On Family Worship

If a comparison between peaceful images of Puritan families gathered around the table and your own family rushing through endless daily activities as you are juggling teething babies and sleepy teenagers makes you want to dismiss the thought of family worship, don’t despair. Pictures of Puritans families are just that—pictures. The Puritans had teething babies and sleepy teenagers too, as well as harsher living conditions, with illness and death as daily companions. Each age has its own challenges.
Pressing schedules and family fragmentation are worldwide problems today. “The greatest difficulty,” said Rev. Andrea Ferrari, pastor of Chiesa Evangelica Filadelfia, a URC church plant in Milan, Italy, “is the pace of life in Milan and the growing necessity (fostered by the economic crisis) for women to work outside the home.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the problem is not limited to Western families. Rev. Sutjipto Subeno, pastor of Reformed Evangelical Church of Indonesia, Surabaya-Andhika branch, has to work hard to inspire the families in his congregation to set aside a regular daily time to worship together. “It’s easier for families with young children, because when they are older they usually have many activities of their own. And here, we are mostly not familiar with eating together at the dinner table. Maybe it still happens in small villages, but the habit has been lost in the big cities like Jakarta, Surabaya, Medan, and Densapar. Every person has his or her schedule for eating.”
As in other areas, many evangelical churches have responded to this modern challenge by adapting to the times. To busy, fragmented families, they have offered personalized programs and activities for different age groups, adding more engagements to the family schedule. Instead of equipping the parents with sufficient theological instruction to fulfill their biblical mandate to disciple their children, they have attempted to lift that burden by providing weekly or bi-weekly instruction.

Confessional Reformed families, on the other hand, are aware of the importance of worshiping God as a family. The Westminster Confession of Faith teaches us to conduct worship “in private families daily” (21.6), and modern editions of the Westminster Standards normally include the 1647 “Directory for Family Worship.”

Facing the Challenges

For Reformed pastors, the challenge is not so much to convince families of the importance of this long-standing Christian practice as it is to encourage them to embrace it and persevere in spite of the obstacles.

“In talking to families here, when I ask about family worship, they feel ashamed that they don’t do more,” said Rev. Shane Lems, pastor and church planter at the United Reformed Church in Sunnyside, Washington. “We should feel bad when we fail, but sometimes our expectations are too high. I remind the family that sometimes kids are just not in the mood for a ten-minute Bible lesson, so a short prayer and a Scripture song might be all you do for one night. Sometimes when we hear ‘family worship’ we think of twenty minutes or more of Bible, song, and prayer. It would be great, but a lot of families have a tough time doing that. My children have a CD with kids singing a few Bible verses,” he continued, “and they learned them well, so when they have ants in the pants we only sing one song and let them go. I also tell the families that saying the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostles’ Creed together as a meal ‘counts’ as family devotions, as does a short prayer before the kids get on the bus.”

M.D. Meiser, father of three, agrees that, as with any habit, it’s important to be patient and to avoid setting unobtainable goals. “We found that making small steps in family worship served us best and caused more consistency while keeping the expectations simple,” he said. “The dinner table functions well, as everyone listens as they eat. I ask soul-searching questions, such as ‘Do you love Jesus more today because of what He has done? Are you amazed by grace?’ and more information questions like, ‘What are the things Jesus said while on the cross?’—with follow up questions like, ‘what does it mean that Jesus said he thirsted?’ This is a great avenue to repeat the gospel. Every night I read with the kids and rotate books to keep it interesting. At least once a week, we turn on the music and sing together. We could do better. My summary would be that the grace of God covers over our failings, and making small steps like praying with the kids before bed will work wonders, and the gospel will do its work.”

As with any habit, it’s also important to establish a regular time and to keep it. The sooner this is done in a child’s life, the easier. Children who are brought up knowing that the family gets together at a certain time to read God’s Word and pray learns to expect it and will miss it on the few occasions when it becomes impossible.

“I was touched a few days ago when I found my twenty-three-year-old daughter and a friend reading Scriptures and reviewing their catechism questions over a meal,” said Elizabeth James, a mother of six at Christ URC in Santee, California, “It was wonderful to see two young women doing spontaneously what they had done all their lives—worshiping God together at the table.” In fact, family worship is not limited to families with children. Establishing this habit before the children are born gives parents a head start, setting an element of daily schedule that becomes non-negotiable. “Whether you have children or not, you and your spouse are a family and need to feed together on the Word of God,” said Lisa, a mother of four. “It seems to be part of the husband loving his wife and the wife respecting her husband. We find in Scriptures an expectation for husbands and wives to come together to pray.”

Those who started family worship late, however, should not despair. Modern movies and TV shows have convinced many parents that teenagers don’t want to spend time with their families, but we don’t have to buy that. Countless studies show otherwise. Again, small steps help to ease into the habit. On the other hand, it’s also important for parents to simply announce, “This is what we are going to do.”

There are, of course, other challenges. In some homes there is only one parent, or at least only one parent is available to lead family worship. There are widows, broken families, fathers who are forced to work at all hours just to make ends meet, and fathers who just relinquish their role of spiritual head of the home. In those cases, it’s common for mothers to feel inadequate or—if the husbands are in the home—fearful to be usurping their roles. All situations are unique and must be faced with wisdom, in counsel with the family’s pastor and elders. The bottom line, however, is that family worship must go on.

“If the father says he is a Christian but refuses to go to church and lead his family in worship, then he is manifesting a life of unbelief and the mother has to take over the spiritual leadership,” said Rev. Michael Brown, senior pastor at Christ URC in Santee, California. “I certainly appreciate the fact that a proper head of the home is the father. But if there is no father, a mother and her children are still a family. And if she is leading them in devotions, then it is family worship or family devotions.”

Some like to make a distinction between the two terms—“family worship” when the father is leading, in his role of priest over his house, and “family devotion” whenever the family meets to read Scriptures, sing, and pray without him. “I am not sure we should be so technical,” Rev. Brown continued. “Family worship (even with a father leading) is still a form of devotions, not worship in the same way as the worship service on the Lord’s Day.”

In view of this, we should all pray for single parents—fathers and mothers alike—in our congregations. The challenges can be disconcerting, especially when the parent has to work outside the home. “My kids leave very early in the morning so that time does not work for me. Any time after dinner and before bed is usually my best time,” said Jeanette Oliver, mother of three at Conroe, Texas. “My problem is that now that I work more, I am more tired and then I struggle between wanting to relax (because I’m talking to people all day) and be faithful to teach the kids.”

The answer again is simplicity and persistence, doing what we can but constantly and at the same time, day after day. We need to see family worship as a necessity just like eating meals or washing laundry. It just needs to be done. We would never question “what’s the point” of feeding our children daily, nor would we skip serving a meal because we don’t feel inspired to cook. We might buy fast food once in a while, and we might make do with a prayer together instead of a full devotions on some occasions, but our children will know that there will always be food on the table and that the family will always meet daily, at whatever time is appointed, to worship God together, even if briefly.

Mutual Encouragement

Pastors know the importance of family worship, not only for the individual families but for the life of the church. “The family is the core of society and also of the church. The church is as healthy as its families are healthy. If the family life is sick, then the church is also sick,” says Rev. Subeno, who is faithful to remind parents from the pulpit of the need of family worship. He also encourages families to share their experiences with family worship whenever they meet, in casual encounters or at area fellowship meetings.
Every family is different, and every parent has unique gifts and ideas, and discussing these can be very useful. Some families, for example, are musical and like to set catechism answers to music. Others focus on visual aids, especially for younger children, such as a biblical time chart or “family tree.” Elizabeth James used some prayer cards (she called them “prayer helps”) to teach her children how to pray when they were younger. “They had short phrases written on them,” she said, “for example, ‘Thank you for the gospel,’ ‘Forgive our sins,’ ‘Strengthen our faith.’ I added more every so often, getting ideas from the pastor’s sermons and prayers. Actually, we have gone over these things (and others) so much, that the kids don’t really need these cards anymore.”

Some pastors provide families with yearly plans to study the Bible together or with weekly bulletin inserts listing thought-provoking questions to review the main points of the sermon on the Lord’s Day or throughout the week. They may choose a “hymn of the month” and encourage families to sing it daily at home, or email their congregation the liturgy for the upcoming Lord’s Day worship to help them to prepare.

For a while, in our own family, we devoted the first two or three mornings of family worship to a review of the previous Lord’s Day (morning and evening sermons) and the following two or three to a preparation for the following public worship. Reading the Scripture texts ahead of time helped the children to listen more carefully to the sermon. We would ask questions like, “What do you think the main point of the sermon will be?”

Reviewing the sermons gives children a good chance to participate in family worship as they share the notes they have taken. Besides, it ensures that they take notes, since no one wants to be the one with nothing to say. Usually, to keep everyone’s full attention through the reading of notes, the youngest children read theirs first and the others had to be careful not to repeat, when reading theirs, something that had already been said.    

The church bulletin can be used in other ways during family worship—for example, praying through the list of requests, teaching the children concern for those in need, and discussing ways in which the family can help. “We know from Scripture that the family is the place where God is glorified through loving our neighbor,” Meiser said.

“Family worship has a way of focusing us on the love of God and service to others as we daily submit ourselves to his story for us and pray for his will in our lives and in the lives of our covenant family and the unsaved,” Lisa agreed.

For parents who are still unsure of their abilities to teach theological truths, reinforcing the pastor’s words and answering the children’s questions is a simple plan that requires little preparation. (Of course, equally simple is the systematic study of a catechism, by itself or using some books such as Training Hearts, Teaching Minds by Starr Meade).

The possibilities are countless, as each family explores the best way to make family worship an exciting and engaging time. “Once in a while my seven-year old takes his turn preaching from a text, and I ask him questions along the way as he preaches to find out his understanding of the gospel,” Matthew Meiser said.

The James family, on their hand, has set a time of private reading before family worship, and when they get together they each share one of the verses from the passage they have read.

The important thing is to make it an enjoyable time, and much of this comes from parents’ excitement for the Word and prayer and for what God is doing in the children’s lives. “In our home, it has been absolutely thrilling to hear the children’s questions about wherever we are reading in Scripture,”said Lisa. “I believe it is paramount to view the time as interactive. Otherwise, what is the point? Have we fulfilled a duty to ‘do’ family worship or have we loved God and our neighbor (in this case our spouses and our children) by truly meditating on the Word of Life?”

“I hate to foster a legalistic attitude towards family worship,” Rev. Lems added. “I have a friend who forces his kids to sit like statues for thirty minutes while he gives a doctrinal lesson, and they learn a new song each week. He has good motives, but the kids will grow up thinking Christianity is quite rigid and stiff. We’re a bit more laid back. We’ll do a Bible story, Creed, or a few Westminster Shorter Catechism questions and answers, and if the kids ask questions, we’ll answer them all night. If not, we pray and clean up the table.”

Remembering the Big Picture

Another important way in which pastors encourage family worship is a regular schedule of family visitations, when the elders discuss with the parents any problems or impediments to this practice, and encourage them to persevere. Rev. Ferrari also finds useful to invite church members to his home for dinner, where they can see a sample of family worship. Besides, every year he devotes a weekend to a conference on family issues, helping parents to re-evaluate their priorities and to focus on the important task of teaching their children daily.

As with every habit, it’s essential to periodically remind ourselves why we are doing it. When the inspiration seems low and it feels like everyone is just going through the motions, we must remember that, in our prayer together, we are fulfilling, as the Heidelberg Catechism teaches us, “the most important part of the thankfulness God requires of us,” growing in grace and strengthened by the Holy Spirit, given “only to those who pray continually and groan inwardly, asking God for these gifts and thanking him for them.”

“We are not only holding up an example of prayer, adoring God, getting to know Him and his Word and caring for others to our children,” Lisa explained. “We are doing those things then and there. We are praying and adoring and growing in our knowledge of Christ. It is happening as we do it! It is in these very activities that the Spirit of God is at work in our hearts, and in the lives of those we are praying for.”

Besides, we are reminding ourselves and our children daily of the gospel, a message that is so alien to our natural minds that needs to be constantly repeated. “As a Papa, I encourage everyone to preach the gospel to yourself first throughout the day,” said Meiser. “This is the foundation. Then we must preach it to each other.”

Soon we will see the gospel message reverberate in our children’s lives as we redirect their vision daily, teaching them their life is part of a bigger story where God says, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” We are not our own, but belong to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ and every day we recognize that truth in our worship.

“Family worship is the way in which we and our children daily confront the reality that, no matter what is going to happen or has happened in our lives during those twenty-four hours, as Christians we belong to a part of a bigger story where our sovereign, loving God has orchestrated the events in history to save a people for Himself and for their ultimate good,” Lisa continued. “He orchestrates the minutes of our lives in his working out of our salvation for his glory and our good. A worldly perspective leads us to believe that every decision we make in life is all about us, that we and our happiness are the bottom line. The biblical perspective reorients us from an inward to an outward focus. I see family worship getting us into the habit of looking forward, pressing toward the mark, seeing our lives in an eschatological way.”

No one can deny that family worship is hard work. Reading plans have to be prayerfully prepared and then re-evaluated from time to time. Circumstances and even our children may seem to fight against us. Still, the rewards are great, and God is often gracious enough to allow us to see them soon. When our children start reminding us that “it’s time for devotions,” when their prayers become more meaningful and mature, when they take good notes of the sermons without being reminded and share them during family worship, when the older children help to answer their siblings’ questions or even lead devotions in the few occasions when one parent is absent and another is ill, we can look with thankfulness to God who has used our small efforts to accomplish his purposes. “Nothing is more humbling and produces more gratefulness than to see before your very eyes God’s faithfulness to the promise that he would be our God and the God of our children,” Lisa concluded.

For an excellent and more exhaustive explanation of the need for family worship and how to persevere, see Rev. Michael Brown, “The Only ‘Youth Group’ Your Children Need: Some Thoughts on Family Worship and Catechesis,” http://tinyurl.com/449pbn2

Mrs. Simonetta Carr is a member at Christ United Reformed Church, Santee, CA.