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Promise Keepers finds international appeal

Kristian Renling, a Swedish missionary, is an international convert to Promise Keepers.

It all began during one of his occasional trips to the United States, when he was drawn to the men's ministry of a Nebraska church that supports his evangelistic efforts.

Once a month, the men from Christ is King Community Church in Norfolk, Neb., gather with men from 19 other congregations to hear a speaker, share a meal and worship together.

"It was incredible to see men open up and share some of their needs and be vulnerable and in tears and others encouraging them," Renling said.

The men in that ministry also were involved in Promise Keepers, a burgeoning evangelical men's organization that until now has mostly been limited to the United States.

But no longer. In February, Promise Keepers executives introduced their organization as an "international Christian men's ministry" as they officially announced their "Stand in the Gap" rally that they hope will bring multitudes of men to Washington in October.

The organization already has three affiliates abroad _ in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Men from other countries, including Renling, now hope to establish additional international Promise Keepers affiliates.

Some men in other countries say they don't expect to immediately attract the huge numbers that Promise Keepers has drawn in the United States, where more than 1-million men attended the organization's rallies in 1996. But they do believe the ministry's call for greater dedication to God, family and church needs to be heeded by men living in other nations.

"We are hoping that men will be all that God wants them to be and to reach out and to live these promises and to participate and encourage the church," said Renling, who has set up an interdenominational group called Loftes Bararna, which means "Promise Bearers" in Swedish.

Promise Keepers USA president Randy Phillips said his organization's international efforts have been his primary focus since December. Promise Keepers is "at various stages of relationship" with men from more than 40 countries, he said.

"I'm hoping that what God is doing here in the USA is going to be multiplied a hundred times over in other countries all around the world," Phillips said.

Affiliating with Promise Keepers can take more than a year, said national spokesman Steve Chavis. During 1997, the organization expects to form affiliation agreements with six to eight groups outside the United States.

Ministry officials say they are intentionally working to prevent Promise Keepers events abroad from looking just like the American version.

"It would be arrogant for us to believe that because we've had some expertise and some experience here in our own country that that would be immediately transferable to any other country in Africa or Asia or South America or anywhere else," Phillips said. "You must allow others to take the lead and allow them the freedom of contextualizing the message."

But men from across the globe have been coming to see how Promise Keepers operates American-style.

Rod Readhead, an evangelist from England, arrived at a Promise Keepers stadium event in Dallas in 1995, believing "anything coming out of America could not possibly be relevant to the United Kingdom."

Calling his feelings "a prejudice of mine without foundation," Readhead said he had changed his mind by the time he left Dallas. "I was greatly impressed by these men by having the opportunity to speak with them on a personal level," he said.

Like Renling, Readhead set up a national team of leaders from denominations and other ministries to study whether British men would find Promise Keepers "culturally relevant." They held sessions called "Menmeet" at 21 locations in England and Scotland to test reaction to Promise Keepers' ideals.

Their conclusion: "We felt the core concept of Promise Keepers was and is relevant to the men in the United Kingdom," Readhead said.

Promise Keepers Canada became the first international affiliate in 1995. About 20,000 men attended three events in hockey arenas in the fall of 1996 that were sponsored by the group. Six more events are planned for 1997.

Nancy Nason-Clark, a sociology professor at Canada's University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, said that because Canadians have less religious involvement in general than do Americans, she does not believe the movement will ever grow to the size of its U.S. counterpart.

"My sense is that it probably never will be as strong as it is in the United States, but nevertheless there could be a sizable movement in the future," she said.

Although Promise Keepers' rallies get the most publicity in the United States, men involved with similar ministries abroad are initially focusing on smaller gatherings.

Renling attended the Promise Keepers' Clergy Conference for Men in Atlanta in 1996 and was struck less by the crowd of 39,000 than by the event's emphasis on men having one-on-one relationships.

"It's good for two or three days to get together in a big conference, but the year has 365 days and you need one another," Renling said.

Men's ministries are new in Sweden, where men make up about one-third of most congregations, he said. Renling's Loftes Bararna has gathered groups of 60 to 70 men for inspirational breakfasts.

Loftes Bararna "will be more concentrating on the small group and one-on-one than these big gatherings, even though we're hoping to have these big gatherings," Renling said.

In Britain, Readhead said he doesn't expect to see stadium events "for a good number of years."

"Our vision is not necessarily for stadiums full of men, although I personally have a vision to see (London's) Wembley Stadium full, which is 100,000 men," he said.