October 15, 2008 Volume 22, Number 15
Focus on the Family Canada: 25 years of "helping families thrive"
Canadian organization uses slightly different lens
By Harold Jantz | Special to ChristianWeek
Terence Roston: focusing on the needs of Canadian families. PHOTO: COURTESY FOCUS ON THE FAMILY
Though it might sound simple, defending the natural family is one of the toughest jobs undertaken by any Christian group in Canada.
Focus on the Family Canada recently ran a series of ads in newspapers and on radio, which were meant, according to Derek Rogusky, vice-president of family policy, to "encourage mothers and fathers while promoting the idea that marriage is worth protecting." The ads argued that opposite-sex couples form families that are the backbone of the country; their marriages should be protected.
An Ontario groupthe Ontario Consultants on Religious Toleranceassessed the response to ads placed by Focus on the Family Canada.
But a letter writer in the Vancouver Province ranted, "It is these messages that say to people that it is all right to load up their cars with baseball bats and beat someone to death because he or she is gay."
It's in the face of such hostility that Focus on the Family has carried on its work in Canada for 25 years, made especially difficult because the predominant culture has shifted so strongly toward acceptance of abortion, treating homosexual unions as equal in value to heterosexual marriages and is now edging toward an embrace of assisted suicide.
Focus on the Family got its start in the United States in 1977 through the influence of James Dobson. The child psychologist had garnered wide public attention in 1971 after the publication of his book Dare to Discipline, which argued for the use of corporal punishmentalbeit in a measured fashionto bring children under control.
Early in his ministry he began producing a daily radio program that is now heard in a dozen languages on more than 7,000 stations worldwide, some 140 of them in Canada. Despite his sometimes controversial positions, Dobson has a strong following in Canada.
Focus on the Family Canada walks a careful line, paying close attention to the rules for Canadian charities in its attempt to live up to the mission of its parent ministry. In the simplest terms, Focus Canada exists to "help families to thrive," says president Terence Rolston.
To do that Focus has developed a number of approaches. One is the use of radio broadcasts, mostthough not allof which originate in Colorado Springs, where the U.S. group is based. Since the Canadian medical system is "dramatically different" from the U.S. system, says Rolston, broadcasts that deal directly with that subject would not be used here. Focus also puts on training events such as The Truth Project that will take place in Winnipeg and Vancouver in November. (www.thetruthproject.org).
It also produces and distributes books and magazines, and has placed family life speakers across Canada who are available to speak in churches and to community groups.
After 25 years, says Rolston, "we are trying to maximize the use of technology." For Focus that means trying to get as close to individual families and their needs as possible, "narrowing the focus" of the content to "their stages of life" and the cultural experience of Canadian families.
The training conferences, for example, are designed to "equip people to take the materials and do home or small group studies on how God reveals Himself in all areas of lifea Christian worldview kind of program," says Rolston.
To assist its outreach, in 2006 Focus Canada created an Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, which it located in Ottawa. Directed by David Quist and a small company of researchers and writers, the Institute gathers research done by its own staff or by academics elsewhere.
The research is sent to elected officials, government bureaucrats, the media and generally into the "public square," says Quist. Staff submit op-ed pieces to several major daily papers and take every opportunity to be available for radio interviews. Quist says he was especially gratified when an interviewer told him, "I don't always agree with you guys, but you present good information."
In presentations to parliamentary committees, the institute has addressed the use of spanking, what constitutes reasonable discipline, the age of sexual consent and has spoken to the last three federal budgets.
The idea is to present "good, solid social science research... that supports marriage and family," says Quist. "We see ourselves as advocates rather than activists... presenting research based on strong academic work."
Issues like abortion or gay marriage that are flashpoints for huge debate within the U.S. settingand into which James Dobson regularly wadesdon't appear directly on the institute's list of themes. They are there, however. Rolston maintains Focus Canada works at these in a "holistic" fashion. It builds on pillars such as the dignity of the human person, the sanctity of life and our relationship to God.
How independent is the Focus Canada from its parent in the U.S. or partners in other countries? Rolston says it is both independent and a partner. "We are completely independent, but we are also partners and cooperate in many ways... We recognize the stewardship of that. If there's a good program developed somewhere, everyone can use it. The decisions and choices of what we use [are] ours."
Focus Canada also covers all its own expenses. With between 80 and 90 staff and a budget of close to $11 million for the coming year, it carries substantial costs. All of the radio time is paid for from Canadian income, as well the operations of the Langley, B.C. and Ottawa offices.
At its 25th birthday, Focus on the Family in Canada is "re-expressing" itself, says Rolston, identifying anew its mission to a new generation of Canadian families. Rolston could be mistaken for a gospel preacher as he explains The Truth Project. He talks of "how God reveals himself in all areas of lifein creation, in education; in everything from the medical field, to the social sphere, to our families and marriages.
"We have a mandate to share the truth of Christ," he says, "the fullness of that gospel with every area of life... As we help families be equipped to deal with issues, we also want to help them understand God better."