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Grass-Roots Men's Ministries Growing

Attracting men to church means having "goal-oriented activities" and "hands-on work," Brinton said. "When men are pushed or even made uncomfortable by a challenge, they respond in a positive way. The key to success is not to lower the bar . . . but to build challenges into the life of the church that cause them to respond."

National coalition spokesman Clemmer added: "We say that women relate face-to-face and men relate shoulder-to-shoulder. In other words . . . men prefer space and activity, and they . . . develop their relationships through shared experiences -- not necessarily, or at least not first, through talking."

At an early-morning men's Bible study at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, Eric Tibbets focuses on a prayer after giving a talk. (James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)

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As a result, effective men's ministries often involve sports activities that precede prayer, spiritual reflection and sharing concerns. "The activities make it easier to talk about the main issue," Clemmer said. "They make guys comfortable."

Officials at Promise Keepers, which has reached about 5.6 million men in more than 14 years of ministry, say that helping churches develop men's ministries was always part of the movement's work and remains a priority.

"Of all the things churches try to do . . . ministry to men is one of the hardest, because men are inherently and doggedly isolated," said Promise Keepers national spokesman Steve Chavis.

Promise Keepers was founded in 1990 by former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney and his friend Dave Wardell, a Christian activist. Their idea was to help men be faithful to their Christian ideals by offering the tangible, emotional support of their peers, principally through two-day gatherings in outdoor football stadiums. In the organization's peak year of 1996, 1.1 million men attended 22 such events.

Participants were asked to commit to keeping seven promises: honor Jesus Christ; pursue "vital relationships with a few other men" for spiritual support; practice "spiritual, moral, ethical and sexual purity"; build strong marriages and families; support churches; reach beyond racial and denominational barriers; and commit to influencing the world in line with Jesus's command to make disciples of all nations.

The organization was criticized by some denominations and women's groups for what they saw as encouragement to men to be the dominant leader in their family, consigning women to a submissive role.

Flush with the success of "Stand in the Gap," McCartney talked of expanding overseas. At the same time, the movement stopped charging entry fees for its stadium events, which sent it into a financial tailspin. Chavis said the organization's staff, once about 500, is down to about 100.

It also began using smaller indoor arenas instead of stadiums as attendance dropped. In 2003, when only 172,000 men went to 18 arena events, McCartney resigned as president and Thomas S. Fortson Jr. was named his successor.

Fees, currently $89, were reinstated in 2000, but attendance began to pick up only last year, with 179,000 men going to 18 events, according to the group's Web site. This year, 20 events are planned; the closest one is in Philadelphia in June.

The movement also recently announced that it is bringing back its ambassador program, in which regional representatives connect with churches, offering help in rejuvenating or starting men's ministries.

The ambassadors are men such as Harry T. Fogle, who is a liaison with churches in Carroll County, Md., where he is an assistant superintendent of schools and a member of Sunrise Community Church in Westminster.

"Promise Keepers has been the fuel that kept my fires burning," said Fogle, who attended "Stand in the Gap" and who has bought his ticket for this year's event in Philadelphia on June 24 and 25.

"Through Promise Keepers, I'm able to make contact with a lot of men who attend church but who don't understand what it's all about," Fogle said. "It gives me an opportunity to share with them in an open and honest way the issues of life and how the Bible can be used as [the] guide to direct their path."

Dwight Benjamin, a network administrator for Prince George's County schools and a member of Cornerstone Peaceful Bible Baptist Church in Upper Marlboro, said that he is less active in Promise Keepers now but that the movement had a lasting personal impact on him.

"It opened me up to a different concept of men's fellowship," said Benjamin, one that involves "challenging one another, becoming accountability partners, confessing to one another."

Recently, Granger and five friends set up a Web site, I-was-there.info, with the aim of finding every man who was at "Stand in the Gap." The goal, he said, is to see if there is sufficient interest in restaging the Mall event on its 10th anniversary. If so, "we're going to give that to Promise Keepers as a gift," Granger said.

Spokesman Chavis said Promise Keepers is not trying to stir up interest in another Mall rally.

"It was a moment in time," he said. "It was special."

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