When our children were younger we began the day with the hymn we are currently memorizing. When Laura was five, she sang for all of us the second verse of “I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord” by the Yale president of the late 1700s, Timothy Dwight. With a determined look, she sang out,
Her walls before Thee stand.
Dear as the apple of Thine eye,
And gravy on Thy hand.
My boys collapsed on the floor with laughter. The word is “graven!”
I value family worship, not only because it is sometimes humorous, but because it is glue that holds families together, stimulus for some the family’s best discussions, and provides real strength for family member’s lives — it can become the heart, in fact, of family reformation.
The Puritans, long misunderstood, had an exceptional view of the family. We can learn from them even though we might not accept all they had to say. They often talked of the home as the “little church,” and the father as the pastor of his little flock. Lewis Bayly said, “What the preacher is in the pulpit, the same the Christian householder is in his house.” Family worship is the natural outcome of such a view. In homes without a believing father, the mother may fulfill this oversight role for children.
The practice of family worship (with or without children at home) is as forgotten to the church today as the dust in our attic, but this simple and effective method of restoring family spirituality is the most potent tool we have available to us—and every one of us can do it!
WHY IS FAMILY WORSHIP CRITICAL?
First, family worship is critical because the placing of the Word of God in the hearts of our family members is indispensable to their conversion.
Paul reminded Timothy that, “From childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3: 15).
Peter said that we are “born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible through the Word of God which lives and abides forever” (1 Pet. 1:23). This incorruptible seed of saving life (corresponding to the natural biological seed) is inseminated in the dead soul via the Word of God alone.
The Puritans believed this with a passion. This was the rationale for their long sermons, the catechizing of children, the morning messages in those cold church buildings prior to the work day, the daily meditating on the Word in private, and especially the practice of family worship. For the Puritan, family worship took place two times a day, as the “morning and evening sacrifice.” It was through this means that his children and wife, and any other guests or helpers in the home, might receive life!
Richard Baxter, one of the most famous of the Puritans, saw his village of Kidderminster, England transformed through this method. He stated:
I do verily believe that if parents did their duty as they ought, the Word publicly preached would not be the ordinary means of regeneration in the church, but only without the church, among practical heathens and infidels.
Second, it is critical because the Word alone enables your family to withstand the prevailing currents of an evil culture.
In the 2 Timothy 3 passage we find a torrent of base culture descending on young Timothy. “. . . In the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers… disobedient to parents…without self control . . . headstrong . . . lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (vss.1-4).
How will you be able to rescue your family from the effects of such a culture? Only through the Word of God, according to Paul. The Word makes Timothy as the “man of God,” “thoroughly equipped for every good work” necessary to strengthen the church. His tool box is complete and “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (vs. 16) so that the people under his charge can withstand the flood of culture described in the previous verses.
In the same way, the shepherding father of the home (or the mother in homes without a father, which was Timothy’s situation) is made adequate to help his or her family. Paul tells Timothy, therefore, to “preach the Word! Be ready in season and out of season” (4:2).
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth… (4: 3-4).
When culture rushes down on your family and the professing church is trying to imitate the world itself, how will your family keep from being swept away in its path? Only through the Word of God! Family worship, on a daily basis, is your hope that they will stand like steel piers against the prevailing tide.
When speaking in Basel, Switzerland years ago I saw a ferry which crossed the swift Rhone river. It had no engine, but operated by means of its resistance to the current, guided from one side to the other along a taut steel line. Unless we attach those tender hearts of our family members to the steel line of truth, there will be little hope of their withstanding the forces pressing against them.
In India there was a custom of throwing babies into the Ganges river as a sacrifice to the gods. If we are unwilling to do any more than merely take our children to church, we might as well be throwing them into the river of the culture. This is an explanation why many children of Christian parents are so often no different than the world’s. They have been given to the gods by their parents — thrown in with hands of neglect.
WHAT ARE THE BASICS?
There are three aspects of family worship which I find important: singing, the reading of the Word, and prayer, or as one friend puts it Song, Scripture, and Supplication.
Singing. Not every home is musical, but every attempt should be made to incorporate singing into the daily worship experience. We have been concerned that a whole generation of children are growing up without Christian hymnody. Therefore, we taught our children the best hymns of the faith. In fact, I used to give my children three dollars for every hymn they learn!
We preferred the hymns written by the theologians and pastors of earlier days (Watts, Wesley, Newton, Doddridge, etc.) since the theology is better. Some new authors are providing hymns and spiritual songs that are also valuable. A mixture is best. The “gospel hall songs,” however, written by the crusade musicians of the 19th century are often trite and less God-exalting, even though some believers are romantically attached to them.
I got the idea of paying money for learning hymns from Charles Spurgeon, the 19th century pastor of the London’s Metropolitan Tabernacle.
My grandfather was very fond of Dr. Watt’s hymns, and my grandmother, wishing to get me to learn them, promised me a penny for each one that I should say to her perfectly. I found it an easy and pleasant method of earning money, and learned them so fast that grandmother said she must reduce the price to a halfpenny each, and afterwards to a farthing, if she did not mean to be quite ruined by her extravagance. There is no telling how low the amount per hymn might have sunk, but grandfather said that he was getting overrun with rats, and offered me a shilling a dozen for all I could kill. I found, at the time, that the occupation of rat-catching paid me better than learning hymns, but I know which employment has been the more permanently profitable to me. No matter on what topic I am preaching, I can even now, in the middle of any sermon, quote some verse of a hymn in harmony with the subject. The hymns have remained with me, while those old rats for years have passed away, and the shillings I earned by killing them have been spent long ago.
Reading the Word. Though there are uses for devotional books of various types, they are best as a supplement and not a substitute for the Bible. My preference was to stick with reading the Bible as our main diet during family worship. Occasionally you may wish to add a chapter day by day of a Christian biography, while still giving the Bible the center stage. Use other helps at bedtime, or as a supplement, if helpful, but drink the “pure milk of the Word” during family worship. We found that reading a chapter each day was best, and always completing the book we began.
You will find the Bible engaging enough on its own, and often a launching place for discussion about many things. For instance, what better place can you find to learn about sexuality than from Scripture? Don’t be afraid of the less-than-perfect characters you will meet in the Bible. They are included for our instruction. Use the examples, good and bad, to talk about those forgotten virtues of integrity, honesty, faithfulness, etc. Bring out the nature of sin and the beauties of the gospel, heaven and hell.
When the children are young, or the family is new to the faith, go over and over the story portions of the Bible. Begin with Mark, and then read the other gospels, Genesis, Exodus, the two Samuels, Kings and Chronicles, Ruth, Esther, Acts, etc. This will give them the history of the Bible as a great redemption drama. Later they can handle the teaching portions better.
Though the morning is by far the best time for family worship, you may not find it workable. You may wish to take the mealtime most attended by all your family. Have the Bible set beside the father’s place as part of the table setting. Then, after the meal, but before any dishes are moved off the table, worship together. Do it faithfully, even when someone must be absent.
Family prayers. Are your children unused to seeing prayers answered. Why? It is often becuase we don’t pray very specifically. Also, when we see the answer come in, it is important to make something of it.
I preferred to talk with the family about some of our needs and then assign each of us something to pray about. I usually accompaned this with an encouragement that God has been answering our prayers and that we all should pray silently while another is wording our request. There is nothing more beautiful than the sincere request of children.
Keeping this time fresh will be your hardest task. Sometimes you may wish to put requests into a basket and let each person draw one out. Seek ways to make this time better. When the children are young, however, family worship should not be long and tedious for them. They will learn best by degrees.
Some families will keep up the tradition of family worship throughout the family’s life together. Others will find other ways to encourage the intake of the Bible and prayer as the family matures. How we do it is a matter of personal choice. God has not commanded daily family worship as I have outlined it, but He does intend for each believing member of the home to grow by means of the Bible, and to pray. It is the parent’s job to encourage this practice and to be the primary example for their children. When children are younger and do not understand the Bible on their own, family worship seems almost indispensible as a method.
Puritan Richard Mather (1596-1669), grandfather of Increase, and great grandfather of Cotton Mather, once imagined children on judgment day, speaking to their parents. His words will serve as a final sober warning that we must be more diligent to care for the souls of our children:
All this that we here suffer is through you. You should have taught us the things of God, and did not. You should have restrained us from sin and corrected us, and you did not. You were the means of our original corruption and guiltiness, and yet you never showed any competent care that we might be delivered from it. Woe unto us that we had such carnal and careless parents; and woe unto you that had no more compassion and pity to prevent the everlasting misery of your own children.