Hurting marriages, families under pressure, a disintegrating cultural ethic. Sound familiar? The year was 1976, and the FamilyLife Marriage Conference was born to address these pressing issues.
Hurting marriages, families under pressure, a disintegrating cultural ethic. Sound familiar? The year was 1976, and the FamilyLife Marriage Conference was born to address these pressing issues.
Bob: Forty years ago, when FamilyLife began, there were no famous names attached to the ministry. Dennis Rainey says that was a good thing.
Dennis: Somehow, in our young age, we had enough sense to realize, “If we built this around us, as a couple, it could crush us in our marriage and family—number one. Number two, we were going to put a lid on it and limit the amount we could go do. And number three, you would miss out on different people’s perspective of teaching this material through their lives.” So, we built a speaker team.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, July 26th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. There have been millions of people who have attended a Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway over the years. Today, we’ll look back on the very first one ever held.
Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. We’re spending some time this week reminiscing. We’re celebrating, as a staff, this week, the 40th anniversary of FamilyLife. We’ve got some friends who are coming in to join us in this. In fact, our staff is going to hear from Crawford Loritts and Nancy Leigh DeMoss; and Bryan Loritts is going to be here.
Dennis: We’ve got folks from more than a couple of dozen countries around the world all joining us who head up FamilyLife in their neck of the woods.
Bob: Got staff; we’ve got volunteers; we’ve got donors—I mean, it’s a great group that’s getting together just to have a celebration of what God has done over the last 40 years. We thought it would be fun, here on FamilyLife Today, to do some of that reminiscing. So, we’ve got—not only Dennis—but his wife Barbara joining us today.
We’ve been talking about how things got started, and I want to go back to the very first—I wouldn’t call it the Weekend to Remember back then. It was called a—what was the first conference you had?—what was it called?
Dennis: It was called a FamilyLife conference. And before we get started, I’m going to read this passage again because this is what, on our 40th, has been echoing in my mind—Ephesians, Chapter 3, verse 20: “Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
This is not a ministry because of what man has done—it is a ministry in spite of—and it’s a ministry where God showed up, and showed off, and has done way beyond what we could have ever imagined in the first place. And yes, we did start as a marriage preparation conference.
There were 43 single people at the first formal FamilyLife conference back in the fall of 1976.
Bob: You had been tasked by the leadership of Cru®—then Campus Crusade®—with providing premarital counseling—instruction/training—for staff members who were planning to get married.
Dennis: It was equipping. They tasked us with creating a conference that would train both the young man and the young lady, before they got married, in the basics of what the Bible teaches to help them start out their marriage with the blueprints—the right blueprints—in advance of beginning to build their home.
Bob: This is something that Don and Sally Meredith had been teaching on for a number of years—in fact, all the way back to when you guys were in college, they were teaching on this. They developed some material, but you got a chance to be a part of helping to form those initial messages—
—you and Mick and Helen Yoder were involved as well—putting that first conference together.
And I think you told me that, in those early conferences, it wasn’t just that you did the presentations; but there were one-on-one meetings with everybody who came.
Dennis: We tried to meet with every couple, and Barbara didn’t go. We could not afford to take our wives. So, you can imagine doing a pre-marriage conference with all male speakers—we just didn’t have the budget. Cru, at that point, invested $25,000 in this ministry and really did not invest dollars / cash in the ministry for almost three decades. I would say we took that initial investment and made it work, and we lived within our means and made it happen. God did show up. He enabled us and empowered us to do much more than we ever imagined.
Bob: Well, if you were doing talks, like we do at a Weekend to Remember getaway, and doing one-on-one counseling with couples—
Dennis: Yes, we were up until midnight, one o’clock / two o’clock in the morning.
Bob: That had to be exhausting.
Dennis: It was. Then, we’d go back after the conference was over, and we’d rewrite the whole conference. We did that over and over and over again. The conference, as it now exists—it’s now trained very close, if not over, 3 million people. That conference, probably, has been edited and revised a hundred times by multiple men and women from all kinds of different disciplines—counselors, theologians, pastors, educators. It’s not one man’s opinion—it is what the Bible teaches. It’s the reason, Bob, why it’s so effective. We let the Bible speak; but we help people apply it during the conference, which has now become the Weekend to Remember.
Bob: You were going out to various locations in order to make it easier for Cru staff to be a part of these weekends.
So, you were doing an East Coast, Central U.S., and West Coast—trying to do it regionally so that staff could get there.
Dennis: There were three of them the first year.
Dennis: Forty-three at the first one, which was in Southern California at Arrowhead Springs. There was one here in a hotel that has since been bulldozed—here in Little Rock. I think it was called The Roach Coach Hotel. [Laughter] It had three settings for the shower in the morning. The speakers would get up—we’d all get up early when there was a little bit a little dab of hot water—it was cold, cubed, and crushed, I think, were the three settings—
Bob: —of the shower. [Laughter]
Dennis: —of the shower—yes. Then, we had one in Williamsburg—Williamsburg, Virginia. We had about 450 people attend. All of them were Cru staff. They were all either contemplating marriage or were engaged to be married, and I’ve got to tell you—it was revolutionary for these couples. There was nothing out there like it.
Bob: I’m imagining that those early events may have had transparencies on overhead projectors and mimeographed handouts that people were taking notes on.
Dennis: We actually used what was called a duo-tang folder—
Dennis: —which was—you could buy them at Ben Franklin, which I don’t think—
Bob: The five-and-dime.
Dennis: —I don’t think that’s even in existence anymore—but you get these duo-tang folders—and I’ll never forget. I bought a bunch of them and saved like 15 cents apiece. [Laughter] I was so excited that we’d bought three or four hundred of these folders to put the notes in for people. We were redoing the conference after each conference— reprinting—there are some great stories around that I won’t tell right now—but we were just one step ahead of the hounds.
And Barbara and I, at that point, had only been married for four or five years. I mean, we were taking engaged people through something that we weren’t that far ahead of them in reality.
Bob: Barbara, when you moved to Little Rock, at this point, you had two children.
You weren’t involved, day to day, in the ministry of FamilyLife, at that point; were you?
Barbara: No; I was not.
Bob: You had been—
Dennis: There was no way she could be involved! [Laughter] She was either pregnant or in a romper room. [Laughter] I mean, there was no margin for anything but just life.
Barbara: And it wasn’t that busy either. I mean, you guys were rewriting the content and reprinting; but that’s pretty much all you were doing. There wasn’t tons of work to be done.
Bob: Well, I’m wondering, at that point, you [Barbara] had come off the college campus—you’d been actively involved in ministry—that’s what you’d wanted to do. Now, you’re at home with two kids. Did you have any sense of loss that you weren’t doing ministry, day in and day out?
Barbara: Yes, I think I did. I think I was fully committed to being a mom. I was fully committed to being home with my kids. I really did love it, but I did feel it sometimes—like, I wasn’t really quite as engaged with what he was doing—with what Dennis was doing / with what the team was doing as I had been before. That was an adjustment. It was an adjustment to me—
—to kind of figure out what my place was.
Dennis: She also had to give up her paints—her watercolor paints.
Bob: Once the kids came—
Bob: —there was just no margin for that.
Barbara: Well, I had kind of tried to dabble in it and keep that little part of what I enjoyed doing alive; and it was about—I don’t know if we had the third child at the time—but somewhere around the second or, maybe, right after the third was born, I had this real “Aha” moment. I had been trying to do painting during nap time. I would get my stuff out when the kids went to bed for naps, and there were so many times when I was frustrated because they either wouldn’t go to sleep or they would wake up early or they were sick and couldn’t sleep. It just became increasingly clear that trying to do something that I wanted to do for two hours in the afternoon—even though they should have been sleeping for all two hours in the afternoon—it was just proving to be more frustrating than it was fulfilling. It wasn’t working.
So, I remember, one day, making a conscious decision that trying to pursue—and it wasn’t really so much pursuing a career—but I wanted to keep that piece of what I enjoyed alive. I had gotten a commission to do a couple of paintings for someone, and that was what was fueling my desire to keep this going in the afternoons. I finished the commissions; but after I finished that work, I decided that I—God had given me kids, and He wanted me to focus on raising them.
I, literally, put all my stuff in a box. I remember where I was standing when I put it on the shelf; and I said: “Okay, God, You gave me some interest in artistic things. You gave me a desire to paint and to be an artist at some level. I know it’s a tiny, little gift / it’s a tiny, little talent; but I’m going to give it back to You. If You want me to have it back some day, that’s Your business; but I’m going to focus on raising my kids.” That was a real pivotal moment for me.
Dennis: There is a principle in Scripture—
—that you see repeated—where God’s enemies would try to destroy something in its infancy. I feel like FamilyLife was attacked that first year / I didn’t realize it at the time—but we started in 1976—in literally a 12-month period, the following things happened: My father died. We got the only two short paychecks we have ever received in over 47 years of ministry—
Bob: Your support had fallen off, and the money just wasn’t there to pay.
Dennis: Yes. FamilyLife doesn’t pay me. I have to raise my own support to work here. So, I don’t take a penny from the organization, and there hadn’t been enough money coming in that first year. So, we got the only two short paychecks—ever. Third thing, our son had an emergency appendectomy. Fourth thing was my brother had had an apparent heart attack, while he was running a propane business in the midst of the worst winter in Midwest history—
—1977—and I had to go back and run it.
I went back and ran it for two weeks. They rushed me to the hospital—the same one my brother was in—he never knew this—but they rushed me to the hospital, thinking I was having a heart attack because of the stress of running a propane business in the midst of—you know, people were worrying about freezing to death—
Dennis: —I mean, it was tough. Then, a few months later, I’d stayed home—I don’t know why on that particular day—but it was clear that it was a good idea I did because Barbara was doing her exercises and said she felt faint. Her heart took off racing—we could feel it beating. Rushed her to the hospital, and she demonstrated 300 beats a minute—that’s five beats a second—for almost eight hours. She almost died.
She had asthma. She had her lungs filling up with fluid, and her heart was just fluttering.
It was a congenital heart defect that she had that we later had repaired; but at the end of this period of time—30 days later—we found out she was pregnant with our third child.
Dennis: So, we wondered if she’d be able to give birth to a healthy baby. For the next nine months—I mean, everything was coming at us—and it was coming unhinged. It was a pretty challenging set of 12 months that we went through. And our commitment to our own marriage was—I don’t think has ever been tested any more than that 12-month period—and that’s the year we started FamilyLife / 1976 and ’77.
Bob: Any crisis of faith / any thought about leaving staff and doing something else?
Dennis: Never thought about quitting. Never thought about quitting our marriage—even though there was no romance / there were no feelings because you were so numb from all the issues you were facing, one thing after another. I mean, after her heart took off racing, she had extra heart beats—I had extra heart beats / the kids had extra heart beats.
I mean, we were pretty focused on health issues; and FamilyLife was a very fledgling start-up ministry. It would have been very easy to shut it down, but never once entertained that thought.
Bob: When did you get the word that Don Meredith, who had been tasked by Cru to give leadership to this fledgling ministry, was going to head off and do something different?
Dennis: About a year later—about a year later, he was getting ready to head out. So, at that point, we wondered if—
Bob: Did he just call you into the office and say—
Dennis: Oh, he just shared what he was getting ready to do—that he and Sally felt like God was leading them to another location and to do something else. After the leaders of Cru asked four different people to come be the Director and couldn’t find anyone to lead it, there was no one left for them to challenge. So, they came to us and asked us to do it.
And I really love this story because I wouldn’t have asked me to have done it either at the ripe old age of 30.
Dennis: I mean, you wouldn’t have a 30-year-old to head up a major ministry to marriages and families; but of course, at that point, it wasn’t a major ministry to marriages and families—it was just this little thing.
Bob: But it was growing every year and being effective—
Bob: —and staff were saying: “This is good. We want to come back.” And you were seeing fruit from it and thought, “We’ve got to keep doing this because there are people who need this.”
Dennis: And we did one in La Jolla, California—I’ll never forget this—we wondered if God was still for us because it was a crisis of faith of sorts. And I’ll never forget a couple came up to me, who’d been married for 40 years, who had been required to attend by Cru. Usually, something you are required to do is not necessarily going to fly like you’ve chosen to be there.
Bob: Not that excited about it.
Dennis: Yes; exactly. But he was really excited about it:
“I wish we had heard this 40 years ago. Our marriage would have been different today if we had received this training.” It was kind of the ultimate “‘at a boy” to a young man who really was emerging out of boyhood into adulthood; and I remember thinking: “God’s with us. Keep going”; and we did.
Bob: By the end of 1978, you’d been at it for two years. The Merediths had left. Had the Yoders left at that point?
Dennis: No; the Yoders were there. They left the next year, as I recall.
Bob: So, it’s just you; or had you assembled some additional staff?
Dennis: There were a few more staff that had come to join us; but it was, then, Bob, that we decided to develop a speaker team. And it was—really, this is the genius of how God does stuff. Somehow, in our young age, we had enough sense to realize: “If we built this around us, as a couple, it could crush us in our marriage and family—number one.
“Number two, we were going to put a lid on it and limit the amount we could go do. And number three, you would miss out on different people’s perspective of teaching this material through their lives.” So, we built a speaker team.
Initially, it was a very small team. By then, we’d been able to start taking our wives to the conference. So, we asked two or three couples to join us. So, in 1980/’81, you began to see us expand this little ministry out to eight, to twelve, to sixteen conferences around the country. Wherever it went, people came.
Bob: Didn’t matter who was speaking?
Dennis: It did not matter, and I can’t tell you how liberating it was. I’ll never forget this—I can show you the spot in the road where Barbara and I were on a date on a Friday night. It was about 7:30. We knew there was a conference taking place in a city that had like five or six hundred people at it, and we weren’t there—
—we were on a date. We turned to each other and said: “This is fantastic! It doesn’t have to be built around us.”
And the other thing, Bob—these were back in the days when it was the Max Lucados, and the Chuck Swindolls, and the Howard Hendrickses, and the famous and the elite speakers of the day—Jim Dobson—that were all having thousands of people come to their events. It felt like it had to be built around someone famous or someone of notoriety to attract people and to make it work.
Yet, from the very start, we were able to build this thing out where people did not know who was speaking; and they would come. That, to me—I look back on this, 40 years later, that, to me, today is still—
—think about it—all these acts in Las Vegas are built around people. All these rock concerts around the country—they’re built around singing groups / famous musicians.
Yet, what FamilyLife has done is—we’ve touched millions of people, and we’ve tricked them—they’ve come, and they didn’t know who was speaking! But they got quality speakers, quality content; and more importantly, they met Jesus Christ there and had an encounter with Him that evidently transformed their lives because we didn’t have a marketing department to give birth to this ministry—it was all word of mouth.
It was about, really, people telling people what God had done in their lives because they came to this FamilyLife marriage conference that was headquartered in Little Rock, Arkansas, of all places. It was making an impact in people’s lives. It was growing 20/30/40 percent a year, year after year.
It was exciting because it was God doing it and had begun to have hundreds of volunteers coming alongside it. Staff started coming here / more speakers came onboard.
I mean, what a privilege to be a spectator—I, literally, feel like, 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, going, “How in the world did that happen?” You can only explain it back to Ephesians, Chapter 3, verse 20: “Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to Him [indeed] be the glory.”
Bob: Well, I know that there are folks listening today—because we run into these folks, from time to time, who say, “I went to one of those early conferences in the late 70’s / early 80’s,”—we think it would be great, if you are one of those folks, go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com, and share your story.
Dennis: Yes. It’s a little bit like somebody who was there when there was a no-hitter. It’s like the ballpark would only hold 40,000 people; and there’s like millions of people who were at the no-hitter. It’s really interesting to see how many people were at these conferences, back when they first started. I don’t remember them all being there, but they were! [Laughter] It’s really fun. I don’t know what we’ll call the early years; but maybe, up until the mid-80s, those were incredible years—I mean, God showed up and showed off.
Bob: You think back over those years—we were reaching, first, thousands and, then, tens of thousands of people back in the early years. Today, with what we’re able to do via radio each week, on our website, at the events we continue to host, we are reaching millions of people every year.
It’s incredible to think that, from those humble beginnings, has grown this ministry that is providing, today, practical biblical encouragement, help, and hope for millions of couples all around the world.
And we had no idea—back at the beginning—that we’d ever get to where we are today. We’ve gotten here because we’ve had friends, along the way, who have said: “This is important. We believe in this. What you are doing is making a difference. It’s made a difference in our lives, and we want to see others impacted the same way this ministry has had an impact on us.”
Those folks have come alongside us and contributed—and not only made this daily radio program possible / not only made our web ministry possible—things like our new mobile app that’s available for our Android or iOS that’s now available. We’ve got thousands of people who are downloading that for free. You can go to your app store and download; or if you have questions about it, you can go to FamilyLifeToday.com.
All of this has happened because of folks, like our listeners, who have said, “This is important.” And we want to say, “Thank you for your partnership with us.” As we celebrate 40 years, we want you to celebrate along with us, especially if you’ve been a part of this ministry as a financial contributor.
You can make a contribution—in fact, a lot of folks this week have been going online and saying, “We want to give $40 as a way to celebrate 40 years”; and that’s been an encouragement to our staff. Thank you for your support. You can make a donation of $40, or $400, or whatever number you want to choose. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com to donate, or call 1-800-FL-TODAY. Or mail your donation to us at FamilyLife Today at PO Box 7111, Little Rock, AR; and our zip code is 72223.
Now, tomorrow, we’re going to hear about the very first book that Dennis and Barbara Rainey wrote, back in the mid-1980s, and how, once again, God used that book in a lot of people’s lives. That comes up tomorrow. Hope you can be here for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas. Help for today. Hope for tomorrow.
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