[I am working on a project that may become a book on the most influential evangelicals leaders of our generation, since 1976, and the impact they’ve had on the church and their times. I will introduce them briefly on this blog from time to time. Who should be on this list?]

#7 James Dobson. The Voice b. 1936

The rise and radio reach of former USC psychologist James Dobson made him one of the most heard, respected (and among those opposed to his conservative political and positions, despised) public figures of his generation. His Focus on the Family program, which he started in a storefront office in Arcadia, California, in 1977, provided enormous help to parents and spouses through a radio program that was one of the nation’s most popular in any genre. At Dobson’s zenith, there was not a more powerful figure in evangelicalism.

In his final years of work at Focus on the Family, it had become difficult to recall the early days of James Dobson’s radio program. Shuttered behind high security doors of an immense Colorado headquarters, Dobson’s public voice had become increasingly polemic and political. The family-doctor persona had developed an edge, and his ministry was losing the distinctiveness of the original family-focused brand.

As one Christian publishing executive told me: “Focus on the Family sees their organization and the message for families, which is more needed than ever, now marginalized not by people outside the community of faith where those impressions have been entrenched for quite some time, but inside the community of faith where perceptions among 20 -30 year olds is that Focus is 90% political and 10% about the family.”

With Dobson stepping more squarely into the political arena in the last decade, what was known at Focus as the organization’s “nurturing” side—the lifeblood of the ministry—had been overshadowed in the public eye.

I know and like James Dobson. I’ve spent time with him on many occasions, and I have admiration for what he has done to help families. His accomplishments are enormous, and Focus on the Family (which by the way is one of the great organization names, because the name states the mission) is a powerhouse advocate for the family. It is wrong to dismiss the contributions of James Dobson because he yielded to the seduction of political power, and it is short-sighted to focus on Dobson’s political involvement, which—while not without impact—was the least successful and important of his endeavors.

His impact on Christian radio and the extent of his help to parents over many decades cannot be overstated. The Focus on the Family daily radio program airs on more than 2,000 radio stations, and has some 1.5 million listeners a day—enormous by Christian radio standards.

Son of a Nazarene Preacher
James C. Dobson Jr. was born to Myrtle and James Dobson in Shreveport, Louisiana, and from his earliest childhood, Christian faith was a central part of his life. He once told a reporter that he learned to pray before he learned to talk. In fact, he says he gave his life to Jesus at the age of three, in response to an altar call by his father. He is the son, grandson, and great-grandson of Church of the Nazarene ministers. His father, James Dobson Sr. (1911–1977), never went to college, choosing instead the life of a traveling evangelist. Dobson’s father was well-known in the southwest, and he and Mrs. Dobson often took their young son along so that he could watch his father preach. Like most Nazarenes, they forbade dancing and going to movies, so young “Jimmie Lee” (as he was called) concentrated on his studies, and also excelled at tennis.

Dobson studied psychology, which in the 1950s and 1960s was not looked upon favorably by most evangelical Christians. He came to believe that he was being called to become a Christian counselor or perhaps a Christian psychologist.[ He decided to pursue a degree in psychology, and ultimately received his doctorate in that field in 1967 from the University of Southern California.

Dobson first became well-known with the publication of Dare to Discipline, which encouraged parents to practice firm and decisive discipline in rearing their children.

Dobson married his wife, Shirley, on August 26, 1960; they have two children, Danae and Ryan. Ryan Dobson, a graduate of Biola University, is a public speaker in his own right, speaking on issues relating to youth, the philosophical belief in ontological truth, and the pro-life movement. Ryan Dobson was adopted by the Dobsons and is an ardent supporter of adoption, especially adoption of troubled children. Ryan says he spent years rebelling against the expectation that he should follow in his father’s footsteps. But he eventually found a calling: preaching at youth events. He formed Kor Ministries.He is as opposed to abortion and homosexuality as his father, but his tone is edgier. Reviewing the first book he co-wrote, “Be Intolerant: Because Some Things are Just Stupid,” Publishers Weekly said it had “all the subtlety of a two-by-four to the side of the head.”

Transition out of Focus

James Dobson has been moving toward retirement for several years, relinquishing the chief executive role in 2003, and the position of chairman of the board in 2009. But the decision to step away from his role as the host of the daily Focus program was clearly the board’s, not Dobson’s, and many believe the board had decided to strike a less strident political posture.

Nonetheless, Dobson clearly wasn’t ready to hang up his microphone, and he announced that he will launch a nonprofit Christian group and host a new radio show with Ryan. His radio agency, Ambassador Advertising, promoted the new program–Family Talk with Dr. James Dobson–at the 2010 National Religious Broadcasters convention as “a voice you trust for the family you love, merging a fun and inviting tone with topics that families wrestle with every day.”

Filed under: ChristianityJim

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