Jonathan Edwards was not only a great theologian, preacher and pastor, he was also a father who loved his children dearly and was desperate to see them come to know the Saviour. He said that, ‘every Christian family ought to be as it were a little church’, and led his family in light of that. In this sense, every parent should be a house church leader, pointing their children to the Saviour. However, for many, while happy to say grace before meals and read bedtime Bible stories, the idea of family devotions causes feelings of guilt and fear.
Let me share something with you:
I wasn’t brought up in a family that had daily devotions. When my children were first born, I didn’t start family devotions. I hadn’t seen it modelled well and I didn’t really like the idea of it. Why? I didn’t know what to do and I didn’t want to do anything that would make the Bible and prayer seem boring or even hated. However, as my children started to grow up and engage with their bedtime Bible stories and dinner time grace prayers, I realised that they were eager to spend time reading and praying, and that I had an immense opportunity to model a love and dependence upon the Lord every day. So, if I am honest, it is only lately that I have waded into the waters of family worship.
I have become increasingly convinced that the primary responsibility for the spiritual health of my children lies with me, and not the church – not even the Sunday School teachers. As Joel Beeke has said: ‘The head of the family in leading his family in covenant faithfulness [family worship] to God is perhaps the most significant way God uses as a means of saving grace.’ Parents bringing their children up in the gospel is very important in the Bible. We can see that Abraham was commanded to teach his children, Moses was given the Shema with the command to ‘teach them diligently to your children’, and Paul instructed fathers to bring up their children ‘in the discipline and instruction of the Lord’. Throughout church history family worship has been an important aspect of Christian living. The Second London Confession of Faith says that ‘God is to be worshipped everywhere in Spirit and in truth; as in private families daily, and in secret each one by himself.’
So, what do family devotions actually look like?
There are different opinions about this, and some will be more prescriptive than others. The most important thing is to ask what will work for your family situation now. Family size, age, number of non-Christians and timetables are all factors to be considered. The key is to KISS: Keep it simple, stupid. We need to make family worship manageable both in time to prepare and do.
However, at its core, Donald Whitney helpfully defines family devotions as a time to ‘read, pray and sing’. We should read the Bible (in an age relevant manner), pray in a way that is engaging for all, and sing (again, the choice of songs varies greatly). Yes, I did say sing. It seems scary, but it is actually lovely. There are additional things can be added to family devotions, such as collective Scripture memorisation, catechising, and reading classics such as Pilgrim’s Progress.’
I would add a note that family devotions with young children should be fun. Let the children get involved in the reading by acting it out of drawing pictures, encourage them to feel free in prayer and make sure the songs are ones they love.
But when should you do it?
Again, this is a question only you can answer, and it depends on several factors such as work commitments, ages of children and meal times. It is good to link it to a meal time (breakfast, lunch, or supper) or an evening/bed time as it makes it easier to remember and the family are together already. Whenever it is, it needs to be consistent. So, make sure you choose a time that you can keep easily, even in busy seasons of life. In a nut shell: build it into the regular rhythms of your day and have realistic expectations about what you can achieve. Three minutes over dinner, five times a week, is far better than two weeks of 30 minutes every day and then nothing for months on end.
So, what are you going to do about this?
Jason Helopoulos makes a stark challenge:
A Christian home is more than two or three Christians living in the same house. A few Christians living under the same roof does not make a place a Christian home any more than two or three bankers living in a house make it a bank.
Are your children being raised in a Christian home? Is it, as Jonathan Edwards said, a little church?
Family devotions may be one of things that we just put off. We always think life will slow down, get more consistent, or our family will become more spiritual. Don’t wait! Start now! Just do it. Choose a Bible reading scheme, decide how to pray and choose a song and go for it. You’ll probably need to change it, adapt it, and really push for it at times but it will be worth it. In fact, there will be times when you accidentally drop it all together. But when that happens, remember grace. Remember that the Father wants you to come together, that Christ is the One who makes your worship acceptable, and the Spirit empowers all our feeble attempts. As Helopoulos reminds us:
Family worship is an instrument through which God gives us grace… it is not something that should be a burden. It is a joy. Since it is not to be a burden, we should not be hard on ourselves if we miss a night.
One of my happiest memories are of my children singing ‘Our God is a great big God’ over the kitchen table while their grandparents looked on with tears of joy. Family worship is a gift of God: open it.
Matthew Henry puts it best:
Be persuaded brethren, thus to dedicate your houses to God, and beg him to come and take possession of them. If you never did it, do it tonight with all possible seriousness and sincerity.
A couple of highly recommended books for family worship:
Donald S. Whitney
This is the best introduction to family devotions. At only 67 pages it is a grace filled, biblically balanced, and a practical introduction to starting a daily devotion with your family. Whitney isn’t too prescriptive and allows the use of children’s Bibles when young families are involved. An encouraging read.
A neglected grace: Family worship in the Christian home
This is a more in depth look at starting family worship. It is helpful book that gives a good overview of the need for family devotions and covers such questions as being a single parent or having an unbelieving spouse. While a little more prescriptive than Whitney, it is still a great read.