FamilyLife began in 1976 as a marriage preparation ministry within Campus Crusade for Christ with little vision to take it further. But God had other plans. Dennis and Barbara Rainey have been with FamilyLife from the beginning, and here they recall six highlights from the formative years of FamilyLife.
This article is adapted from several interviews; in a longer version, the Raineys talk about 13 milestones of God’s faithfulness over 40 years. Also, listen to the FamilyLife Today® broadcasts about FamilyLife’s 40th anniversary.
Milestone #1: A Spiritual Awakening on Campus
“Those were electric days to be alive.”
The best place to start the story of FamilyLife is to look at the faith movement that grew at the University of Arkansas in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Dennis: As I look back on it, it was a life-altering decision for me to choose to go to college at the University of Arkansas. 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 [now called Cru] 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. 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 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, and 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. During student elections, we ran Christ for “student body president and resident of your life.”
We also met Don and Sally Meredith, who were working as staff members with Cru at the U of A. 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. There were plenty of areas where I wasn’t doing that.
Barbara and I also became very involved in University Baptist Church, which was pastored by H.D. McCarty at the time. “H,” as he was called, took me under his wing and mentored me as well. In those early years, I was fortunate to have had two great men, Don and H., who helped shape my life.
I think there was a genuine spiritual awakening on the 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—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.
Milestone #2: Laying the Foundation
“Marriage is central to what God’s doing on planet Earth.”
Dennis joined the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ 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 Boulder, Colorado, Columbus, Ohio, and San Bernardino, California, 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 left the high school ministry and 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 college campuses giving encouragement and leadership to the women on staff at those 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 1975, which was a gathering of Christian leaders about getting involved in helping families (read more on Ney’s story here). This led to Cru starting 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.
Dennis and Barbara worked with the Merediths and with Mick and Helen Yoder (also on staff with Cru) to create a conference to help Cru single staff members learn about marriage.
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 and our family. 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 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. 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.
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. 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 that 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 who 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. 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.”
Conference attendance grew 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. Those were incredible years.
Milestone #4: Creating New Resources
“God wanted to do more.”
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 FamilyLife Marriage 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, printed and tested it. That material went through 35 edits before we published it. I think we sold out of our first run of 10,000 copies fairly quickly at the conferences.
There are a handful of times when Barbara and I look back and say, “God wanted to do something.” HomeBuilders was one of those things. 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.
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. I received a picture the other day of one group of a half dozen couples that was formed in 1986 and is still going today.
In 1985 Dennis and Barbara also wrote their first book, Building Your Mate’s Self-Esteem. Dozens more would follow over the years.
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.
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 over 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.
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: In the early 1990s 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. 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 spouses, and how to raise the next generation.
Barbara: I took a really big gulp. 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, as well as programs featuring Chuck Swindoll, John MacArthur, David Jeremiah, and others. 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 a 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 broken our agreement, 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, and 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 FamilyLife Today was 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., and 8:30 a.m. in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Dennis was determined to make the show biblical, practical … and real.
Dennis: If it’s not biblical, I don’t have anything to say. If we don’t talk from Scripture and point people to Jesus Christ, then people are building their houses on the sand. We also wanted to help people apply the Scriptures to their lives and build their homes on the Rock. Let the Bible speak to where people are and let them apply it.
I remember telling a story as we taped a broadcast about Barbara and me arguing the night before. Bob Lepine stopped 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.
Our daily radio broadcasts dramatically increased the reach of FamilyLife, which not only led to growth in the Weekend to Remember events but also to a new category of resources.
Dennis: One day we had Barbara Craft, the wife of FamilyLife’s chief financial officer, come into the studio for an interview 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.
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 listeners.” So we did.
We ordered 3000 dozen plastic eggs. We met on a Saturday, started early, and with about five or six families—20-25 of us—we assembled the first sets of Resurrection Eggs®. It took us all day. We gathered around those boxes and—there aren’t many prayers I remember, but I remember 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 all 3000 sets flew out the door. By the end of the week we had about 10,000 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 through 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. We’re trying to give moms and dads resources so they can transfer spiritual knowledge to their kids.
Milestone #6: 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, South Korea, and Canada. I remember a couple from Uganda snuck across the border at risk to their lives, to escape Idi Amin, a ruthless dictator. 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.”
We started getting phone calls from other countries. People calling us in Little Rock, Arkansas, saying, “We heard you have answers for the breakdown of families, because it’s happening in our country. Can you help us?”
The 90s were a time of global expansion for FamilyLife all around the world. International leaders were translating our conferences, our HomeBuilders Couples Series, and our books and resources into their languages and making an impact there because families were in trouble. Today we’re in 109 countries around the world.
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.
FamilyLife 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.
I keep returning 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.”
God is the one who thought up marriage and family, and He cares about it. That this ministry still exists in spite of the cultural attacks that have come against these institutions is a statement that God wants to see more people experience marriage and family as He designed it.
In an expanded version of this article, Dennis and Barbara talk about the influence of Bill and Vonette Bright, lessons they’ve learned, and seven additional milestones of God’s faithfulness from FamilyLife’s history. Also, listen to Dennis and Barbara talk about FamilyLife’s 40 years on FamilyLife Today.
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