More than 52,000 men paid $55 apiece for a seat at RFK Stadium and the secrets to becoming a successful modern man: Don't cheat on your wife or your taxes, hug other men, kiss the children, read the Bible at bedtime and invest in God.

A burgeoning Christian men's movement called Promise Keepers has made saving souls a masculine pursuit -- especially for men inclined to believe that church is the province of women and children. Promise Keepers packed RFK stadium for 13 1/2 hours of preaching, praying and hymn singing on Friday night and all day yesterday; the group expects to draw half a million men to stadium-sized events in 13 cities this year.

"You don't come here and feel like you're losing your masculinity because of your faith," said Tom Berlin, 31, pastor of Toms Brook United Methodist Church in the Shenandoah Valley.

Surveying the crowd, Berlin marveled that while every small worship group he has started in his church drew about "10 women and two men," he had no trouble rounding up 15 men for the Promise Keepers weekend. "Here, you come hear male role models, real men," Berlin said. "Most men are looking for role models, for heroes."

Promise Keepers has caught on like a tent revival in summer since former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney and a friend first envisioned filling sports stadiums with men rooting for Jesus to seize their souls. The first conference in Boulder in 1991 drew about 4,200 disciples. It remained a Colorado event until last year, when Promise Keepers visited seven cities, attracting 278,000 men.

This year the group has already sold out tickets to seven of its 13 events. The Washington, D.C., weekend is the first and only event scheduled for the East Coast. Until now, Promise Keepers has been a bigger phenomenon in the South and the West, strongholds of conservative evangelical Christianity.

Few religious revivals have such reach. The event here drew lunch-bucket men and expense-account men, white carpenters and black CPAs, teenagers and grandfathers. They wore ponytails and buzz cuts, cowboy boots and Birkenstocks. They arrived on the Metro and Harley-Davidson motorcycles, in charter buses and minivans.

"You came here empty. You came here confused. Your buddies brought you," evangelist Luis Palau told the crowd, his image projected on screens flanking the stage, "and suddenly you make your decision to say, Jesus be my God' . . . and think of the change in your life. Your wife is going to notice. Your kids are going to notice."

They stood and sang the words, "I'm not a creature of brute chance or lies. . . . Now as His man, I'm destined for the skies." They had learned the hymns from the cassette tapes mailed to them in advance with their conference registration packets. The tunes were an intentionally multiracial mix of gospel, traditional and salsa, and most men sang heartily, some in T-shirts saying, "A real man sings REAL LOUD."

"A real man, a man's man, is a Godly man," said McCartney, the founder of Promise Keepers, speaking at the kick-off news conference. "A real man is a man of substance, a man that's vulnerable, a man who loves his wife, a man that has a passion for God, and is willing to lay down his life for Him."

The Promise Keepers staff and budget have doubled every six months for the last four years, peaking now at 150 people on a $22 million budget. Their operators take orders for New Man magazine, books on living Godly lives, cassettes and CDs and Promise Keepers golf shirts and baseball caps.

Some 65,000 men have filled out commitment cards vowing to keep the "Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper" -- honor Jesus Christ; have close male friends; practice spiritual, moral, and sexual purity; be faithful to wife and children; support the church; defy racial and denominational barriers; and go out and encourage the world to do the same.

The genius of Promise Keepers "is the disciplined lifestyle they set before these men as a challenge," said Robert M. Franklin, director of black church studies at Emory University's Candler School of Theology. "Men like tests, they like competition, so there's this dynamic at work."

"They make demands on these men, and they provide significant psychological rewards," Franklin said. "There's the conferring of a kind of nobility, of being on the right side, that makes them different from all the men who are indifferent to their spouses and children."

Before the stadium gates opened, 50 women made rounds praying over each seat and anointing each one with oil. But once the gates opened, all women disappeared but a few volunteers and concession stand workers, and signs saying "men's" were posted on the women's restrooms.

But it wasn't a football atmosphere. "It's amazing how you can walk through here and no one's drinking beer and no one's swearing," said Andy Ziegenfuss, 18, a high school senior from Allentown, Pa.

"There's no competition here," said Rich Church, 49, a computer salesman from Woodstock, Va. "There's no women here, so you don't have to impress anyone. Too many guys are caught up in a male ego kind of thing. This is going to put them on the same level."

Promise Keepers asks women simply to stay away from the rallies. "Something special happens when men come together in the name of Jesus Christ," the group's brochures say. "We have discovered that men are more apt to hear and receive the full instruction of the sessions when they are within an all-male setting."

In the District, the group's gender-exclusive event in a publicly owned stadium breaks no laws, said Randy Thomas, attorney consultant for the D.C. Sports Commission. The city's human rights provision, which bars discrimination, makes exceptions for religious or political organizations that limit admission to promote the principles of their cause, Thomas said.

Some women's groups criticize Promise Keepers, but not for holding men-only events. "The problem is the message . . . that men must take back control of the family, be the head, the boss," said Rosemary Dempsey, national action vice president of the National Organization for Women, in an interview last week. "It's a not-very-well-cloaked misogynistic message."

Critics cite a passage from the book "Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper" by Tony Evans, directed to men who have abandoned or ignored their families. "I'm not suggesting that you ask for your role back; I'm urging that you take it back. . . . Treat the lady gently and lovingly. But lead."

Promise Keepers President Randy T. Phillips said that Evans really teaches that what a man has to "take back is not a dominant role of hierarchical husband and father, but {to become} a man who's concerned, with passion and sensitivity, who is listening to his wife and kids."

The group also has been tainted with the tinge of politics since founder McCartney supported Amendment 2 in Colorado, an anti-gay rights initiative, and held a news conference in which he called gays undeserving of the same legal rights as "people who reproduce." He also has spoken out against abortion.

The group's leaders insist that Promise Keepers is about evangelism, not politics. But there is no doubt that Promise Keepers is part of the pantheon of conservative Christian, morally absolutist cultural and political groups converging in this country, said W. Stephen Gunter, professor at the Candler School of Theology.

Most of the speakers selected to preach at Promise Keepers events "are very conservative," Gunter said. "A large number would be Republican in their political inclinations, or if they are not Republican they would be fiscally conservative."

The group planned a men's march on Washington for 1996 -- a presidential election year -- but rescheduled it for 1997 to avoid the appearance of political intent.

The men at RFK stadium yesterday talked not of politics but about personal struggles to change careers, overcome addictions, handle their anger, or to remain disciplined Christians. The evangelists on the stage talked consistently of commitment to God.

Asked to huddle in small prayer groups and share their prayers with one another, many men turned in their seats to faces they did not know. They prayed in clusters for several long minutes, some holding hands, some with arms looped over shoulders, some standing distant with hands in their pockets or hooked on belt loops. And when they broke apart, the men shook hands, or hugged, and many wiped tears from their eyes. One punched the air with his fist. CAPTION: More than 52,000 men paid $55 apiece for a seat at RFK Stadium and the chance to hear and pray about becoming a successful modern man. CAPTION: At the instruction of a speaker at Promises Keeper's rally, some 52,000 men put their hands on the shoulders of men in front of them at RFK Stadium. CAPTION: Bob Pyott of New Jersey gestures as he prays during rally at RFK stadium.