Leading FamilyLife Into the Future

Millennial Outreach Pioneer David Robbins Succeeds Founder Dennis Rainey

By Ken Walker

David Robbins and Meg Gieselmann met at the University of Mississippi. A junior and leader of a Cru (then Campus Crusade for Christ) community group, David found himself captivated by this freshman newcomer. Because of his leadership position, David held off asking Meg out until after the semester. But it only took a couple dates before he declared, “I don’t know where this will lead, but I want you to know I’m serious.”

Three years later, the Robbinses embarked on a romantic life of wedded bliss. It included two years of campus work in Italy, launching Cru’s Millennials Ministry to 20-somethings while living in New York, and the glamor of nationwide travel. Well . . . that would be the cinematic version. The real-life account includes a son born with cystic fibrosis, David’s struggle with workaholism, and the adjustments every couple must make to reach their 17th anniversary. It’s also a story that will become more familiar to followers of FamilyLife, which recently welcomed the first successor to founder Dennis Rainey.

Dennis Rainey (left) welcomes David Robbins (right) as the next president and CEO of FamilyLife.

Changing of the Guard

Even though David became president and CEO of FamilyLife last December, the change is more of a gradual transition than an abrupt switch. Dennis, who authored many of his 35-plus books with wife Barbara, will continue mentoring leaders. He will also host its nationally syndicated radio program through the end of 2018. Barbara plans to still write her Ever Thine Home blog and other resources.

Dennis’ name will remain in the limelight through The Art of Parenting, a video-driven online course and small group curriculum that released this spring. Aimed at helping parents navigate the challenges of parenting, a companion book written by Dennis releases Aug. 28. The book and curriculum are linked to FamilyLife’s new full-length feature film, Like Arrows (see sidebar at end).

Leading a Ministry With an Immense Reach and Impact

Humble and self-effacing, David is realistic about the challenges of replacing a leader who has made such a major impact. In addition to a radio show reaching 1.6 million listeners weekly, FamilyLife produces a wealth of books and study materials aimed at couples and families. Overseas, its international division relies on 20,000 volunteer lay leaders to spread its message to 105 nations.

The ministry sees nine million visitors a year to its website (www.familylife.com) and hosts 95 Weekend to Remember events annually. Over the years, three million have attended these marriage retreats, with 96% saying the event positively impacted their marriage. Among comments after recent weekends:

  • Colorado Springs: “We were ‘seconds’ away from divorce. (This) changed our outlook and softened our hearts.”
  • Cincinnati: “I came for my wife and realized this was for me.”
  • Grand Rapids: “Helped us remove a ‘mountain’ between us that was really only a wall.”

Recognizing the responsibilities of taking the helm of such a multifaceted effort, when asked to consider it, David prayed: “Lord, are You leading this? If I try to do this apart from You, I will suffocate.” Today, he thinks often of Colossians 1, which says God is before all things, in all things, and holds everything in His hands.

“In some ways it feels like I’m replacing a living legend,” said David, who earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration at Mississippi. “In other ways I know it’s a calling from the Lord. As long as I’m prepared to follow where He leads, God will continue to be glorified through this ministry.”

Preparing FamilyLife for the Future

It’s not every day that a 40-year-old father of four — ranging from 1 year old to 11 — replaces a 70-year-old leader who is so well-known in evangelical circles. Yet, in some ways the changing of the guard is attuned to such a time as this. In addition to rolling out Art of Parenting (its largest resource launch ever), FamilyLife recently premiered its redesigned website.

FamilyLife is also strategizing ways to reach new audiences digitally — as David puts it, not as an afterthought, but on the front end. Not only is cyberspace today’s public square, the ministry must recognize generational shifts that have occurred since the ministry’s birth in 1976, he said. Baby Boomers reaching adulthood in that era trusted institutions, while the Gen-Xers of David’s generation looked more to individual leaders. Now, Millennials and the younger Generation Z trust networks of people the most. What that means is that younger adults put a lot of stock in what a friend has to say about marriage on Instagram — as much as they would a Dennis Rainey or longtime FamilyLife speaker and pastor Crawford Loritts.

“Relational authority is such a big thing,” David said. “We have to journey alongside people and not act like we’re the experts and we’ll tell them how to do it. We have to say, ‘We want to do marriage well, but we’re all broken; none of us is good enough in ourselves to make things work.’”

Equipped for the Assignment

One FamilyLife veteran thinks David is well-suited for the task. Ron Deal, a longtime ministry speaker and director of FamilyLife Blended since 2012, sees the shift as part of remaining relevant to a changing culture. Ron admires the way Dennis (who raised the subject of changing culture 12 years ago) prepared for his successor. He also appreciates the fresh perspectives and new energy that he has observed in the new CEO.

“It’s inevitable that new leadership must sprout and help an organization dream again about who they are and what they have to offer the kingdom,” said Ron, author of Daily Encouragement for the Smart Stepfamily. “We may end up in the same spot, but that process means having more buy-in from those who work for the ministry.”

Ron thinks Meg Robbins will also prove an asset to the ministry, even though her primary duty at present is raising four youngsters. He said Meg is impressive in front of an audience and quite capable of representing FamilyLife.

“The thing I appreciate about her and David is their commitment to be transparent,” he said. “They are vulnerable about their shortcomings. There are no pretenses and no assumptions. It makes you want to listen to them. You feel they are with you on the journey.”

David and Meg Robbins with their four children.

A Ministry Changing Lives One Couple at a Time

Last fall, David and Meg invited a couple in New York to a Weekend to Remember; the wife was a new believer but the husband wasn’t that interested in spiritual conversations. Still, during the weekend the couple experienced a profound understanding of forgiveness. Later, the husband told David, “I want to leave a legacy for my children and the next generation. I want to have spiritual conversations with my wife and people like you in order to a leave a healthy legacy for my son.”

The fact that their conversations continue illustrates FamilyLife’s goal: to be a key resource for couples facing a marital crisis, the gritty realities of parenting, or those disconnected from a local church. In many ways, the ministry has already been that for millions. David’s past experience with Cru made him acutely aware of FamilyLife’s work. However, until touring the nation last November for screenings of Like Arrows, he didn’t recognize the depth of its reach.

One couple told him they had sent FamilyLife a bottle containing the ashes of what had been their divorce papers. Another who married in their mid-teens now host small groups to help the next generation of marriages. Both credited the ministry with helping them survive their crises.

“I knew those stories existed, but for the first four months I heard story after story,” David says. “It’s been overwhelming to get to hear them day after day as I travel. It’s also been amazing to see the quality of the people at FamilyLife and how they serve.”

The Unchanging Foundation of the Ministry

For those who wonder if a new leader means a departure from its time-honored traditional or biblical values, David reassures Christians they have no cause for concern. He plans to use his own experience and scriptural teaching to help expose what he calls “phantom marriage.” David’s term refers to the idealistic and unrealistic views that originate with online postings, Instagram comparisons, and Hollywood images.

“For 42 years FamilyLife has focused on strengthening marriages and families and we are so committed to keep doing that,” David said. “We’re at a time where, as Millennials have become the largest generational adult cohort, it is crucial that Psalm 145 gets lived out. That “one generation shall commend [God’s] work to another and declare [His] mighty acts.” That’s what we’re doing here with this transition. We look forward to the next 40 years.”

The Art of Parenting

Parenting: Don’t go it alone. That’s the theme of FamilyLife’s Art of Parenting, a video-driven online course and small-group curriculum designed to help parents form a biblical foundation to guide their children’s lives. The series aligns with Like Arrows, FamilyLife’s first full-length feature film, which debuted in more than 800 theaters. With Alex and Steve Kendrick (founders of Sherwood Pictures) as executive producers, the film chronicles the forces that cause a couple to reconsider their parenting strategies. Like Arrows will be released on DVD this fall for churches to use for kickoff events to introduce the small group material.

“Our goal with Like Arrows and FamilyLife’s Art of Parenting is to have these unique tools create conversations about intentional parenting and biblical principles,” said FamilyLife President David Robbins.

The movie emerged from the storyline for FamilyLife’s Art of Parenting. To launch each session, FamilyLife intially envisioned using a string of short film clips to follow a couple’s parenting journey but decided it told a better narrative in one sitting.

“We’re calling Like Arrows session zero, where a church or small group can watch it together to get the conversation going,” Robbins said. “I have yet to be in a room where, after the lights go back on, people aren’t teared up or crying, and having great conversations.”

FamilyLife’s Art of Parenting curriculum is available in two formats: a free self-paced online course for parents balancing hectic schedules, and an interactive group study for parents who want to draw from the strength of community. Led by parenting experts such as Dr. Meg Meeker, Elyse Fitzpatrick, Phil Vischer, and Tim and Darcy Kimmel, the eight-session curriculum includes topics such as character, discipline, relationships, and identity. A companion book by Dennis Rainey, under the same title, will be released Aug. 28.

A freelance writer and book editor from Huntington, West Virginia, Ken Walker and his wife once attended a series of marriage workshops that used Dennis Rainey’s book, Building a Better Marriage.

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