FamilyLife began in 1976 as a marriage preparation ministry within Campus Crusade for Christ and no vision to take it further. But God had other plans. Dennis and Barbara Rainey recall 13 highlights from 40 years of FamilyLife.
Listen to Dennis and Barbara talk about FamilyLife's 40th anniversary on the FamilyLife Today interviews from which this article is adapted.
Milestone #1: A spiritual awakening on campus
"Those were electric days to be alive."
Dennis: I came to the University of Arkansas at the beginning of a spiritual awakening in my life. As I look back on it, it was a life-altering decision where I chose to go to college. Because it was there where I started to take my first spiritual baby steps at following Christ in the midst of a university that was not all that friendly to faith. But there was a large faith movement—followers of Christ were alive and well. As Barbara and I were students there and good friends, we enjoyed seeing God do some great things at the university.
Barbara: It was because of Campus Crusade for Christ that I became a Christian. I would have said I was a Christian had anyone asked me, but I didn't understand what that meant. And it was at a Bible study, led by a girl I had met, where I learned what it meant to be a Christian. I heard I needed to invite Christ into my life, and I had never heard that concept before. I thought because you went to church you were a Christian. So I went back to my dorm room and re-read the little booklet she had given me and decided, This is what I've been looking for all my life. And so I invited Christ into my life.
And from the next day on, I was at every Bible study they ever had. I went to every conference I heard about. I was just this dry, dry sponge that soaked up every word, every activity. It was all so new and refreshing and wonderful. And within a year I was leading a small group of girls, I had learned to give my testimony, I had learned to share my faith.
Dennis: I was being recruited to join a fraternity, and I said, "I'm on a mission to represent Christ." So I joined one and immediately purchased Bibles and passed them out to my pledge brothers. I invited speakers to the fraternity to speak about the relevance of Christianity. Barbara and I and a fraternity brother she was dating formed a group called "Radicals for Christ." We published an underground newspaper and tried to make Christ the issue on campus. We ran Christ for "student body president and resident of your life."
I was part of University Baptist Church, where 25 percent of the student body went to church, and HD McCarty was the pastor. Together with what was then called Campus Crusade for Christ, and is now Cru, we did a good job of making Christ relevant and the issue on campus: Where do you stand with Him? He is the one who is the way, the truth, and the life.
We also met Don and Sally Meredith, who were working as staff members with Cru at the U of A. Sally was the one who led Barbara to Christ, and Don took me under his wing and mentored me and discipled me. He was teaching a class about marriage and family, talking about how God had a design for marriage and family, and how we needed to be holy, how we needed to be following God and making Christ the center of our lives, and doing what He tells us to do. And I think there were some areas where I wasn't doing that.
Barbara: They seemed so much older to us, although they really weren't more than a few years older. But they were married and had two kids, and that seemed like a lifetime to me. Because they were discovering about marriage personally, they were discovering about family and what all of that meant, that's what was on their heart so that's what they started teaching. I remembered them teaching about having good, healthy dating relationships, about the purpose for marriage, so they were beginning to plant those seeds in all of us as they were learning themselves.
Dennis: I think there was a genuine spiritual awakening on college campuses in America in those years, and there was definitely one at the University of Arkansas. Those were electric days to be alive. This experience shaped the convictions and priorities of Barbara and me on a personal level. And those same convictions and priorities are at the heart of FamilyLife (which is a part of Cru) all these years later. We still talk about the importance of receiving Christ as your Savior and Lord. Recently we had 48 people receive Christ at a Weekend to Remember® in Nashville out of 700 people there. People are coming to the Weekend to Remember marriage getaways, and in the process they're meeting Jesus. Christ is still doing what He does best—transforming lives.
Bill and Vonette Bright, founders of Campus Crusade for Christ, had a huge impact on the lives of Dennis and Barbara and on FamilyLife.
Dennis: When I was a college student, working over the summer at Arrowhead Springs in California (which was then the headquarters for Campus Crusade for Christ), I went to Bill Bright's office. I can't even remember why I was there. On the corner of his desk was a little wooden placard that had brass words carved out on it, "I'm no grasshopper."
It's from Numbers 13, the story of the nation of Israel after the Exodus from Egypt. Twelve spies were sent into the land God had given to them; two of them, Caleb and Joshua, came back with a minority report that they could take the land God had given to them. But 10 men came back and said, "There are giants in the land, we can't take it." And then the Israelites said, "and we became like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight." I'd say Bill Bright's faith was inspirational, finally realizing it's not how big your faith is, it's how big your God is. And if you believe who God is, and if you believe you can trust Him, and He's in the midst of what you're doing, there's no telling what God can do. And I think the whole ministry of FamilyLife in some ways is a tribute to Bill and Vonette Bright, for inspiring a pair of college kids who weren't married at the time but did know God and learned to trust Him in small ways in college.
Barbara: While we were in college there was a slogan that Bill coined, "Come help change the world." They used it for recruiting—they were recruiting kids like us to join staff and come help change the world. And there was something about hearing that, over and over again, that I really believed I could be a part of changing the world. And I think we all felt that, we all were infected with that disease, that God could use us. We're nobodies, but God is big and He could use us. And so I bought into it, you bought into it, a lot of our friends bought into it, and from then on we felt our lives were going to be significant. And that was before we even thought about getting married.
That has never really left us, the call we heard as college students, to be about life change, and "lives changed will change the world." That desire we had as college students to come help change the world, I think, is a thread that has been woven through everything we've done at FamilyLife. We want to change families, because changed families will change the world.
Dennis: Throughout those years on staff, Bill Bright was infectious in his belief in me and Barbara as a young couple. He told me on occasion, "You don't have any idea how God can use you. Keep trusting. Keep believing."
Barbara: I think his example, and Vonette's, of not quitting and following hard after Christ until the end of their lives, was an inspiration. Knowing they never stepped back, never even moved to part time. Even in their later years when their health was failing, their hearts were still fully devoted to following Christ.
Dennis: I think in our lives we have known a handful of people, not many, who have run all the way to the finish line. And as we get older, there's no question, you go to the bank on that. You take heart because others didn't quit when they could have, or they could have coasted.
Barbara: I love this story about Vonette just days before she died. She was failing and she knew she was failing. She woke up one morning and her question was, "I wonder who God has for me to talk to today, and what does God have for me to do today?" Here she is days away from death, and she knew she was, but she was still thinking, What does God have for me to do today?
That's probably going to be for me an important statement for the rest of my life, to think that she was still thinking about Christ and serving Him until she took her last breath. That's incredibly profound. They've been an influence in our lives for decades, and I think they will continue to be because of how they finished their lives.
Milestone #2: Laying the Foundation
"Marriage is central to what God's doing on planet earth."
Dennis joined the staff of Campus Crusade when he graduated from Arkansas in 1970, and Barbara did the same in 1971. They married in 1972, and worked with Cru for three years with the high school ministry in Dallas, in Boulder, Colo., and as part of a national traveling team. During those years they began to recognize the need for help in marriages and families.
Dennis: Wherever I went it was like a neon light—the family is disintegrating and it's the children who are being impacted. I was naïve, thinking most people came from homes like I grew up in. But the more I rubbed shoulders with people, the more I realized I had an extraordinary childhood where I was allowed to be a child. I was not disrupted by divorce. My parents weren't perfect but they were there, and they loved me and believed in me.
I went to Dallas Theological Seminary for a year and took a special selection of courses—mainly everything that Dr. Howard Hendricks taught about marriage and family. During this same time, God was moving in the leadership of Cru. Ney Bailey was a single staff woman who traveled to different campuses, and she was troubled by the struggles some staff couples were having in their marriages. She pleaded with the Cru national leadership to do something, and they ended up sending her, along with Dave and Sande Sunde, to the Continental Congress on the Family in St. Louis in 1975 (read more on Ney's story here). They were convicted with the need to start premarriage training for engaged couples on the staff of Cru. They called it the "Marriage Preparation and Family Emphasis," and they recruited Don and Sally Meredith to head it up.
When I finished at Dallas Seminary, Don talked with Barbara and me about joining him in Little Rock to help start it. We talked about how there are three relationships in life that people are not good at. One is your relationship with God. Second is your relationship with your spouse, and third is your relationship with your kids, and we thought what a cool idea to help people in those three areas. I just thought it really made sense. The Bible starts with a marriage and ends with a marriage. Marriage is central to what God's doing on planet earth; let's get in this thing and find out what God's up to, and in the process we learned that He was up to a whole lot more than many of us understand through marriage and family.
Barbara: I remember when we made the decision to move to Little Rock, it just was a real easy decision because I knew we could learn about marriage and about parenting. It was as much a selfish motivation for us—we could learn a lot, it would be good for our marriage. That was my reason for wanting to come.
People always assume we did this because we had a vision to change families and change the world. We had a vision for our own family, and obviously we wanted other people to experience what God intended marriage to be about. But we didn't have a vision for creating a ministry to do that.
Dennis: We didn't see what it could become. We didn't have a grand picture of a ministry to 109 countries of the world, and radio, and books …
Dennis and Barbara worked with the Merediths and with Mick and Helen Yoder to create a conference to help single staff members of Cru prepare for marriage.
Dennis: We felt we needed to take the Bible and reduce it down to the fundamentals of what a marriage and family are all about. The staff of Cru were required to go through this conference before they could get married. There were 43 single people at the first conference back in 1976. In addition to speaking, we tried to meet with every couple. Barbara didn't go—we couldn't afford to take our wives. We were up until midnight, 2 o'clock every morning.
We had three conferences the first year … we had about 450 people attend. It was revolutionary for these couples, there was nothing else like it. If you look at what was happening in the culture, marriage and family was beginning to break down in the 70s.
Barbara: During those first few years, you and Mick and Don would go off and do a conference and figure out what worked and what didn't, and then you'd come back and rework the messages. Dennis would say, "This part isn't making sense to people. How can we say it better?" Dennis did a lot of driving to make sure it was easy to comprehend by the audience.
Dennis: I would say it went through hundreds of edits by pastors, theologians, many people. Don birthed it, but it didn't end up being one man's opinion, it was literally dozens of men and women who spoke into it.
It was biblical, practical, and applicational. Howard Hendricks gave us some input that really helped. He had a quote that we used to put at the front of the manual for years, "The body of Christ suffers from a vitamin A deficiency—application." Those kinds of thoughts drove us to simplify everything we were doing.
Milestone #3: Opening Up the Marriage Conferences
"You had a sense that this is where God wanted to be at work."
Dennis: After this first year, these engaged people started to get married. They said, "Can we come back as married people?" We said, "No!" Some of them came anyway. I think we had four or five conferences the next year. We finally gave up and said, "Okay, bring your family and friends."
When they came back as married people and they said, "You really changed the conference, didn't you?"
I said, "We've improved it, but what's changed is you've moved from the idealism and romanticism of engagement to the real thing. You've changed, and you now have ears to hear that you didn't have before."
I'll never forget a couple came up to me who had been married for 40 years. He said, "I wish we had heard about this 40 years ago. Our marriage would have been different today if we had received this training." I remember thinking, "God's with us. Keep going." And we did.
Don and Sally Meredith left FamilyLife in 1978 to begin another ministry, and Dennis Rainey was named director. As the conferences began to grow in size and number, they recognized the need to develop a team of speakers.
Dennis: This is the genius of how God does stuff. Somehow in our young age, we had enough sense to realize, if we build this around us as a couple, it could crush us in our marriage and family, and you would miss out on different people's perspective of teaching this material through their lives. And so we built a speaker team. Initially it was a very small team. By 1980 and 1981 you began to see us expand this little ministry out to eight, to 12, 16 conferences around the country. And people came—it did not matter who was speaking. I can't tell you how liberating it was. I can show you the spot in the road where Barbara and I were on a date on a Friday night, and we knew a conference was taking place with about 500-600 people, and we weren't there! We turned to each other and said, "This is fantastic! It doesn't have to be built around us."
At some point it became evident these conferences are filled with people who don't know Jesus Christ. They're coming because they don't know how to do marriage and family God's way, and they're looking for help and hope. Somewhere in the mid 80s this conference became a great outreach and still is today to share the claims of Christ with people who don't know Him. Over the years there have been over a hundred thousand people who have come to faith at the marriage getaway, coming to the conference hoping to find help for their marriage but finding the true help for their life, Jesus Christ.
We started growing 20, 30, 40 percent a year. It was God doing it. Most of our conferences were 500-700, some over a thousand. You had a sense that this is where God wanted to be at work. In 1986 we had our largest conference to that point, with nearly 3000 people in Dallas.
We had hundreds of volunteers helping us, staff started coming here, more speakers came on board. What a privilege to be a spectator. Looking back on the history of this thing, Barbara and I have certainly been there in terms of leadership, but it's more sitting back and saying, "How did that happen?" You can only explain it back to Ephesians 3:20: "Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according the power at work within us, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations forever and ever." Those were incredible years.
Milestone #4: Creating New Resources
"God wanted to do something."
Dennis: I was speaking in 1983-84 in Abbotsford, British Columbia, and a guy walked up to me with a binder with all of his notes from the conference. He said, "I'm teaching this to a Sunday school class. Why don't you give this to me in a small-group form?" And with that he opened up his notebook and all of his papers fell out of the three-ring binder.
So we hired a consultant who was an expert in small-group materials to coach us in putting together the first small-group study in what was to become The HomeBuilders Couples Series®. We printed it, tested it, changed it, and printed and tested it again. That material went through about 35 edits before we published it. I think we sold out of our first run of 10,000 copies fairly quickly at the conference.
There have been a handful of times when Barbara and I looked back and said, "God wanted to do something." HomeBuilders was one of them. Publishers told us "People don't want small groups—they're too busy." And now the series has sold over 3.2 million copies, and that's just English. It's been translated into 49 languages and dialects around the world. We have no idea how many people have been through it. We get pictures today of groups that started 25 years ago and are still going today, doing life together. I think that's the way it's supposed to happen—be accountable, look at the Scriptures, apply it, talk about it, go through difficulty together and suffer together and cheer each other on in the battle.
The HomeBuilders Couples Series also illustrates what can happen when volunteers get excited about reaching others with the same message that helped them. We saw it with the volunteers who helped promote our conferences around the country in their churches and cities, and we saw it with the couples who adopted HomeBuilders as their ministry.
My favorite compliment I can receive about anything at FamilyLife is somehow to have infected a lay couple to make an impact in where they live, in their community, with their son or daughter. I think one of the great tragedies is people think that the idea of God using someone is only for the paid professionals. And that's a lie. He uses broken people everywhere to do his work, and the privilege is we get to be used by Him.
There's no way we can be a big enough organization to address the needs of families. It's impossible. The only organization big enough is the church globally. What is the church? It's not a building, it's people. Unleash that group of people? Then you've got "come help change the world."
In 1985 Dennis and Barbara also wrote their first book, Building Your Mate's Self-Esteem.
Dennis: My eighth-grade English teacher, who gave me my only spanking in public education, in front of the whole class, she must have done a 360 in the grave when she heard about my book … because of who I was and how poor I was in grammar and in English, and how much I hated it!
Barbara: I remember when we decided to write the book, we set up two computers in Dennis's office at home, and we hired a young woman to come take care of our kids. And when I got up in the morning we would feed our kids, and we went into the office and closed the door and wrote the book.
Dennis: Our first effort at publishing was met with a big no from a publisher. I kept that rejection slip, and I don't blame them—I was not a polished writer. A publisher did take a risk and published it, and it really did do better than any of us expected. Focus on the Family was a big part of that story—we were on the radio show and they ended up selling like 70,000 copies of that book.
It's a thrill to have been able to touch so many lives through our books. And I've got copies of most of our books in foreign languages—that's really a fun shelf in my bookcase that declares the international language of family and how people need help everywhere.
The Raineys have now written dozens of books, both individually and as a couple. There are several they consider most significant:
Dennis: The first is Building Your Mate's Self Esteem, because we wrote it and somebody bought it. Next would be Moments Together for Couples, which was the book I never wanted to write. I didn't think anybody would buy a devotional. I thought couples wouldn't read it together and discuss it. But it became a genuine bestseller, well over 750,000 copies.
There are two other books I would mention that I feel like have been hallmarks of our ministry. One is called The Tribute, about writing a tribute to your parents and fulfilling the fifth commandment to honor your mother and your father. It never sold like we hoped it would sell, but it has been used by people way beyond what we would have ever imagined. And then I'd mention Barbara's latest book, Letters to my Daughters, which contains more of our story as we grew up together, grew our family together.
An early decision was to head off any perceptions of financial impropriety by giving all their book royalties to FamilyLife.
Dennis: The context for this is that in the mid to late 1980s there were a number of leaders who blew up, either around unethical behavior or relationships with the opposite sex. I remember saying to Barbara, "If FamilyLife is going to move forward, we've got to give people every reason to trust us, both in terms of what we're offering with our conferences, books, etc., but also in terms of supporting the ministry financially. If we support it financially from our book royalties, that lets people know, "We're in this with you, we're donors, too."
We had no idea that we'd be able to give the amount of money we've been able to give to FamilyLife, but it's a privilege to do it, we've invested heavily and so have a lot of other people.
Barbara: Our kids didn't think it was such a great idea when they'd see the royalties and wished they had the latest car and they were driving clunkers!
Dennis: But I think they also saw we were investing in kingdom endeavors—in what God was doing. That's what's imperishable.
Milestone #5: Radio Becomes the Air Force
"We tried to be authentic, relevant, practical, and biblical, and have a lot of fun doing it."
Dennis: The early 1990s was a time when we gave birth to a lot of initiatives that were strategic in nature. I took the better part of a year, and I interviewed some of the top theologians, educators, pastors, and leaders on what it took to raise kids. And we put together a conference called the Family Life Parenting Conference and tested it and it actually rated higher than the marriage conference.
And yet we couldn't make it cost effective because parents would not come in the same numbers that married people would to a marriage conference. We never had anything above 400 or 500. I really hated to mothball it, but we couldn't make it cost effective.
At the same time we decided we needed something in mass media. We had a good army on the ground, with volunteers to promote our conferences, and people leading Bible studies, but we didn't have an air force. We saw how well Focus on the Family and other radio programs had been doing, and at first I didn't think there needed to be another family-focused ministry on radio. But I became convinced that there was indeed a need for a biblically based, practical, relevant radio program that helped people know how to relate to God, how to relate to their spouse, and raise the next generation. Radio has been and remains a very powerful medium and a very intimate medium. It allows you, in a very cost effective way, to speak into the lives of people on an ongoing basis.
Barbara: I remember thinking this would be a really big deal. It's not like a conference where you speak and then go back home, radio would be every day, every day, every day. I also know being on radio would put our lives and our family in front of a whole lot more people.
I took a really big gulp. I had to really think about it. I prayed about it a lot. I wanted to know that God was in this and this was what God wanted us to do. Because if He wanted us to do it, I knew we would be alright. But I wanted to be confident that this was His call for our lives.
Dennis: We went to Ambassador Agency in southern California and asked, "Is there room for another marriage and family program in radio? They said yes, but they weren't sure I was the one to give leadership to that. They said, "We've been asked by 50 different people to start radio programs, and do you know how many we've said yes to? None. We haven't started a new program in five years."
They put me behind a microphone to see how I would do. I sat down with the father of Christian radio, Al Sanders, who helped get Focus on the Family going, and Chuck Swindoll, John MacArthur, David Jeremiah, and others. And he interviewed me for an hour and a half, two hours. And evidently I must have done okay, because at the end they said, "We like this, we like your style, the energy you bring to it. Let's see about starting something."
At the same time, a businessman and his wife flew into Little Rock, and they were looking to invest in a ministry. He said, "What have you got?" I said I wanted to do the parenting conference. "How much is that?" About a quarter of a million dollars.
He said, "What else have you got?" I said we want to start a radio program. How much is that. I said you have to be able to keep the program going for a couple years until it becomes financially solvent. About $750,000. He said, "Okay we'll pray about it and get back to you."
He called me the next day and said that before they left Arkansas air space they had decided God wanted them to give the money toward the parenting conference. The one stipulation he gave was that I keep it confidential who had given the money. Well, our staff knew they were in the office, and a week later I announced to our staff that we had some money given to launch our parenting conference, and people put two and two together and figured out who it was.
Our development director Dave Daggett, told me, "You blew it." I instantly knew what he was saying—I had unintentionally breached the confidentiality of this couple who wanted to give this money. So I called the businessman and I told him what had happened—it had been inadvertent but I had breached our integrity, and I offered to send the money back.
There was silence for five seconds. He started laughing and said, "It's probably unfair for me to give a gift like that to a ministry like yours and ask you to keep it a secret. Besides, you can go start your radio program, too. We'll give you $750,000 to do that."
I started weeping. That was a God moment. God supplied the agency, He supplied the money, He supplied Bob Lepine to help give leadership for the radio program. Then through the mistake another broadcaster made—he made a bad moral choice and lost all of his radio programs—in a matter of weeks we were up and running and had the best times across the country you could ask for as a start up. A 7:30 a.m. time in Washington, D.C., 8:30 a.m. in Los Angeles.
There was a little garage across from an auto salvage yard that a guy had turned into a studio, and we called it "Bethlehem," because out of insignificant, small places come something great. I remember that guy gave us a 50 percent rate, something like $12.50 an hour. We did our first 10 broadcasts in two days.
Dennis was determined to make the show biblical, practical … and real.
Dennis: If it's not biblical, I don't have anything to say. It's not a matter of creating happy homes, it's a matter of godly homes and pointing people to Christ. If we don't talk from Scripture, then people are building their houses on the sand. We also want to help people apply the Scriptures to their lives. Let the Bible speak to where people are and let them apply it.
I remember telling a story about Barbara and me arguing, and Bob turned to me and said, "Are you sure you want to tell that story? This is national Christian radio, and you just said you had an argument with your wife." I pointed to the Bible and said, "If we can't apply who we are in real life situations, and let the Bible speak to us in the midst of that, I don't have anything to say. If you've got to present a perfect marriage, perfect people, that's not who I am."
Bob said, "Sounds good to me," and we never looked back. We tried to be authentic, relevant, practical, and biblical, and have a lot of fun doing it.
Milestone #6: Connecting Resources
"We're trying to give moms and dads resources so they can transfer spiritual knowledge to their kids."
Dennis: Radio put the ministry on a whole new plateau. Radio not only birthed the growth of our events, but it also created the whole category of resources. One of the funny stories is of one broadcast where we offered some type of booklet, but we hadn't even created it yet. So we had a backlog of people who called in for it.
Barbara: We were essentially just conferences and a couple of books until radio. That's when we started publishing and creating products.
Dennis: We had a woman who came into the studio one day with a basket full of eggs. It had 25 plastic eggs in it and a photocopy of 25 Scriptures, and an object inside of each egg. This was her version of an idea she had heard for telling the story of Easter and the Resurrection. Her name was Barbara Craft, and she was the wife of FamilyLife's chief financial officer. Barbara was a mom and a grandma.
Each egg had an object in it that told part of the story of Easter, all the way to the empty egg, which stood for the empty tomb, and a cotton ball, which represented Christ ascending through clouds into heaven. One of us said, "This would be really cool if we put 12 of these eggs in a carton and offered it to our readers. So we did.
We ordered 3000 dozen plastic eggs. We met on a Saturday, started early, with about five or six families, 20-25 of us, and assembled the first sets of Resurrection Eggs®. We'd open up eggs and put a rock in them, and that was for the story of the stone that was rolled in front of Jesus' tomb after He died. There were nails for when they nailed him to the cross.
Barbara: A piece of string was a whip.
Dennis: It took us all day. I remember at one point we ran out of nails, so we ran to the hardware store to buy a box of nails. Then we ran out of silver, plastic coins, signifying the silver that Judas betrayed Christ for.
Barbara: So Dennis went to the bank and got dimes!
Dennis: At the end of the day everybody was exhausted. We had put together these 3000 dozen with different colored eggs and each egg with a different object. We gathered around those boxes and there's not many prayers I remember, but I do this one. I said, "Oh, Lord God, would you please get these eggs in the hands of families that will use them? And I pray they don't end up in our warehouse for the next 20 years."
Barbara: We had no idea what would happen.
Dennis: The broadcast came on—and I'm getting chill bumps now thinking about it—and on the first day 3000 dozen flew out the door. By the end of the week we had about 10,000 dozen orders! We went to Easter Seals and had them put together more sets.
Resurrection Eggs has now gone beyond 1.5 million sets in English, Russian, Spanish, all over the world. We figure that at least 30 million children have heard the gospel—a very simple tool that moms and dads or teachers, or somebody who wants to host an Easter party in their neighborhood, can use to share the claims of Christ with kids.
Barbara: We realized that people listened to the radio, and if they liked the idea we were talking about, they were interested in getting something to implement it. So we created a department of people who were thinking about resources all the time, were thinking about ways families could engage with one another around different topics.
Dennis: At about this same time we were teaching a Sunday school class to sixth graders at our church. I took those kids into the grittiest issues they were going to face in adolescence. We brought all kinds of unique object lessons to teach them how to make up their minds in advance to serve him and love him and obey him with all their hearts. Out of that we created a resource called Passport2Purity® for the mom to take a daughter or the father to take a son, prior to adolescence, and go through a series of CDs around peer pressure, around boundaries in dating, around deciding about sex. We offered that on FamilyLife Today, and that also flew out of our warehouse, and now more than a quarter million kids have been through Passport2Purity, and we've got a new follow-up resource called Passport2Identity™.
Barbara: We're trying to help parents have meaningful conversations with their kids that they want to have. We're trying to give moms and dads resources so they can transfer spiritual knowledge to their kids. Moms and dads are the primary teachers in the lives of their children, so we're trying to help them do that in a way that's effective and engaging, and that's easy for them to do.
Dennis: One of the things we've desired to do is set the parents up to be heroes. I have no interest in being a hero for someone else's son or daughter. The parents need to be the hero, and I think one of the best stories I've heard in recent years is what's happened about two or three miles up the road at one of the top Christian schools in America called Little Rock Christian Academy. The principal, Gary Arnold, saw Passport2Purity and thought, "We want parents to instruct their kids, and we want to protect the kids' purity in this school." So he decided to require the parents of a class of 144 sixth graders to take their kids through Passport2Purity. I love it because it's putting resources in the hands of laymen to make an impact in their kids and their family, to pass on their faith to their kids, which is biblical, it's the way it was designed to work.
FamilyLife's resources reflect a philosophy developed in its initial conferences to engaged and married couples.
Dennis: FamilyLife early on decided that we wanted to teach what the Bible had to say about issues related to life, especially around marriage and family. We teach people to know what the Bible says, then we help them apply it through projects, through application of what they've heard … then to experience it by seeing how it benefits their lives and their relationships, and at that point it becomes infectious. Then they can begin to embrace it and call it their own, and then finally proclaim it to others.
In all of our resources, our radio show, our events, our website, we're trying to encourage men and women, moms and dads, boys and girls, to know, apply, experience, embrace, and proclaim the truth about Scripture, the truth of the gospel, to a needy world that desperately needs to know how to live. It's not about selling stuff, it's about creating tools that will help people in the everyday experience where they live. One resource we created as a result of radio was Interviewing Your Daughter's Date. It's basically equipping dads to do what they oughta do, which is protect the purity and innocence of their daughters. I ran into a guy in Orlando who bought a case of those books, passed them out to all the dads he knew and challenged them to protect the purity and innocence of their daughters.
Milestone #7: The Family Manifesto
"Many people don't clearly understand what the Bible teaches about the major issues of marriage and family."
Dennis: In the early 1990s I grew more concerned that many people don't clearly understand what the Bible teaches about the major issues of marriage and family. It's why we had a culture of divorce in America, it's why the church didn't stand behind the marriage covenant, it's why the church didn't equip husbands and wives to know how to fulfill their responsibilities in the marriage relationship.
We began to take a look at what the Bible taught about almost three dozen issues. One of our staff, Bill Howard, took the better part of a year to research this with pastors, theologians, authors, counselors, professionals from every walk of life, and began to craft a statement of beliefs of what the Bible taught about marriage and family. We called it "The Family Manifesto." It's not a true theology of the family, but it simply captures what the Bible teaches—that marriage is between a man and a woman, and is a covenant relationship between them and their God for a lifetime. It deals with blended families, with divorce, and legacy, the value of children.
Little did we realize that the stand we were taking on behalf of marriage and family in 1992-93 would be dramatically tested little more than two decades later, where the definition of marriage would be totally changed. I still think it is a tremendous living document of a statement of beliefs around marriage and family that needs to be embraced by followers of Christ around the world. Most people need to know what the Bible teaches around the basics and fundamentals of the faith as applied to marriage.
Milestone #8: Expanding Worldwide
"Family is an international language."
In the 1980s and 1990s, FamilyLife began to expand internationally. One big reason was that Cru had established ministries around the world, and the staff heading those ministries recognized that they, too, needed help for marriages and families.
Dennis: In the early years we did some events in South Africa, Kenya, and South Korea. I remember a couple from Uganda snuck across the border at risk to their lives, to escape Idi Amin, a dictator who was ruthless. They shared about their 2-year-old throwing a fit on the mud floor of their home, and we thought, "A 2-year-old is a 2-year-old, no matter what country. Family is an international language."
One of the things that began to happen in the early 90s is we started getting phone calls from other countries. People calling us in Little Rock, Arkansas, saying, "We heard you have answers to the breakdown of families, because it's happening in our country." It seemed a crime for people to have to call America to ask for help on issues that, more than likely, our country helped to cause in their country through Western values. Our values got exported and they weren't good values. They were calling us to undo some of the divorce culture we had helped to spread around the world.
The 90s were a time of global expansion for FamilyLife all around the world. People were translating our conferences, our HomeBuilders Couples Series, our books and resources, in their language and making an impact there because families were in trouble. Various resources have now been translated into dozens of languages. FamilyLife Today is heard over 700 times a day in three dozen countries in its Spanish translation, Vida en Familia Hoy. The joke is that my worst subject in school was Spanish, and now I'm "speaking" in Spanish to perhaps millions of people each day.
The sun never sets on FamilyLife. We're now in 109 countries around the world, and in almost all of those countries it is led by a national, by a couple of that country and from that country.
In our rotunda at FamilyLife headquarters there's a quote by Bill Bright that says, "If we reach the family, we reach the world." The smallest unit of every nation is a family, and I think it's why we've been so effective in reaching other nations. When families get into trouble, it's a spiritual problem. Where do they look for help. The Bible has the solutions, and we've helped train lots of international staff to be able to take that message to the people of their country.
Milestone #9: I Still Do®
"Someone needed to stand up on behalf of marriage."
Barbara: We had a vision for events calling people to stand up for marriage. By then, rumblings were happening in the culture that were undermining traditional marriage. As a team, we decided we wanted to make a statement and call people to stand up for marriage.
Dennis: I think there were two movements that collided. One was Promise Keepers, where they were filling stadiums … men were coming out of the woodwork wanting to find out, "How does Jesus Christ equip me as a man?" The other movement that collided with that was the culture of divorce. In the late 1990s and early 2000s it just seemed that someone needed to stand up on behalf of marriage and stand for the marriage covenant and stand for permanence in marriage.
So we started renting arenas, at quite a risk financially. I will never forget going to one arena. We took a number of leaders from the Washington, D.C. community and stood in the back of the MCI Arena that would seat 18,000 people and said, "Lord God would You fill this arena? We don't know how we're going to do that, but would You fill this arena and make a statement on behalf of marriage and family in the capitol of our nation?"
Two years later I was walking outside around that same arena, and there were buses lined up from all over the East Coast. We filled it and challenged people to consider their covenant. We talked about commitment and what it looked like between a man and a woman. We talked about conflict, in terms of their communication and intimacy in marriage, and we talked about their legacy. At the end we had people stand and face each other and led them through the wedding vows. For many it was the first time they had said them since they got married.
We had over 435,000 people in a few short years go through the one-day I Still Do event and there're some great stories. One of the great moments came in Cincinnati. I was sitting down in the front row watching Crawford Loritts as he was speaking, and I'd heard him give this message a number of times and my mind was wandering. I looked at the stage in front of where he was speaking, and there was a vase of about a dozen roses. And I thought, "I wonder if there's a way I can get those roses on a plane and take them to Barbara?" Then I thought, "No, that's selfish, there's probably somebody here who needs a rose." Then I thought there was probably a married couple, a husband who needs to come get a rose and take it to his wife and ask for forgiveness.
When I spoke later that day I pulled out a rose and said "If there's somebody here who needs to come get a rose and go back to your spouse and ask for forgiveness, I want you to come down here in front of 12,000 people and get it." I remember it feeling incredibly risky—I didn't know what would happen.
But I looked out of the corner of my eye, and there's a guy who's about as high up as you could get, running down the steps. And he walks in front of all those people and he pulls a rose out, and the audience starts to applaud. He runs up, meets her about halfway down the aisle, and they meet mid-air in a huge embrace. Who knows what was going on there? And then people start coming from all over, pulling the roses. So that's when we started putting roses across the front of the stage at the events. At the next event we had 200 roses, and those were gone in 30 seconds. At the end we were mass ordering a thousand roses per event.
Barbara: I think one thing we all learned was the power of restating vows. I remember we had a conversation about restating the vows, and I remember Bob Lepine said, "We say the pledge of allegiance all the time; we don't think anything about restating our pledge to the country. What's more important?" So we all thought this made sense. It was at the I Still Do events where we decided we'd have people stand up and say their vows. It gave people a chance to re-engage at that level of commitment.
Dennis: We now do it at all the Weekend to Remember getaways.
Milestone #10: Hope for Orphans
"God has a special heart for orphans."
Dennis: Barbara and I have long had a heart for the millions of orphans in this country and around the world. We've known that God has a special heart for orphans. We wanted to do something to increase awareness about adoption and orphan ministry, and we ended up connecting with an individual named Paul Pennington who had the same vision. This was the beginning of Hope for Orphans, which encouraged couples to get involved in adoption and also to start orphan care ministries in churches.
We held an orphan summit that attracted a couple dozen leaders in adoption and orphan ministry. What's happened since has been remarkable. The year after that it doubled, and then the year after that it doubled, then it doubled again. And a couple years ago there were more than 2,500 orphan-care, foster-care, and adoption-care advocates gathered together from over three dozen countries around the world.
This was a case where God wanted to do something that was so much bigger than an organization like FamilyLife, and it just felt like you were joining Him in what He wanted to do. Hope for Orphans became its own organization apart from FamilyLife. The Christian Alliance for Orphans is a major voice now on behalf of orphans globally and is being used mightily by God to make an impact in a lot of lives. It's become a movement.
Barbara: Dennis loves to set people up to do what they do best. We created a speaker team for the marriage conferences so that we could give other people the platform and grow the ministry way beyond whatever we could do ourselves. If it depended on us it would have stifled it, it would have remained small. The same is true of the start of Hope for Orphans. Paul Pennington had the passion and Dennis said, "Let's help you grow it." It's clearly a mirror of what was modeled to us in Cru in those early years, and it's also because of who he is, with his desire to find people who are really gifted and help them succeed.
Milestone #11: A New Headquarters
"When we moved into this building, it was paid for."
Dennis: Over the years there were a number of times when I felt we needed to either attempt to buy a building or build a building that was more permanent for FamilyLife to be able to grow in and expand. For one thing, we needed a better studio for recording FamilyLife Today® and our other broadcasts. We were operating out of a converted closet.
We tried to buy a building and God clearly blocked any effort I had, so I backed off. We finally decided to purchase land and build a new headquarters, with plans to complete construction in 2003. When we broke ground on the property, all we had was the money for the land. Not long after that we were at a donor event in Santa Barbara, California, and a couple sat down across from me. They had given FamilyLife a donation before but they didn't know us, we didn't know them. I remember asking "So why are you here?"
They said we came to give a major gift to FamilyLife. But to do that we need to do three things. First of all, we'd like to see if you have a good strategic plan. Second, do you have an excellent leadership team, and third, we wanted to see if you were authentic, if you were a trustworthy man. They said, "We like all three."
"What are you thinking about doing?" I asked.
"We'd like to give you two million dollars."
We used that money for the building, and then about nine months later that couple came to Little Rock. They visited our leadership team and walked around the property, saw it all, loved being with us, asked us lots of questions. Next day we saw them at the airport, and the husband said, "Last night God boinged us."
"What do you mean?"
"He hit my wife and me between the eyes with a spiritual two-by-four. We love what you're doing. We think family is important. My wife and I have five marriages between us, and we think you're on the right track for our nation and for the Christian community. You go raise all the money you can raise for the building, and I'll take care of the rest."
It was an $11.6 million dollar project, and that couple ended up writing a check for over ten million dollars. When we moved into this building, it was paid for. Little did we know at the time that about five years later that would become very significant when we went through a recession, and didn't have any debt. We still had to reduce our workforce, but we kept our building, we lived within our means. Pretty cool. As my friend Joe Stowell says, "There are certain times when God makes himself known." I call it, "God showing up and showing off."
Milestone #12: A New Generation of Hosted Events
"God is in this—He's going to use this to touch millions."
Barbara: We were in a meeting in Portland, Maine, with a number of couples, and they said, "We have a lot of couples who would love to come to a Weekend to Remember, but it's too far for them to come to Portland. Can you give us this material in a format that would make it easy for us to take it to all these small towns around the state of Maine?"
That was the beginning of the idea for The Art of Marriage® video event … to have the marriage material in a format that could be used by anyone, anywhere.
Dennis: So we went to Bob Lepine and said, "We know you haven't created anything like this before, but we'd like you to create an edgy, fresh, biblically-centered event that can be hosted by lay couples, or can be led by couples leading a small group, and do it in a way that's transferable." So he did that.
I remember the first time I heard the music and saw the video, I began to weep. I thought, "God is in this—He's going to use this to touch millions." I believe He already has touched millions. We know it's already been seen by more than three-quarters of a million people, but I believe it's much more than that because it's being shown in all kinds of places that we'll never know anything about.
And in the process of launching this, over 25,000 laymen have stepped up and said we'd like to do this. They've hosted these all around the country, anywhere from one couple just hosting it couple-to-couple, all the way to 950 who came to a Portland, Oregon, Art of Marriage event.
In the process of doing this, we've created a new generation of hosted events that has now spilled over into the Stepping Up® video series—training men and equipping men to know how to step up as men. I remember a video of the first prison group that we took Stepping Up through. This young man stood up—he was 25 years old—and he said, "Some of you aren't going to understand what I'm about to say, but I'm glad I'm in prison. It was here in prison that I finally found out what a real man is and what a real man does."
Milestone #13: Ever Thine Home®
"I really wanted to teach my kids about the spiritual background to most of our holidays."
Dennis: Recently I was talking with a leader in Christian family ministry, and I was laying out all the resources FamilyLife had created, and he asked, "Which of these resources are you most proud of?" I said, "I'm most proud of what Barbara has done because she's taken her training in the Bible and her artistic and creative abilities and she's linked them together to give moms and dads practical ways they can pass on the reality of the great Christian holidays of the faith and do it in a way that's beautiful and that is transferable. I'm really proud of her for what she's done."
Barbara: I remember noticing a real absence of Christ-focused holiday resources in the early 90s. I started paying attention to what stores carried, what people had in their homes, and I didn't find a whole lot. And I really wanted to teach my kids about the spiritual background to most of our holidays. We celebrate Easter with bunnies and chicks, and Christmas with Santa Claus and reindeer and snow men. That's not what I wanted my kids to remember growing up in our home. So I started trying to find ways to fill that void.
I was still too busy raising kids to create much of it on my own. I found a book called The Light and the Glory, by Peter Marshall and David Manuel, about the spiritual foundations of our country. I read that book and underlined part of it and in the late 1980s we began our own Thanksgiving tradition. Everybody sat at the table and I read portions of that book to my family. And that led to writing a book, Thanksgiving: A Time to Remember, published in 2002.
Dennis: This past week I ran into a woman at an executive event, and she said, "Dennis Rainey, I want to meet you. I've been reading your wife's Thanksgiving book to our family every year for years." She's the CEO of a large company with 4000 employees.
Barbara: There are a lot of people who have been using that for a decade—that's what they do for Thanksgiving every year. That's a confirmation to me that I wasn't the only one looking for ways to make the holidays more spiritually meaningful. The success of that book gave me the motivation to keep going, and from there I started doing things for Christmas and other holidays, and Ever Thine Home was born.
Dennis: She would say, "There's nothing out there that's really excellent, that's beautiful, that has great theology to help me pass on truth to the kids, to help us celebrate the holidays in a meaningful way. She probably said that for 20 years. Now she has created resources for people to use in their homes to declare their devotion to Christ and to speak into the spiritual meaning of different holidays. Right now she's on a tear to "take over Easter"! We in the Christian community need to sieze the high ground and retake Easter for its true message. It's the most sacred of all holidays.
Barbara: So be forewarned, you're going to see a lot about it next year!
Lessons Learned Over the Years
"It's better to believe God for too much rather than too little."
Dennis: One lesson is that God uses imperfect people to get His work done. He takes broken people, He takes available people if they'll surrender themselves to Him.
Another lesson is that growth can kill you. The uncontrolled growth of human cells is called cancer. Growing something too fast, even a spiritual endeavor, has to be monitored carefully, both for your own personal relationship with Christ, but also your marriage and your family. I wouldn't say Barbara and I did that perfectly, but we were always very respectful that you create the ministry, then the ministry can eat you. It can devour you.
Barbara: And we were committed to not letting that happen.
Dennis: I was committed to being accountable to her, so I didn't take speaking engagements, and still don't, without talking to her.
A lesson I learned from Bill Bright is it's better to believe God for too much rather than too little. The body of Christ, I think, is paralyzed by unbelief; it's not trusting God, believing God for bigger things, for greater impact, for making a difference. So as a result we're settling for mediocrity.
Barbara: I was a doubter on I Still Do. I said, "Lord do you really think we can get that many people?" But it was amazing what God did. The most amazing event was the week after 9/11. I thought we should cancel the whole thing. "God, are you really going to pull this off?" And there were zero no-shows.
Dennis: I think there were 10,000 there.
Barbara: Yes, people were afraid, but that's why they came. They came because they needed hope, they needed reassurance, they needed to be reminded that God is in control. The place was jammed. When you do obey, and then watch God come through, it's pretty incredible.
Looking to the Future
"This is a ministry 'in spite of' rather than 'because of.'"
Dennis: I'm really convinced that for FamilyLife, the best is yet to come. I think FamilyLife has been raised up by God. The platform of ministries we have, the conferences, the radio, the digital presence, Ever Thine Home, the video resources, the small group resources, the blended family … I think they're going to be used by our children's children.
We're going to continue to expand our strengths. We want to continue improving the Weekend to Remember getaway to create something that is a fresher and newer experience for the next generation. It needs to be there for our grandkids.
Barbara: We're also exploring ways that we can better encourage and help and minister to women. We want to make a big impact on the lives of women, who are the majority of our listeners.
Dennis: Whatever we have, we want to take it and share it with the world. Because family is an international language, it is a great way to get into somebody's home and somebody's heart to help them be effective as a man, as a woman, as a husband, as a wife, as a dad, as a mother, a grandparent. Family is a great way to present the teachings of Jesus Christ and a personal relationship with Him.
Recently I talked with a husband who told me, "We've been to your Weekend to Remember conference twice. Once when we were engaged 20 years ago, then we decided to come back for a little wheel alignment. Thank you for what you do. You gave us the spiritual foundation that we built our marriage on, and you've helped us have a mid-course correction in the middle of our marriage."
God is the one who makes stories like this happen. This is a ministry "in spite of" rather than "because of." In other words, God did not grow this ministry because of our hard work and brilliant ideas. He grew FamilyLife in spite of our weaknesses, our mistakes, our lack of vision, our poor decisions at times.
As I look back on the history of FamilyLife, I keep returning to Ephesians 3:20-21: "Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according the power at work within us, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations forever and ever."
God is the one who thought up marriage and family. And He cares about it. That this ministry still exists in spite of the attacks that have come against marriage and family in our culture is a statement that God wants to see more people experience marriage and family as He designed it.
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