Having considered the decline of family worship, as well as some biblical principles and positive benefits to support its practice, I’d now like to offer several basic guidelines that should govern our thinking and practice as we endeavor to implement family worship in our homes.
Be consistent and persistent
To achieve consistency, we need to plan a time for family devotions—especially if we have children. We can’t just approach family worship in a completely laissez-faire fashion. It requires that we sit the entire family down, compare each member’s daily routine, and then try to determine a time that would be good for the family as a whole. Depending upon the size of your family that may require some members to readjust and re-prioritize their own daily routine. Do whatever it takes to achieve a good degree of consistency.
Someone may ask, “How frequently should we have family devotions?” Many puritans believed that family worship should be conducted at least twice a day—once in the morning and once in the evening. They based this (1) on the OT pattern of regular morning and evening temple sacrifices (1 Chron. 16:40), and (2) on those passages that refer to meditating upon God’s law “day and night” (Ps. 1:2; Luke 2:37; 2 Tim. 1:3). Some Puritans practiced family worship three times a day on the basis of David’s prayer in Psalm 55:17: “Evening, morning and at noon, I will complain and murmur, and [God] will hear me.”
But as I pointed out in an earlier post, some of those references may be literary devises to indicate “at all times.” However we interpret them, I don’t believe we should apply them legalistically to the frequency of family devotions. Of course, they do have something to say about the frequency of our family worship. They do teach us that our worship should be a regular practice. Moreover, the Lord’s Prayer seems to assume some kind of daily corporate prayer: “Give us this day our dailybread” (Matt. 6:11). Our Confession of Faith uses this verse as a proof-text when it says in xx, 6, “God is everywhere to be worshipped in spirit and in truth; as, for instance, in the daily worship carried on in private families.1
So strive for regularity. And if you fail, don’t give up. Remember the apostle Paul’s encouraging words, “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9).
Be realistic and flexible
Don’t respond to these studies by attempting to become a Puritan overnight. Don’t require your family to meet two or three times a day for 60 minutes at each sitting–especially if they’re not used to that! It’s not realistic. It’s comparable to a man who has not jogged for 20 years to determine that he will jog 10 miles the next day. What often results is fatigue and burn out after the first few days. Then he’s right back where he started.
It’s better to start off easy. Shoot for once a day, and try to keep within a reasonable time-frame. Perhaps start off at 15 minutes a day, and then work your way up to 30 minutes. Furthermore, be flexible. Don’t feel that you must have it the same time every day. Of course, that is preferable for the sake of consistency. However, there may be one or two days in which the time must be changed to accommodate someone’s schedule. This is also true when you’re on family vacation. Allow for exceptions, but do not allow exceptions to become the rule.
Be simple and practical
Archibald Alexander writes, “The greatest simplicity should characterize every word, and every petition. Those who have the great interest [need] in the worship, are often little more than babes.”2 Don’t make topics like “supralapsarianism” the regular focus of your family worship. Strive for simplicity as a general rule. This will be better both for you and for your family. Not only will they profit more from the instruction, but also you will have less time needed to prepare.
Not only should your devotions be simple, but they should also be practical. Describing his father’s practice of family devotions, Matthew Henry writes,
What he read in his family he always expounded …. His expositions were not so much critical as plain, and practical, and useful, and such as tended to edification, and to answer the end for which the Scriptures were written, which is to make us wise unto salvation.3
Now we know where Matthew got his practical slant!
Parents, family worship is an excellent time to deal with family issues. If there is a pattern of quarreling among the children, then take up the subject in family devotions and apply it to each member of the family. Or perhaps some current event is preoccupying the attention of the family. Show them how the word of God teaches us to respond to such. I’ve even used family devotions as a time to confess my own sin and struggles by taking a verse of Scripture then applying it to my own behavior.
Be animated and engaging
The term “animated” means alive. To be “engaging” means to keep everyone’s attention. I am afraid that the family worship in some homes is conducted like a funeral. The father’s eyes are open and his lips are moving, but there doesn’t seem to be much life. There’s a kind of “deadness” in the atmosphere. But that should not be. Family worship should be a time of worship. Worship should be a time of praise. Praise should be the culmination of our joy and delight in God. And that joy and delight that we feel in God should animate us. It should fill us with life and excitement!
I’m not suggesting that we become clowns and conduct a circus. There should be a degree of sobriety and formality. But let’s not appear like death warmed over. Let’s be animated! And let’s do our best to engage the attention of our family members. Don’t let them lie down and gaze off into space. Get them to participate. Make them look at you. Ask them engaging questions.
- What does this word mean?
- Why does the Scripture writer express the thought that way?
- What does this mean to us today? How does it apply?
- What are some practical lessons?
Be creative and thoughtful
Speaking of the element of prayer in family worship, Alexander writes, “Family prayer should be varied, otherwise the inevitable result will be formalism and tediousness. Indeed the snare into which we are most prone to fall, in this service, is that of sameness and routine.”4 I fear that the form of family worship practiced in some Reformed circles has degenerated into mere outward formalism. After dinner, the father reaches over to the hutch, grabs the Bible, and turns it to the next chapter to be read. He reads the chapter in a monotone voice, puts down the Bible, and says a brief prayer. Family devotions over.
We don’t want our family altar to degenerate into a mindless ritual. One way to guard against that is to bring variety into our family worship. And, by the way, variety for variety’s sake is not necessarily a bad thing. If you look at the world around you, you soon discover that God delights in variety. Therefore, provided that we maintain the general framework of what constitutes true worship, variety can be a good and useful thing. But in order to keep a measure of variety in our family worship, we need to be creative. At this point, I’d like to offer you several suggestions:
1) Read through the Bible
a) Use a Bible that is both readable and reliable (NKJV, ESV, NIV, CSB)
b) Use a Bible reading plan (you may summarize chronologies or skip sections with excessive repetition).
2) Read through a Bible Story book (see bibliography)
3) Read through a good devotional commentary (see bibliography)
4) Teach through the Shorter Catechism
a) Combine memory with discussion
b) Keep it on the level of your children
c) Use study helps on the Catechism if necessary
5) Read through a good Christian classic (e.g., Pilgrim’s Progress)
6) Read through a good devotional book (see bibliography below)
7) Read through a good Christian biography
8) Sing a variety of good hymns and praise choruses
Be genuine and real
Jean Merle d’Aubigne, historian of the reformation, highlights this point:
My brethren, is there an altar in your hearts erected to the only living and true God? Are you the temple of God and does God’s Spirit dwell within you? So long as there is no altar erected to God in your souls, there can be none in your houses.”[notes]Cited in Jerry Marcellino, Rediscovering the Lost Treasure of Family Worship, p. 15.[/notes]
Could this be the reason why family worship is so rare in our land? Could the absence of family religion in so many Christian homes be indicative of the absence of vital religion in the heart of dad or mom?
I don’t believe that our family worship will ever rise any higher than our own private worship. We cannot have real family worship unless we know real private worship. Of course, this does not mean that we should forgo family worship in order to avoid hypocrisy. According to Jesus in Matthew six, the solution to hypocrisy is never the abandonment of all public religion. The solution to hypocrisy is to cultivate genuine private religion, so that our public religion will be the natural overflow of our private religion.
Therefore, let us strive to be real Christians in the prayer closet, at church, in society, and in our homes. Let us always and everywhere endeavor to worship the living God in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeks such to worship him (John 4:23-24).
Some recommended resources
On the subject of family worship
- Alexander, J. A. Thoughts on Family Worship in The Family. Sprinkle Publications, 1991.
- Beeke, Joel. Family Worship. Reformation Heritage Books, 2002.
- Davies, Samuel. “The Necessity and Excellency of Family Religion.” In The Godly Family. Soli Deo Gloria, 1993.
- Doddridge, Philip. “A Plain and Serious Address on the Important Subject of Family Religion.” In The Godly Family. Soli Deo Gloria, 1993.
- Johnson, Terry. The Family Worship Book: A Resource Book for Family Devotions. Christian Focus, 2003.
- Marcellino, Jerry. Rediscovering the Lost Treasure of Family Worship. Audubon Press, 1996.
- Ptacek, Kerry. Family Worship: Biblical Basis, Historical Reality, Current Need. Southern Presbyterian Press, 2000.
- Wenger, Ray M. Divine Design for the Family, pp. 135-51. Plumb Line Press, 1990.
- Whitefield, George. “The Great Duty of Family Religion.” In The Godly Family. Soli Deo Gloria, 1993.
On the Puritan practice of family devotions
- Packer, J. I. A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life. Crossway Books, 1990.
- Ryken, Leland. Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were. Zondervan, 1986.
Helps for conducting family worship
Guide for Bible-reading and study
- Helm, David. One-to-One Bible Reading. Matthias Media, 2010.
- Carson, D. A. For the Love of God, 2 vols. Crossway Books, 1998.
- Cromarty, Jim. A Book for Family Worship. Evangelical Press, 1997.
- Pederson, Randall, ed. Day by Day with the English Puritans: Select Readings for Daily Reflection. Hendrickson, 2004.
- Day by Day with Jonathan Edwards: Select Readings for Daily Reflection. Hendrickson, 2005.
- Piper, John. Toward a Godward Life, 2 vols. Multnomah Publishers, 1997, 99.
- Rhodes, Ray, Jr. Family Worship For the Christmas Season. Solid Ground Books, 2007.
- Family Worship For the Reformation Season. Solid Ground Books, 2008.
- Family Worship For the Thanksgiving Season. Solid Ground Books, 2009.
- Spurgeon, C. H. Morning and Evening. Hendrickson, 1997.
Bible stories and truths for children
- Schoolland, Marian. Leading Little Ones to God. Eerdmans, 1995.
- Vos, Catherine. The Child’s Story Bible. Eerdmans, 2000.
- Vreugdenhill, John. The Bible History Told to Our Children, 3 vols. Netherland Reformed Congregations of America, 1996.
- Bridges, Charles. Proverbs. Banner of Truth, 1979.
- ________. Psalm 119. Banner of Truth, 1987.
- Henry, Matthew. A Commentary on the Whole Bible. Hendrickson, 1991.
- Ryle, J. C. Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, 7 vols. Banner of Truth, 1992.
- Spurgeon, C. H. The Treasury of David, 3 vols. Hendrickson, 1995.