Leaders of the Evangelical Generation #27: Bill McCartney. Man’s Man

[I am working on a project that may become a book on the most influential evangelicals leaders of our generation, since 1976, and the impact they’ve had on the church and their times. I will introduce them briefly on this blog from time to time].

#27 Bill McCartney. Man’s Man. b.1940

In October 1997, well over a million Christian men crowded onto the Washington Mall to sing, pray and listen to inspirational and emotional charges to lead godly lives as fathers, husbands, and leaders. Promise Keepers’ Stand in the Gap (SITG), perhaps the largest religious gathering in American history, was a historic phenomenon and the high water mark of Promise Keepers and the career of its president, Bill McCartney.

There are millions of men and families who benefited from McCartney’s courage and the unwavering biblical teaching in the masculine stadium settings and from in–your-face teaching of the Promise Keepers stadium events. There had never been anything like 50,000 men gathering in a sports stadium to celebrate their faith and hear hard teachings about the way they should lead their lives as Christian men. SITG was the culmination of these events; like 100 stadium events at once.

In many ways, Bill McCartney was the personification of PK, and its dramatic history is a reflection of the red-hot persona of the former high-level football coach and his stubborn single-mindedness. The heights to which the PK movement soared and the speed of its ascent may be without parallel, the drama of which is matched only by its nearly total collapse within two years of the Washington gathering.
Promise Keepers is a symbol of evangelical conquest of one of its greatest problems—the failure to reach and persuade men—and a sad symbol of bad management based on careless theology.

A few days before the great SITG gathering, I took Bill McCartney to Washington television studios to do network television interviews, including a memorable time at ABC News. The sheer size of SITG made it impossible for media to ignore, although they were clearly inclined to dismiss a religious gathering on the Mall, where dozens of groups hold large rallies every year. Since McCartney was the straight-talking founder of the group and a former coach of the national champion Colorado football team, there was strong interest in interviewing him.

One interview was on ABC Nightline with Ted Koppel, which was taped in the afternoon and aired at late night. While the interview was fine and fair, the memorable part of the visit was prior to the taping. We arrived well in advance of the interview and we were relaxing in the comfortable chairs of the green room. McCartney was reading his Bible when Koppel entered the room and greeted us warmly. “What are you reading?” Koppel asked, and McCartney reviewed the passage that he was studying. Koppel listened thoughtfully, then added: “Let me share with you a little of my daily reading in the Torah.” At which point he pulled a copy of the scripture from his briefcase, read a few passages and had a brief discussion with McCartney about spiritual truths.

I’d taken Christian leaders into hundreds of news offices and green rooms over the years, and I’d never had a mainstream news anchor sit for a personal discussion, open the scripture and discuss spiritual things. I’d always found Koppel to be a serious, fair, quality newsman. This experience gave me a new level of respect.

It was part of a remarkable week in Washington for McCartney, Promise Keepers, and the evangelical movement in America.

Jim Jewell


About Jim Jewell

I am a writer and consultant on faith and public life, active for many years in management and communications in the evangelical community. I now work as the director of the nonprofit practice at The Valcort Group (www.valcort.com). Everything on this blog, however, is my personal opinion and is not read or approved before it is posted. Opinions, conclusions and other information expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of Valcort.
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