By Dennis Rainey
There have been numerous times when God has shown up in our lives. Our dating, engagement, and getting married … all took place in less than four months. Barbara’s heart beating 300 beats a minute for seven hours and the prayers of a widow that saved her life. The circumstances ordered by God to adopt our daughter Deborah. And there are more, way too many to share now.
I was reminded recently of these God stories when I was in Boulder, Colorado, and presented one of the eulogies for a friend, David Sunde, 83, who’d just received his “graduation papers” to heaven. David and his wife Sandy, served on the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ (Cru) for over 40 years. And he played a key role in two God-shaped events that redirected our lives early in our marriage.
Back in the mid-1970s, Cru was experiencing incredible growth due to the nationwide revival of the Jesus movement on college campuses. Cru’s number of full-time staff grew from a few hundred to over four thousand in just a few years.
Most of these new staff members were single, so naturally Cru became a “happy hunting grounds” for finding a marriage partner. But as these young couples married, many had no idea that their marriages were taking place on a “spiritual battlefield.” They faced intense spiritual attack while trying to build a marriage relationship as they also sought to share the claims of Christ with college students.
The leadership of Cru was concerned about the health of these married couples, so in 1975 they sent three leaders from their national team—David, Sande, and Ney Bailey—to attend the first-ever “U. S. Congress on the Family” being held in St. Louis.
At this event the delegates were challenged by one of the speakers, Dr. Howard Hendricks of Dallas Theological Seminary, to address the national breakdown of the family by equipping engaged couples with the biblical blueprints of marriage. Hendricks illustrated the need by saying that, in the Dallas/Fort Worth area where he lived, it took three weeks of intensive training to become a garbage collector. “But about all you have to do to get married is to stand before a pastor or a justice of the peace and grunt … and you are in! You’re married!”
Hendricks went on to challenge conference attendees to create marriage preparation courses to train couples in what the Scriptures have to say about marriage and family. David, Sande, and Ney returned from the conference and challenged the leaders of Cru to launch a marriage preparation ministry for Cru staff.
The leaders responded with an unexpected “No!”
Then God showed up as Ney bowed and put her head down on the table and began sobbing. She told me later, “It was as though God was weeping for marriages and families through me.”
And the men on the Cru leadership team did what all men do when a woman cries … they changed their mind! And the “Marriage Preparation and Family Emphasis” was launched.
The Cru leadership asked three couples to help start this ministry—Don and Sally Meredith, Mick and Helen Yoder, and Barbara and me. Mick and I came alongside Don and helped him create a marriage preparation conference for Cru staff members who were either engaged or contemplating engagement. We created “fill in the blank” notes for each message and created practical application projects for the couples to discuss after each message. It wasn’t fancy.
Forty-three singles came to the first conference in the fall of 1976. The three of us men spoke at the conference because we didn’t have enough money to take our wives. So the highlight of the conference for the women was one of us men giving the message on the “Wife’s Role in Marriage.” NOT!
Over the next two years we held several more of these conferences for engaged Cru staff, but there were a few married couples who snuck in! The response to these conferences was very favorable. After each conference we edited and sharpened the messages to make them more effective.
In the spring of 1979 Cru leadership began to take notice of this newly minted “emphasis” and they decided that it needed an executive director. They contacted three different couples to head it up, failing to notice that I had already been operating as director for two years!
All three of the couples turned down the offer to give leadership (one couple said “no” twice) to the ministry. In the meantime, I had been giving leadership to the ministry and I was hurt that they had overlooked me as a possibility. I wanted to quit.
This is where David Sunde stepped in again and called several times to encourage me and coach me “off the ledge” of bailing out.
In the midst of our drama God also showed up with a financial gift to our personal support. As many of you know, Cru staff raise their financial support to serve in a ministry. We are supported by the faithful gifts of dozens of faithful donors.
In the midst of our situation we received a one-time gift of $5,000 from a couple we had met only one time. When I opened their letter and saw the check, I immediately thought, “Why would God direct them to give at a time when we were about to quit?”
The answer to my question was almost immediate: “Well perhaps God doesn’t want you to quit!”
So we didn’t quit, although we teetered. We persevered through our doubts.
That was one of the best decisions Barbara and I have ever made.
Looking back now, I wouldn’t have offered me the job, either. Humanly speaking I was too young—only 30 with three young children. I didn’t have enough training or experience in marriage and family to lead this expanding ministry. I didn’t know what I didn’t know!
But when nobody else would take the job, Cru finally offered it to me; in essence, I was their fifth-round draft choice. Looking back, it was good for my humility.
Barbara and I are really glad that God didn’t let us quit! He put David Sunde and an unexpected donor into our lives to encourage us. In spite of our inexperience and many mistakes along the way, God used an eager, teachable young couple for more than four decades to help grow FamilyLife into a global lighthouse for families. What an incredible adventure it was. I love to say, “FamilyLife is a ministry in spite of, not because of me!”
By the way, back in 1995 I wrote to Dr. J. Allan Peterson, the man who founded that first “U.S. Congress on the Family.” I told him a little of what God had done through his faith and obedience—how FamilyLife had been birthed at his Congress in 1975 and that we’d hosted hundreds of premarried and marriage conferences in the US, training tens of thousands of couples by that time and had begun training nationals to take this to the world.
We later met for dinner, and he told me that the timing of my letter was ordained by God. He wept as he told me how that original conference lost over $100,000, and my letter arrived at the same time that he and his wife made their last installment payment and paid off the debt. It was, as he said in a letter, a reminder that you never know how God will use your efforts. (Here’s a photo of a letter he sent me.)
Since 1976 over five million people have been trained at what has now become the Weekend to Remember marriage getaway in more than 80 cities. And millions more impacted through our video conferences, digital resources on the worldwide web and biblical teaching through the daily radio program “FamilyLife Today.”
I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes: Only God knows the number of apples that will come from an apple seed! And only God knows how He uses people in our lives at just the right time to lead us. What a privilege to harvest a few apples, plant seeds, and see God birth apple orchards in more than 110 countries!
To God be the glory!
P.S. When you minister to families with God’s biblical blueprints, you will see God “show up” in many ways. If you are interested in helping Barbara and me as we lead TheRaineys.org and Ever Thine Home, please consider making a financial gift to one of these organizations as we near the end of 2023. Click here to give to TheRaineys.org or here to donate to Ever Thine Home. It’s a great opportunity to be involved where God is working in families globally!
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