How Can We Improve our Family Altars?

In our former article we wrote on the threat which modern life, with its materialism and its mad rush, poses to the perpetuation of our family altars.

Two things point to the possibility of the complete secularization of many Christian homes in a not too distant future. The first is the absence of all family devotions in countless homes still affiliated with the church; the second, the scant attention given to spiritual things and the persistent neglect of family worship in many homes still connected with a church of Reformed persuasion.


We shall suggest some concrete, practical measures which can be used to make our family worship more interesting and edifying.

But first of all let us say that more important than all such practical suggestions is the deep conviction on the part of all Christian families that daily, joint worship in the home is not only desirable and spiritually beneficial but absolutely essential to their spiritual welfare and abiding happiness. For if our fathers and mothers have that conviction they will not fail to ask themselves whether their family devotions are acceptable to God and glorifying to their Savior. They will then also endeavor to find ways of their own to improve their worship in the home.

There is one other requisite for the preservation of our family altars. The manner in which we conduct our home devotions is not as important as the conviction that they must not be allowed to degenerate into a mere formality. Religious formalism means the ultimate death of voluntary religious observances. If we keep up family worship merely because our conscience would trouble us if we discarded it, its eventual disappearance is sure, if not in our generation, then in the next. Our children will cast it aside as n worthless, hypocritical gesture. This is doubtless one reason why many religious families today whose parents and grandparents still prayed and read the Bible no longer have even a semblance of family worship. They inherited a custom which had become so stale and lifeless that it did not seem worth perpetuating.


There are many devices and many helps which our Christian families can use to keep their joint devotions more spiritual, meaningful, and fruitful. Not a few articles and books or booklets have been written on the subject. We think for example of a rather exhaustive treatment of this particular phase of home life in a little book published a few years ago. It was written by Rev. Tenis C. Van Kooten of 52 Stanley Avenue, Hamilton, Ontario. He can be contacted by those who wish to know whether it is still available.

A number of helps in Bible reading are available to all who are interested. The Daily Manna Calendar, for use in morning worship, has been a source of blessing to thousands of Christian homes during the past 24 years. The Daily Devotions page in The Banner is also being used with appreciation by many readers of our church paper. The comments by Rev. Nicholas De Vries on that page, for use at the evening meal, are to the point and practical. An excellent feature of these comments is that they promote systematic Bible reading because they follow various Bible books from start to finish. The ‘Family Altar booklet published monthly by the Back to God Hour and a similar booklet by Temple Time of the Reformed Church in America also offer useful meditations on Scripture passages and are used by thousands of families in and outside of our Reformed fellowship.




It would not be difficult to suggest a considerable number of devices for stimulating interest in the religious exercises of our homes. We shall confine ourselves to just a few.

As to family prayer, we would strongly recommend the continuation of the old custom to have a short prayer before and after meals. It is a beautiful custom even though it is not divinely commanded. How proper it is in our dealings with our fellowmen to ask for favors we do not deserve and to express our gratitude for them after they are received. Why should we not say both “Please” and “Thank you” also to our God, whose lovingkindness endures forever and whose mercies are new every morning!

It must be admitted that it is not easy for one person to offer two prayers at every meal three times a day seven days a week without slipping into the habit of repeating the same generalities over and over again. One way to avoid this is to ask the wife to lead in thanksgiving after the meal; still better perhaps for husband and wife to alternate. We know some object to this on the ground that the husband and father is the head of the house and its priest and therefore should not relinquish his prerogative. The objection does not impress us. All Christians should be intercessors before the throne of grace. Christian women too, though not permitted to hold office in the church, are entrusted, not less than our men, with the threefold office of all believers. All are prophets, priests, and kings.

Why should we treat our women as voiceless partners in the religious life of the home? Many Christian children, in homes where only the father prays aloud, have never heard the voice of their mother in prayer because the husband has monopolized the priestly function of the family. We should have a high regard for the traditions and the customs handed down to us by our Reformed fathers but we should not follow them slavishly. Let us improve on them if improvement is possible and needed. It is not good for our homes when we get into a rut with our family prayers.

But there is a more important way to prevent our family prayers from becoming a conventional and perfunctory thing, a dead and deadening ritual. The prayers should fit the concrete situations in the family as these vary from day to day. They should be practical, down to earth, simple. Let us not forget the needs of the children. If Johnny had a fight at school, if Margaret had a spat with her chum or got an exceptionally good mark in a test, if son or daughter in high school is having a real problem, if a member of the family is ill, if one member has a birthday—whatever may be the subject of special interest and conversation should be reflected in the prayers of that day. Prayer is not a recitation; it is conversation with God about the things that concern us and should concern us most. In this way our family prayers arc bound to remain fresh, timely, real, and urgent. They will not fail to capture and hold the attention of the children.


There are good and bad methods of Bible reading at family devotions. We must guard against extremes. On the one hand, though something can be said for “reading the Bible through” from Genesis to Revelation, it is hardly to be recommended. It means for example that for days if not weeks on end the family members hear nothing but genealogies, or stories about the kings of Israel, or the New Testament epistles, which are too difficult for the children to understand. On the other hand, to confine our reading to a few favorite books or chapters is unworthy of the Word of God which is in its totality the message of the living God to his redeemed people. Some ‘ read Scripture in a haphazard fashion, choosing passages at random, perhaps wherever it happens to open. Such desultory reading ignores the unity of Scripture. No one in his senses would think of reading Shakespeare or a book on science in this fashion. If we begin to read a Bible book let us be sure to finish it.

It is very helpful for parents to supply everyone of their children with a copy of the Bible and to insist that all shall follow while one reads. Attention is almost sure to lag if only one reads while the others merely listen. We know of a professor in our Seminary, now deceased, who suspected that his family was not giving proper attention to the Bible while he was reading. To test them he read the same chapter a number of times, on successive nights, and no one made a word of comment on the repetition! It is advisable not only for all the members of the family to have a copy of the Bible before them while it is read but also to give each the opportunity to read at least occasionally, or to let all the members participate in the reading.


The bane of family devotions is to engage in hurried prayer and Bible reading. If only a fraction of the time we spend listening to the radio or looking at TV programs were spent in communing with God. through prayer and Bible reading, wonderful blessings would be reaped by all the members. The family altar of early youth can be a blessed memory for the children all the rest of their lives. Many of our family tensions would be relieved and many of the quarrels that often disgrace our Christian homes would be prevented if the parents would make the period of family devotions truly devotional, spiritually satisfying and helpful. In such homes God is real and his Word a powerful influence for the molding of Christian character, both in adults and in the children.

We do not plead for a long period of family worship. Modem life is fast. But let us make our devotions real, practical, and let them be unhurried. Hurry is to religion what poison is to the body. Mental concentration is not the strong point of men and women today. But we should train ourselves to think God’s thoughts after him by spending some time every day in fixing our thoughts on the great, abiding truths of Holy Writ.

Take time to be holy, Speak oft with thy Lord, Abide in him always And feed on his Word.

Has your family altar suffered under the impact of modern life with its rush and its feverish concentration on material things? Rebuild it, restore it, for the sake of the welfare and the peace of your home.