Focus on the Family:

What Can We Learn from Their Work?

Past issues of Servants' News have contained many articles about the governing of "church organizations"—primarily Sabbath-keeping groups. We believe that there is something to be learned by looking at the accomplishments and plans of other organizations that seem to be filling a need among the Eternal's people, even though they are doctrinally far away.

My wife and I personally know of dozens of Sabbath-keepers who have received help for their families from Focus on the Family, an organization founded and led by Dr. James Dobson. We know of "Church of God" ministers, even "top evangelists" that use and recommend his literature. We have found it helpful in our own family. As far as we know, no "Church of God" group has comparable materials. Dr. Dobson and his associates are good at explaining Biblical principles of marriage and family in a way that our modern generation can understand and apply.

Yet, they believe in a Trinitarian God, the observing of Christmas and Easter, and other doctrines which would clearly classify them as "evangelical Protestant." They believe that salvation is possible without knowing the biblical law. Yet, most of what they teach is essentially the application of biblical law! Is the Eternal using them for His purpose, or is all of the help that people have received from them a "fortunate accident?"

Before reaching a conclusion on the matter, let us look at a brief history of Focus on the Family as related by James Dobson in a subscriber letter of April 1996:

Focus on the Family was born in the spring of 1977 , shortly after I had resigned from the faculty of the University of Southern California, School of Medicine. I left the security of academia to write books, to do some broadcasting, to hold a few seminars, and to address what I believed to be the approaching disintegration of the family. The initial signs of decay were evident everywhere.

Thus, I opened a little two-room office in Arcadia, California, hired a half-time secretary (Mrs Dee Otte) and with the help of a $35,000 grant from Tyndale House Publishers, began a radio program heard once a week on 43 stations. It was a humble beginning, to be sure. I rented a typewriter for Dee and brought in a kitchen table to use as a desk. I dressed in sweaters, sneakers and khakis in those days (we had few visitors) and often rode to work on a bicycle. But at night, my wife and I were on our knees, asking the Lord to bless our meager efforts on behalf of hurting and wounded people.

Perhaps our faith was too small, because we were totally unprepared for what was about to happen. Within a few months, we were reeling backwards under a barrage of mail, telephone calls, speaking invitations and requests for counseling. Though we had underestimated the response, it was apparent that our underlying assessment had been correct—that the family was starting to come apart and needed all the help it could get. But how could one man deal with the needs that were brought to his door? In a word, he couldn't.

I began hiring and training staff to help me handle the mail and calls that streamed into our office. But while many people asked for assistance in those days, few remembered to contribute to the ministry. We soon ran out of money, which presented me with a theological dilemma. From the beginning, I had promised the Lord that I would never beg for funds or behave in ways that were disrespectful to His Kingdom. I figured if I worked hard and accepted no salary, the finances would take care of themselves. By the fall of 1979, however, our "payables" totaled about $30,000 more than our assets, and a decision had to be made.

One day in mid-October, my mother was visiting our home and we were talking to her about what we should do. Then the doorbell rang. Standing on the front porch was my old college friend Jim Davis, who is a valuable member of the Focus staff today. He had driven down from his home in Oregon to attend business meetings. But as he passed through our suburb, he felt led to stop by for a visit.

"Jim," I said, "Come in. You're just the person I want to see. We have a difficult problem to deal with, and I want you to pray with us about it."

With that, Shirley, Jim Davis, my mother and I went into our bedroom and got on our knees. I remember my prayer as though it were yesterday.

I said "Lord, I thought You led me to start this organization called Focus on the Family. It seemed clear that You wanted us to teach scriptural principles that people seem so hungry to hear. But now we have a financial need , and I wonder if I misunderstood Your choice. As You know, I don't believe it's right to spend money we don't have. If we're doing what You want us to do, this would be a good time to hear from You. But if the funds don't come in, I'm going to assume I made a mistake, and we'll close our doors."

The other members of our little group also prayed and asked the Lord to make possible the continuation of Focus on the Family.

And guess what? He was listening.! Two incredible things happened in the next 30 days. First, more than $60,000 was contributed to Focus in the month of November. More significantly, Word Publishers re leased a series of films shot during a seminar I had conducted the previous year in San Antonio, Texas. Predictably, it was called "Focus on the Family" and was eventually seen by 70 million people around the world. The series is still being shown today in Japan (you should see me speaking Japanese) and throughout Russia and other states of the former Soviet Union. That international exposure sent this ministry into orbit, and we haven't been back down to earth since.

Why do you suppose the unique blessing of the Lord has been on this work and on those who are called to serve in it ? It's a good question. Who can know the mind of God? There are certainly more worthy and dedicated Christian leaders who struggle to keep body and soul together. I can only conclude that the prominence of Focus on the Family has very little to do with Shirley, me or our staff. Instead, we've come to believe that there are two explanations for what has happened in these two decades.

The first is related to the prayer life of my father, who seemed to live in the presence of the Lord. While praying early one morning in 1977, he was given the assurance that his own ministry would reach millions of people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, although he would not live to see it. The Lord told him it would be accomplished through me. My dad suffered a massive heart attack the next day from which he never recovered. What a humbling legacy that has been handed down from the soul of this great man.

The second explanation for God's blessing is speculative, but it makes sense to me. The Lord has apparently chosen to place this ministry in the path of a cultural revolution that has shaken the very foundations of the family. It is not coincidental that we are positioned at the epicenter of this historic upheaval. Not only are we called to support the institution of marriage and parenthood, we are also asked to confront the evils of our day, including the campaigns to abort millions of babies, promote teen sexual promiscuity, legalize homosexual "marriages", interfere with parental rights, kill the sick and the elderly, outlaw religious expression in public life, and others. Literally, the gates of hell are arrayed against the church and the family today. Perhaps—and only God knows for sure—that is why He has commissioned us at this point in history.

Well, that is a quick and incomplete review of Focus on the Family's origins and how the ministry got to this moment. It's encouraging to look back for a moment or two, but we can't live in the past. There is more work to be done, and our primary energies must be directed toward the future. The issue before us now is, where do we go from here? That is a question that has occupied the attention of both our board of directors and our administrative staff in recent months. The result is not just an emphasis on the family, but primarily on the preeminence of evangelism. That is the heart and soul of this ministry. Let me share with you what we have concluded:

Our Vision:

How can Christians evangelize a society as complex and spiritually confused as North America in the 1990s? How do we break through to people here and around the world who no longer fear hell, are unconcerned about what God thinks, and even reject the existence of absolute truth or objective standards of "right" and "wrong"?

Servants' News: We find that Dr Dobson's organization began like other worthwhile religious organizations: He perceived a need that was not being answered and he stepped out, in faith, and tried to serve that need. He did not set out to gather a following or to be just another evangelical group "bringing people to Christ," but to teach the difference between "right" and "wrong" in matters relating to families.

Similarly, Herbert Armstrong departed from the Church of God Seventh Day so he could teach truth not accepted by that organization. His early ministry had many miracles and new converts. Later, he got involved in producing Quest magazine (which contained occult stories), a public concert series (which included Christmas programs) and other things far away from his original mission. He declared his organization to be the "one true church," even though he and his staff made no apparent effort to determine if the Eternal was working through other groups around the world.

We at Servants' News are concerned that Dr. Dobson's new recognition of the "preeminence of evangelism" will cause him to lose his " Focus on the Family." It sounds like an improvement, but if it stops him from doing what he has done so well already, it may not be. We continue with Dr. Dobson's letter (having left out a few paragraphs):

In scheduling our radio broadcasts, for example, we select highly practical topics that will interest people with no particular Christian commitment. Tucked within these discussions are elements of what we believe, although the presentation is subtle and inoffensive. Then, about every three weeks we typically schedule what is called a "harvest program," which focuses on a testimony or dramatic story of personal conversion. Repeatedly, we hear from people who became interested in the broadcast almost accidentally while spinning the radio dial, and then were introduced to Jesus Christ during one of these harvest programs. Nothing is more gratifying than to hear these accounts of personal conversion.

Servants' News: Obviously, real conversion is a good thing. But, it is a complete change of life—the biggest decision people will ever make. In the book of Acts, we find cases where people were converted after hearing one sermon. But, these were Jews and converts who had studied the scriptures all of their lives. They knew what the Eternal was like and how he expected them to get along with their neighbor. Today, the general public is largely ignorant of the Bible and has a completely false concept of what Jesus and Christianity is about. They may have no knowledge of real repentance, baptism, and the power of he holy spirit. Telling people that they are eternally "saved" because they "accepted Jesus" after hearing only a few radio programs is very misleading. While it is a mistake for men to judge whom the Eternal will give His spirit (Acts 10:44-45), the fruits of the lives of many who claim to be "saved" show that they have not received His spirit. They may be very excited and tell glowing stories of a quick conversion experience, but only weeks or months later it is "all over" and they become more convinced than ever before that the Bible does not have the answer for their lives. Furthermore, we must realize that we cannot "call" people with a good marketing program, but only the Father in heaven can (John 6:44,65).

It would seem that Dr. Dobson's former approach of teaching the Bible principles that produce peace in families would be far more beneficial. A person who is willing to live by these principles will be blessed for doing so whether they are called or not. After people with little Bible knowledge see how well it works over the years, they may then be ready for a life-time of commitment to the Great Writer of those laws and principles; and He may be ready to "call" them. They will have a basic understanding of the vast difference between the way that they have been living and the way that He expects them to live through the power of his spirit. Dr. Dobson continues:

To be candid, we have not always understood the unique opportunity available to us in this context. When Focus on the Family was organized back in 1977, it was our intent to teach and reinforce the fundamentals of child discipline, adolescent development, marital harmony and other principles of family living from a biblical perspective. Our message was designed mostly for believers who needed help applying traditional Christian understandings to their own circumstances. But in the overwhelming response to those early broadcasts, we saw the evangelistic implications of our message. While we were growing from a staff of two employees to more than 300 by 1982, and then, to 1,200 today, it has become apparent that the Lord was calling us to a higher purpose. We recognized the insufficiency of building stronger families if its members didn't know the Creator of families. Today, our raison d'etre is crystal clear. Everything we do, which encompasses 68 ministries around the world, is a function of the following mission statement adopted by our board of directors:

To cooperate with the Holy Spirit in disseminating the Gospel of Jesus Christ to as many people as possible, and specifically, to accomplish that objective by helping to preserve traditional values and the institution of the family.

Servants' News: This mission statement definitely sets evangelism as the number one priority and relegates his past success as only a means to accomplish that end. We hope this new primary goal will not render ineffective his excellent service of so many years. Also, we are a little dismayed by the wording " cooperate with the Holy Spirit" rather than "be led by it." "Cooperate" implies a relationship of near equals, not of submission to the power of the infinitely-wise Eternal. "Unless the Lord builds the house, They labor in vain who build it (Pslm 127:1). While this may be a "picky point" of wording, mission statements are usually composed by many people and each word is carefully chosen to say exactly what the group intends. Unfortunately, this attitude of human strength instead of Heavenly strength continues in the Mr. Dobson's letter—we have underlined a few places to bring this out:

Focus on the Family is uniquely positioned to capitalize on the changing social environment around the world. We are still a young, entrepreneurial organization. Ideas pop up rapidly and get talked about, refined and put into play with enthusiasm. The ministry prides itself in being lean and flexible, ready instantaneously to accept a new challenge or opportunity.

We spend very little time or money on fund raising. During the past fiscal year, fully 86 percent of our income was used to support our various ministries (87 percent in Canada), compared to only 4 percent for fund raising (8 percent in Canada) and 10 percent for general and administrative expenses (5 percent in Canada). Our energies are invested not only in radio and television, but also in print, motion pictures and videos, one to one contact with families via letters and phone calls, on-line and CD-ROM. Our daily 30-minute radio program is the second most widely syndicated show in America (after Paul Harvey). We also produce other radio programs that hold the third, fourth, fifth, seventh and eighth spots in the syndication standings. Focus on the Family is the second most widely read religious magazine in America (after Guideposts). Our videos are shown in more public schools than in churches. In the United States, we get enough mail every day to have been granted our own zip code.

We specialize in both the micro (helping a single mom in Ohio find the courage to face another week) and the macro (advising Congress about its family policies). We stand for absolute truth in a relativistic age. We believe:

·In the value of bearing and raising children

·In the permanence of marital relationships

·In the intrinsic worth of every human being on earth, including the unborn child

·In asking government and the church to make family life better, not worse

Focus continues its period of sustained growth. Nevertheless, the 2 million constituents on our mailing list represent only 2 percent of the 98 million households in America, and a tiny fraction of the world population. Obviously, there is so much left to be done.

Given that anticipated need into the foreseeable future, recent meetings have been held to answer two vital questions:

·What new programs can we initiate now?

· What would we do if significant additional resources were available?

The following items represent primarily our answers to the second question above, and we are asking the Lord for the wherewithal to expand this outreach exponentially.

Ways To Reach More People For The Lord

In order to penetrate up to 1 billion new households around the globe: Establish a radio presence in the more than 250 nations of the world.

Servants' News: Dr. Dobson's letter went on to establish many large goals of reaching the millions in America and the billions in the world at large. While not a one of these goals is a "sin," if Focus on the Family came to the point where they believed all of these goals were their "commission," they would, in essence, be the "one Church on Earth." This is particularly disturbing when we realize that Focus on the Family has endorsed the document Evangelicals and Catholics Together, The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium (see Servants' News, August 1996). This long, cleverly worded document co-authored by prominent evangelical Chuck Colson was a plan to bring Catholics and evangelicals together—keeping Catholic theology and authority largely intact. Also, according to Foundation Maga zine (May-June 1996, pp 6-12):

Dobson and Colson also have big plans for cleaning up the Church. Dobson reports that at a 5/23/96 Focus on the Family board meeting, the Board said that "'the Lord appears to have ordained two people at this time to speak to the issue of righteousness—Chuck Colson and myself"—and urged Dobson to work with Colson concerning the possibility of doing stadium rallies in 1997; Dobson said Colson was very excited about that. Dobson also said that the Focus Board has decided that the church needs cleaning up, and that he (Dobson) and Focus on the Family intend to take charge and make it happen, with "Chuck Colson's help."

Only the Eternal knows whether Dobson's motivations are really to help everyone or to gain power for himself. Because of his lack of understanding about the Sabbath and so many other fundamental doctrines, I am convinced that he has not been called to "clean up the church."

Nevertheless, this "I'm the one doing the work" mentality has affected servants of the Eternal from Moses (Num 20:10-12) to Elijah (1Kngs 19:10,18) to the present day. One notable exception was John the Baptist who realized his limitations (John 3:28-30)—this may be why the Messiah referred to him as the greatest man (Mat 11:11). We should not be surprised if other individuals and organizations today think that they are the main or only one "doing the work." On the other hand, we should not think they are no longer being used by the Eternal just because they make this mistake! The Eternal did not give up on Moses or Elijah because of their mistakes. We must remember that all humans are humans and Satan would like to deceive them all. Just because a person begins to go a certain direction, does not mean that he will not change later.

From an administrative perspective, reaching the world with the Gospel is not simply a matter of translating literature for Americans into other languages. Focus on the Family has some excellent literature on the heart-rending problems of what to do when you discover your spouse is having an affair. In some Eastern countries, that is an extremely rare problem—when it happens, the person simply proves the case to the authorities and the unfaithful spouse is executed. Compared to the United States of America, some countries have only a tiny fraction of the divorce, addiction, juvenile delinquency, homosexuality and other such problems. Do people in these countries still have need to learn from the Bible? Yes they do! They need to learn a lot about love, compassion, kindness and living at peace. But are they likely to respond to messages written about American problems? Probably not! They need literature and preaching from a person who understands the Bible as well as their problems and their culture.

We are not saying that Focus on the Family is ignorant of the difficulties of international evangelism. Their staff already contains people who are very knowledgeable of some countries and cultures. We are saying that the task of evangelizing the world is extremely complex and no one man can understand it all, let alone know the will of the Eternal on this matter

The next-to-last paragraph of the letter indicates that Mr Dobson realizes that their work must be based on the one True Foundation (1Cor 3:11), but continues to support the idea that they are planning their own agenda:

Do these objectives seem far-fetched and hopelessly out of reach? Perhaps. But who could have anticipated what God would do with a fledgling little one-man-band back in the spring of 1977? Actually, the possibilities I've listed are simply extensions of the programs under way in the 70 countries where we're actually broadcasting. Let me make it clear that we only want to pursue new ventures if we are led to do so. It has never been our purpose to grow as a ministry—but it is our passion to bring millions of people to Jesus Christ and to support the institution of the family in the nations of the world. And when it comes to that task, it's evident that "we've only just begun."

Servants' News: We hope that everyone at Focus on the Family will continue to serve the Eternal in the way that He chooses for them. They still have a great variety of books, magazines, tapes, and videos that help people deal with a variety of family situations—they use the truth of the Bible to teach lasting solutions. The issue is not necessarily conversion. Jehu (2Kng 10:28-31), Balaam and Balaam's ass did the will of the Eternal, but they were not converted. Our New Testament was copied and canonized by Trinitarians. Our Old Testament was maintained by some who did not believe Yeshua (Jesus) was the Messiah. I am certain that there are some people working for Focus on the Family who do not have the holy spirit. I am also certain that there are some people working at the headquarters of Sabbath keeping congregations who do not have the holy spirit. It is not our place to judge how the Eternal will personally deal with each person. We need to judge the teaching. We can accept teaching and the preaching from anywhere if it helps us and is in accordance with the scriptures.

The scriptures are full of examples of the Eternal using different people for different things; the scriptures on spiritual gifts (1Cor 12) confirm without doubt that not everyone has every gift (v29-30). Rather than looking for "the one right group" or one man to be our "spiritual leader," we need to find groups and individuals with specific gifts that can help us do what we need to do. (Also, we need to find out what our own gifts are and how we can serve others.)


We believe we can draw the following conclusions from our brief look at Focus on the Family:

1) Focus on the Family has helped a lot of people—including Sabbath-keeping "Church of God" members—to have better family relationships.

2) Organizations (and individuals) usually have both good and bad aspects. We can learn some biblical truth from an organization even though they have some doctrines that we now understand to be wrong. We can probably all remember a time when we held a wrong doctrine. We must always compare teaching to the scriptures. If we find ourselves absorbing the "bad" from an organization, we should depart from it immediately.

3) An organization that is helpful today may not be helpful tomorrow. It is easy for a good organization or leader to stray from their mission. If Focus on the Family, in the future, drops much of their sound teaching on families in order to concentrate on global evangelism, they may become much less helpful.

4) It is ultimately the Spirit that will guide us into all truth, not a specific teacher or organization (John 16:13). We can learn from a great many groups, but we must always guard our minds and "try the spirits."

Focus on the Family—what can we learn from their work? We can learn both from what they teach and from their example. We can learn a lot about families, we can learn to diligently pursue the work that the Eternal has given us to do, and we can learn not to stray from that work.

You may subscribe to the free Focus on the Family magazine and obtain more information by contacting Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, CO 80995, 800-232-6459.

Also, many of the best items from Focus on the Family are available on loan from Friends of the Family Library, 3127 Old Lorena Rd, Lorena, Texas 76655, 817-666-3682.

—Norman S. Edwards

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