Great Awakening in the 1740s. Some historians credit that movement, which grew up in Calvinist churches, with putting an emphasis on individual conscience over obedience to authority, and setting the stage for the Revolutionary War.
The Second Great Awakening, in the 1830s, was another grass-roots movement within existing churches, and it, too, had significant social effect. Along with strengthening Protestant churches in general, some tie the religious groundswell to the abolitionist movement that swept the Northeast at the same time.
A third notable movement, which grew out of the Asuza Street revival in Los Angeles, helped create Pentecostal Christianity in America in the early years of the 20th century.
Wuthnow said the Promise Keepers movement has yet to show that kind of broad or lasting effect, despite plenty of current commentary - and high hopes among believers - that a new religiosity is sweeping the nation.
“As a sociologist, I look at a lot of polls and surveys tracking peoples’ beliefs and church attendance and so forth,” Wuthnow said. “All of those are pretty flat.”
For the Promise Keepers to dent that evidence, it will have to set down permanent roots in the home churches of its followers - a point that its leadership has stressed for years, and reiterated throughout Saturday’s assembly.
That, in turn, will depend on how men like Nick Lopresti, who traveled to the assembly with a group from Church of the Cross in Hoffman Estates, Ill., react to what they saw and felt Saturday.
Lopresti, who is a police officer and firefighter in Glencoe, Ill., beamed as he stood on the Mall and recalled the ride down to Washington.
“It was spectacular. All the way down, everywhere we went, we were passing buses full of guys praising the Lord,” he said. “And look at our group. We’ve got the computer whizzes and the plumbers and the carpenters, everybody. It gives me goose bumps.”